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Walpurgisnacht!

Drawn from an article at http://starfsfolk.khi.is/salvor/fyrstimai/nornir-harz-fjollin.htm

"In German folklore, Walpurgishnacht is believed to be the night of the Witches' Sabbath in the Harz Mountains."

(Terra says: In particular, with Holda on Mt. Brocken...)

"Wandering through Germany's Harz Mountains, it's impossible not to realize that you have entered a domain of enchantment, a place where landscape conspires with legend to create a sense of lurking mystery. A terrain of craggy peaks, gloomy forests, and river valleys banked by towering cliffs, the mountains remember folk beliefs dating from pre-Christian times.

Straddling the former border between East and West Germany, they are steeped in tales of witchcraft, magic, and apparitions. Stories collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries show that the region's mythic reputation reached beyond Germany. From France to Scandinavia, countryfolk traded fireside yarns of strange happenings on the Brockenberg (Brocken Mountain), the Harz's highest peak at 3,747 feet. Rumor had it that Europe's witches gathered there on Walpurgisnacht, May Eve.

Still legendary throughout the Harz region, Walpurgisnacht is rooted in the pagan Frƒhjahrsfest, or Spring Festival. Directly opposite Allhallows Eve in the seasonal cycle, it was once widely celebrated among all Germanic peoples. Whereas North America associates witches and sorcery with Halloween, April 30 is when things get spooky in Germany. Legends tell of blue flames igniting above buried treasure, ladies flying on broomsticks, and the ghostly Wild Hunt pursuing the goddess Walpurga through snowstorms and hail. "There is a mountain very high and bare, whereon it is given out that witches hold their dance on Walpurgis Night," writes folklorist Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology about the Brocken, sometimes shown on old maps as the Blocksberg. "Our forefathers kept the beginning of May as a great festival, and it is still regarded as the trysting time of witches." Chillingly, he notes that witches invariably resort to places where justice was formerly administered, or blood was spilled: "Almost all witch mountains were once hills of sacrifice."

Visiting the witches

When travelers don't act as if the Harz Mountains are imbued with ancient magic, local tourist authorities are dismayed. They do their utmost to evoke a sense of otherworldliness. Even hotel brochures display a logo depicting a crone riding a broomstick. In the days leading up to Walpurgisnacht, shops do a brisk trade in Harzhexen, miniature felt witch puppets that ride straw broomsticks (hexen is the German word for witches). Postcards, beer steins, and wooden carvings glorify the season of the witch. Little old ladies cheerfully pressure shoppers into pointy black hats, tarot cards, and devilish horns that glow in the dark.

Huddled below the Brocken's granite bulk, the village of Schierke attracts around six thousand Walpurgisnacht revelers. The day begins with a parade of kindergarteners dressed as witches and pitchfork-wielding devils. Festooned with witch puppets, even the railway station joins in the fun. The local steam train becomes a Hexenexpress, chugging down from the Brockenberg's summit to Wernigerode--the quintessential "fairytale" town of half-timbered houses and gothic turrets.

In the village, an old apothecary's shop called Zum Roten Fingerhut (the Red Thimble) is stocked with supplies of Schierke Feuerstein, a potent spirit concocted from a secret recipe of herbs and bitters. A local druggist, Willi Druber, first brewed it in 1908. The inscription on Herr Druber's grave warns travelers to flee, before the amateur brewer rises from his tomb and joins them for a drink.

Come nightfall, things start to resemble a casting session for a horror movie, though the atmosphere is tongue in cheek. Valkyries (virginal shield maidens), kobolds (goblins), vampires, and witches come "dressed to kill." The grassy expanse of Schierke's Kurpark becomes a medieval fairground. Food, drink, and craft booths are set around a giant bonfire, a pantomime is enacted on a woodland stage, and a fireworks display explodes in the midnight sky. In Schierke's rival for May Eve celebrations, the village of Thale, a huge Walpurgisnacht bonfire blazes on a plateau above the Bode River chasm. This plateau is known as the Hexentanzplatz, the witches' dancing place.

Women of the mountain

Although the Harz hilltops are buried in all seasons beneath snowy eiderdowns, witching hour on May Eve is the transitional time when winter becomes spring. Winter's forces have made their final assault, and Dame Holda must summon her witches or wisewomen to dance the snow away. In nursery tales, Dame Holda generally appears as a benign figure, a combination of motherly hausfrau, white lady or moon goddess, and sky goddess.

Also known as Frau Holle, she busies herself checking that people aren't neglecting their household tasks. In the preindustrial age, her main concerns were flax cultivation and spinning. It's said that falling snowflakes are a sign that Holda/Holle is shaking her featherbed. It is interesting to recall that the Greek chronicler Herodotus noted a link between snow and feathers and that the Scythians, a nomadic people of what are now the countries of Romania and Ukraine, believed the northern lands were inaccessible because they lay under feathers.

According to legend, Holda often rides throughout the countryside in a wagon, leaving gifts for those who help her. Grimm's Teutonic Mythology relates how a peasant carved a new linchpin for her wagon. Sweeping away the wooden shavings, he found they had been transformed into gold. Holda, however, can also ride the clouds. From this arose a belief that witches travel in her company. Yet it wasn't Holda who lent her name to Walpurgisnacht. That honor is shared by a pagan deity and a Christian abbess. As a spring festival, May Eve was originally dedicated to Walpurga, a fertility goddess of woods and springs, originally known as Walburga or Waldborg. Interestingly, she shares many of Holda's attributes, including a propensity for rewarding human helpers with gifts of gold. And, just like Holda, Walpurga is also associated with spindles and thread. These commonplace items took on a magical significance on May Eve, when they were used for divination and love spells.

E.L. Rochholz's 1870 folklore study, Drei Gaugtinen (Three Local Goddesses), describes Walpurga as a white lady with flowing hair, wearing a crown and fiery shoes. She carries a spindle and a three-cornered mirror that foretells the future. In the layer cake of northern European mythology, the symbols strongly suggest connection to the Three Norns, or Fates. These demigoddesses spun and wove the web of life, casting prophecies into their triangular Well of Wyrd, which watered the tree of life.

For the nine nights before May Day, Walpurga is chased by the Wild Hunt, a ghostly troop of riders representing winter. Hounded from place to place, she seeks refuge among mortal villagers. People leave their windows open so the white lady of May, harbinger of summer, can find safety behind the cross-shaped panes. Encountering a farmer she implores him to hide her in a shock of grain. This he does. The next morning his rye crop is sprinkled with grains of gold.

Despite many similarities, Walpurga and Saint Walburga are entirely separate characters. Believed to have been born around a.d. 710 in what was then the English kingdom of Wessex, Saint Walburga was a missionary-abbess in St. Boniface's Frankish church. She presided over a community of monks and nuns in the German town of Heidenheim and was canonized after her death in 779.

After Walburga's relics were interred at Eichstadt, historical writings claim a miracle-working oil flowed from her tomb. The saint thus gained a cult status, and her relics were eventually sent to various churches across Europe. In medieval times, Saint Walburga was called upon to defend the faithful against evil and could offer protection against plague, famine, crop failure, and the bites of rabid dogs. She is also the patron saint of Antwerp in Belgium and was often invoked to help sailors during storms.

Walburga's "protectress of crops" aspect suggests an entanglement with the goddess Walpurga. Iconography often depicts the saint carrying a sheaf of grain, the usual symbol of fertility goddesses, not Christian abbesses. Rochholz muses, "What kind of pairing is this, the witches of the Brockenberg with a saint of the church, under one and the same name!"

(Terra notes: Sounds like normal to ME, Herr Rochholz. :)

Blessed May Eve, sisters!

Terra

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
hagazusa
Apr. 29th, 2008 01:22 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for posting this!
terra_firma
Apr. 29th, 2008 01:59 pm (UTC)
Wow, thanks for posting this! Such a fascinating read.
dreamsherd
Apr. 29th, 2008 03:49 pm (UTC)
RE: St. Walburga. Heidenheim = Witches' home. the parallel iconography reminds me of the Brigit/St. Bridget cross-over.
wonderful article- thanks for posting!
3ofswords
Apr. 29th, 2008 10:59 pm (UTC)
Wow, thank you for posting.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )