Waelburga and the Rites of May
By: Winifred Hodge
Witches and Walpurgisnacht
"The Witches' excursion takes place on the first night in May...they ride up Blocksberg on the first of May, and in 12 days must dance the snow away; then Spring begins... Here they appear as elflike, godlike maids." (Grimm v. IV, p. 1619)
"(There) is a mountain very high and bare, ..whereon it is given out that witches hold their dance on Walpurgis night, even as on Mt. Brocken in the Harz." (Grimm v. IV, p. 1620)
"We know that our forefathers very generally kept the beginning of May as a great festival, and it is still regarded as the trysting time of witches, i.e. once of wise-women and fays; who can doubt that heathen sacrifices blazed that day?" (Grimm v. II, p. 614)
"We know that all over Germany a grand annual excursion of witches is placed on the first night in May (Walpurgis), i.e. on the date of the sacrificial feast and the old May-gathering of the people. On the first of May, of all days, the periodical assizes (Things) continued for many centuries to be held; on that day came the merry May-ridings, and the kindling of the sacred fire: it was one of the highest days in all heathenism. ...The witches invariably resort to places where formerly justice was administered, or sacrifices were offered. ...Almost all the witch-mountains were once hills of sacrifice, boundary-hills, or salt-hills." (Grimm v. III, p. 1050-1)
Grimm mentions that some (perhaps all) of the witch mountains were once the residence of Holda and her host.
"Down into the tenth and into the 14th centuries, night-women in the service of Dame Holda rove through the air on appointed nights, mounted on beasts; her they obey, to her they sacrifice, and all the while not a word about any league with the Devil. Nay, these night-women, shining mothers, dominae nocturnae, bonnes dames...were originally daemonic elvish beings, who appeared in woman's shape and did men kindnesses; Holda, Abundia, to whom still a third part of the whole world is subject, leads the ring of dancers.... It is to such dancing at heathen worship, to the airy elf-dance and the hopping of will-o'-the-wisps, that trace primarily the idea of witches' dances; festive dances at heathen May-meetings can be reckoned in with the rest. To christian zealots all dancing appeared sinful and heathenish, and sure enough it often was derived from pagan rites, like other harmless pleasures and customs of the common people, who would not easily part with their diversion at the great festivals. Hence the old dancings at Shrovetide (beginning of Lent in February), at the Easter fire and May fire, at the solstices, at harvest and Christmas... ...to this day stories are afloat in Sweden of dances and reels performed by the heathen round holy places of their gods: so wanton were they, yet so enticing, that the spectators at last were seized with the rage (wod), and whirled along into the revelry."
Grimm notes that Heathen dancing and processions were demonized by frightening people into thinking that if they took part in them, they would be trapped into endless, exhausting dancing or into the "everlasting hunter's chase" btw. the Wild Hunt. (Grimm v. III, pp. 1056-7)
The Roots of Walpurgisnacht
These are a few of the accounts of the festival usually called Walpurgisnacht and May-Day. Clearly, it was a festival of major importance in Heathen times, and continued to keep strong hold of the minds and feelings of the germanic folk down to the present day or close to it. What are the Heathen roots of these customs and of the name of this night? What meanings might they hold for us today? I will attempt an answer to these questions here, using several older sources of information, including a book by E.L. Rochholz, published in 1870, which traces the Heathen roots of three German saints back to goddesses of ancient times, including Walburga.
Rochholz makes much of the contrast between the light-hearted springtime rites on the first of May, featuring flowers, dancing maidens and children on the one hand, with the frightening activities of the witches during Walpurgisnight, a night of bonfires, spells, witches and beasts, storm and hail. He asks, "What kind of a pairing is this, of the witches of the Brockenmount with a saint of the church, under one and the same name!" (p. 1) The purpose of his study is to seek out the connection between the two, stripped of its christian ornamentation, which he believes originally resided in one being, the "worthy wholeness of a germanic goddess." (p. 1)
There actually was a christian nun, later a saint, named Walburga who lived during the 8th century in Germany. The cloister which she ran as abbess was built in 760 and called "Heidenheimer Kloster," namely "Heathen-home Cloister!" It was named after the town where it was located in middle Frankenland, which in turn was named after a "holy spring," Heidenbrunnen, where Heathens had been baptised. (No doubt, the spring was holy long before it was put to such misuse!) Nothing noteworthy during her lifetime, nor her birth or death-dates, caused any association between St. Walburga and Walpurgisnacht. What supposedly brought about the association of her with that date was that after her death, a miracle-working liquid or oil began to flow from the tombstone placed over her remains, which caused healings and was the reason for her canonization as a saint, both occurring on the first of May. Later Walburga's body was broken into pieces and buried at different places--as far away as present-day France and all over Germany--so that other churches could get the benefit of the holy oil as well. The church later tried to downplay the association of the oil and the saint with the Heathen-contaminated Mayday, but the connection remained in people's minds. If one looks at the accounts from Grimm, one may guess that in the minds of people who have not completely forgotten age-old Heathen wisdom, the association of the woman saint's miracles of healing and renewal with the day on which "witches" (wise-women, elf-women, goddesses) cast out winter and called in the life-giving May, is not an unnatural one.
In Bavaria there is a very old Walburga's chapel that is said to be located on the site of an older Heathen temple. The chapel stands on its own hill, surrounded by linden trees. Hills--especially hills standing alone--are in Germany traditionally the dwelling places of Holda and other Heathen holy female beings later seen as witches. Linden trees have always been holy to Frigga. Place-names and chapels stemming from Walburga (many associated with linden trees, hills, and holy wells) litter the landscape in Bavaria, Austria, and other germanic homelands. "The greatest number of the oldest churches in lower Germany are dedicated to this same saint." (Rochholz, p.17). "Lower Germany" includes what are now the Netherlands, Belgium, Saxony, and other regions of northern Germany--all regions where formerly the goddess Nehalennia was widely worshipped.
Walburga's symbols, as shown in the oldest stonecarvings in her chapels, are a dog and a bundle of grain. There is nothing in the abbess Walburga's biographies to account for portraying her with a dog, but there is much to show that German goddesses were associated with the dog as their "Hilfstier" (helping animal). "Grey hounds accompany the three Norns. The fertility goddesses Frau Harke, Frau Gode, and Frau Frick (Frigga) have always a hound beside them, and...Frau Berchte in Steiermark is called the "poodle-mother" because of her dog" (Rochholz p. 20). The goddess Nehalennia is usually pictured with a dog on her altars and votive sites. Speaking Walburga's name is a charm to tame fierce or even mad dogs. In folklore, the dog has much to do with fertility, health and good luck. For example, Rochholz mentions superstitions about the need to feed a mysterious "Windhound," sometimes said to be left behind from the Wild Hunt, during springtide, to ensure good weather for the crops. The Windhound is connected to fertility, good luck and plenty in the house and the farm fields, and in some places is called the "Nourishment-Hound" (Nahrungshund) (p. 22). Rochholz details many other superstitions relating dogs with goddesses of fertility. The christian Mary and female saints are also frequently portrayed with dogs in German chapels, and there is a "Hundskapelle" (dog-chapel) in Innsbruck said to have originally been a Heathen temple. One must suppose that this attribute of a dog accompanying Heathen goddesses was carried over into the christian iconography of holy women, including particularly Walburga.
Walburga Chased by the Wild Hunt
"Nine nights before the first of May is Walburga in flight, unceasingly chased by wild ghosts and seeking a hiding place from village to village. People leave their windows open so she can be safe behind the cross-shaped windowpane struts from her roaring enemies. For this, she lays a little gold piece on the windowsill, and flees further. A farmer who saw her on her flight through the woods described her as a white lady with long flowing hair, a crown upon her head; her shoes were fiery gold, and in her hands she carried a three-cornered mirror that showed all the future, and a spindle, as does Berchta. A troop of white riders exerted themselves to capture her. So also another farmer saw her, whom she begged to hide her in a shock of grain. No sooner was she hidden than the riders rushed by overhead. The next morning the farmer found grains of gold instead of rye in his grain stook. Therefore, the saint is portrayed with a bundle of grain." (Rochholz, p. 26-27)
The description of Walburga's adventures bears strong similarity to the harrying of the moss-wives or wood-wives by the Wild Hunt which usually occurs in the autumn and winter. Woodcutters are supposed to mark three crosses in the shape of a triangle, on the stumps of trees they have felled. Inside the triangle (another "magic" triangle) is the only place the moss-wives and woodwives are safe from being torn to pieces by the Wild Hunt. (See Grimm v. III, p. 929) Of course in tales which mention this, the safety of the moss-wives is attributed to the crosses. Considering the Heathen nature of these spirits, however, it is tempting to envision the crosses, set in a triangular pattern, either as a triple Nauthiz rune protecting them in their need, or as a degraded form of a Valknut or a trefot, other Heathen signs of power. When not being chased by the Wild Hunt, woodwives are friendly and helpful beings who offer good advice and assistance in daily tasks, and repay favors done to them with bits of ordinary things (wood chips, splinters, grain usw.) turned into gold. (See Grimm v. II, p. 484.) One can see the strong similarity between the moss-wives' plight and that of Walburga in the tales mentioned above.
In Walburga's case, it seems that the Wild Hunt embodies the powers of Winter, trying to prevent the Spring from becoming established. Walburga apparently is able to take some sort of revenge for her bad treatment by the Wild Hunt, however. The Walburga-processions enacted around the villages and fields in Germany and France are supposed to protect the lands against strong winds and bad weather.
Walburga's Symbols and Domains of Action
Of Walburga's symbols or attributes, the bundle of grain is obviously a fertility symbol and is typical of the germanic matron goddesses or demi-goddesses once worshipped all over Europe, including Nehalennia, as well as a being a symbol of goddesses in other Indo-European pantheons, such as Demeter and Ceres. The three-cornered mirror seems clearly related to the Norns and the Well of Wyrd: we can see the three corners of the foreseeing mirror as the three Norns, the mirror as the well itself with the three Norns standing around it. The mirror is particularly a "give-away:" who ever heard of, or would want to make or use, a triangular mirror? It is not a convenient shape for viewing one's face, in the normal usage of mirrors!
Neither the dog nor the shock of grain, the magical mirror or the spindle, are likely attributes of the abbess of a christian nunnery, nor is an abbess likely to have been wandering around the countryside having adventures! On the other hand these symbols or attributes are highly typical of Heathen germanic matrons, goddesses, and holy women. The spindle is the attribute before all others of the norns, wise-women, idises, and other womanly wights associated with fate and fortune in the continental Germanic countries. The use of the spindle and hand-spun thread for May-even spells of women's magic is described by Rochholz and by Grimm. Love-oracles using the spindle and thread, and other means, were said to be sent by Walburga herself. Walpurgistide was also the time to shame lazy farmers into working harder, by making a straw doll named Walburga and presenting it to any farmer who had not yet ploughed his land by that day (Rochholz, p. 40). This is quite reminiscent of the well-known chidings women receive from Heathen goddesses such as Berchta and Holda during Yuletide, if their own work has been skimped.
None of these attributes, activities and symbols can be argued to have anything to do with a christian abbess and saint, but have everything to do with Heathen goddesses and holy women, who have always concerned themselves with fertility and food, love, life, death, and hidden knowledge. Thus it is in the highest degree likely that attributes associated with a goddess celebrated at May-even during Heathen times were later grafted onto Walburga, the christian saint whose holy day is celebrated on the first of May.
King and Queen of the May
Witches' spell-fires and white goddesses in flight are not the only stirring events occurring during this holy tide. Much ado takes place during May-Day itself, still celebrated with folk-festivals today in Germany, Holland, England and other European countries. During several years that I lived in Bavaria, I never saw a town without its May-tree set on top of the unique craft-poles that are erected by each town and village. On the craft-poles are hung metal figures representing all the crafts that are pursued in that town and available to the public. May-trees are affixed to the tops of these tall, slender poles--quite a challenge!--and stand there throughout the year until it is time for them to be taken down and burned and the next May-tree erected. England is also famous for its May festivals, including Maypole dancing and processions of the King and Queen of the May.
May-Day festivals traditionally included a fierce battle between the forces of Winter and those of Spring. Usually these battles were led by the May-King, a young man chosen for his strength, beauty and charisma, and garbed in his "armor" of greenery. He and his troops would skirmish against the horde of Winter, and then return in a festal procession, accompanied by the May-Queen and other ladies, to engage in dancing, feasting and singing the many folk-songs associated with this holy day. In some cases, it might be the beauteous May-Queen herself who ousts the Hag of Winter. Women's garb at this festival was usually more revealing and permissive than was customary (nothing is said about the men's garb, unfortunately). In many places, some arrangements were made to pair unmarried women and men together, for example auctions or contests for a mate. Apparently it was widely the custom to herd or drive young women to these pairing auctions, by chasing the whole lot of them while flourishing whips, shouting and--in more recent years--shooting pistols into the air! This may have been an activity a good deal more popular among the men than the women.... (See Rochholz's chapter on May-fests.)
Whatever of various forms it might take, however, the keynote of the May-Day festivals is energy: the energy of youth and new life, sexuality and mating, of fighting and the chase, dancing and leaping; of ridding oneself of the old and worn-out and eagerly grasping the new.
A Sampling of Walpurgistide Customs Here are a few of the very many customs, rites and charms associated with Walpurgisnight and May-Day:
- All worn-out household items such as brooms, cloths, and wooden implements, should be burned each spring in the Walpurgisnight fires.
- Washing your face with dew right at sunrise on May-Day will give you special powers of sight, in particular, the power to know who your future husband will be. (Folklore says nothing about knowing your wife, but it certainly doesn't hurt to try!) This rite may also enable you to see your fetch.
- Put out a slice of bread liberally spread with butter and honey (this offering is called the "Ankenschnitt") for the Windhound, to protect your land from bad weather and ill-fated crops. (An appealing rite for those of us who live along Tornado Alley!)
- It is customary to dance, jump, spring and leap around during these festivals, either at the Walpurgisnight fires or during the May-Day revels. Especially, the mistress of a household should leap over her broom at some point during this time. (The broom may be held crossways and leapt over--one does not need to leap the height of a standing broom! Elderly or childbearing housewives may wish instead to step over the broom laid on the ground.) Farmers believed that their grain would grow as high as they could leap at Walpurgistide. (Here in the Midwest, this would make for either disappointing corn-crops, or very impressive men!)
- Life-size (or smaller) strawmen are made and "loaded" with the ill-health and ill-luck of the old year, then burned in the fires on Walpurgisnacht.
- For those alert and with the eyes to see, this is an excellent time to catch glimpses of elves, swan-maidens, landwights and other nature-wights, as well as other beings one might prefer not to see, such as night-mares.
- It was for many centuries the custom to offer a plentiful meal and beer to all comers to Walburga's chapels at this time. Rochholz maintains this was carried over from Heathen customs of generously feasting the folk at this holy tide. The Walburga-feasts were apparently a pot-luck, where folk were expected to bring a food offering to share.
- Men might find it good to ensure that they are caught up with the work needed to maintain their homes and land, to avoid the embarrassing presentation of a Walburga-doll from some enterprising goddess or her earthly delegate!
What Does This All Mean?
As often when we go to the old folklore-based sources, what we end up with is a big jumble of fascinating bits and pieces. We are left wondering what to make of it all in a religious sense, and how it might have meaning and relevance to the practice of Heathenism today. I shall make an effort to address that question, with regard to what is called Walpurgisnacht and May Day, and offer some suggestions and personal viewpoints about the deeper meaning of this holy tide and the goddess who rules it.
First let us look at the major elements associated with Walpurgisnacht:
- processions and gatherings of "witches" upon famous witch-mountains, which may be assumed to be demonizations of former Heathen holy wights, wise-women, and hallowed sites;
- divination, spellcraft, oracular activities, and other sorts of witchcraft;
- bonfires, which are set upon sites of significance for both godly and human activites;
- forcible casting-out of Winter, illness and that which is worn out, by the May-King and/or Queen and their green-bedecked and licentious troops, bringing in their wake marriages and fertility of crops, beasts and mankind;
- dancing, merry-making, and loosening of the usual rules governing sexual behavior;
- blessing-processions, with sacred objects and offerings, around fields and villages, bringing fertility and protection from bad weather;
- a "white goddess" who brings fertility, occult knowledge, and protection, but who is herself besieged by the forces of tumult, death and chaos.
There is clearly a rich lode of material here which, when combined with the many folk-customs, can be mined for ideas about May-Day celebrations and rituals in our time. One can easily find a basis for anything from a solitary, mystical rite, to a women's magic-working, a lovers' tryst, a camping trip and bonfire on a mountain, a hospitable dinner for family and friends (with the hostess leaping her broom, for entertainment!), or a large, uproarious festival, depending on one's inclinations, circumstances and resources. What is clear from the lore, however, is that this was indeed a major and significant Heathen holy tide, and should be observed as such in one way or another.
Returning Life Though I think it is fairly clear from the lore I have outlined above, I will summarize here what seems to have been the underlying significance and meaning of Walpurgisnacht and May-Day. First, it is the time when the deathly cold, decay, ill-health and dreariness of Winter are driven out, to make room for newly-growing life and all that pertains to it: mating of man and woman, of beasts wild and tame, fertility of the fields, health and vitality, and the greening and blossoming of the land. Youth, beauty, sexuality, and strength are celebrated. Then, all must be protected from the return and reconquest by Winter's woeful forces (definitely a possibility in northern climes!), requiring magical and religious rites of warding and hallowing. The driving out of Winter and the warding and hallowing might be done secretly and mysteriously by gathered "witches" and their flickering flames on the mountain-tops, or by the May-King and Queen and their doughty horde, or most likely by both: the witches by night and the May battle-troops and processions by day.
A Between-Time of Magic Since this is a turning-tide when the season is not quite one thing or another--a "between-time," it is very suitable for occult divination and spellcraft: a time to take advantage of the thinner veils between the worlds and the fact that our minds are temporarily focused away from everyday affairs and onto the magical energies of Nature's spring tides. This is a time for looking into that which is coming into being and which should be, for seeking deep roots of life-knowledge and life-mysteries, for love-magic and spells of growth and change, conception and birth--in fact, for almost all the elements of what is often called "women's magic." (In my personal opinion, a lot of this is very difficult to do, magic or no magic, without getting the men involved in there somewhere...)
A Springtime Goddess Finally, and most obscurely and mysteriously for us, this holy tide seems to have been associated with a goddess, probably one who bore different names in many different places. Very possibly, the holy powers and nature of "St. Walburga" were originally aspects of one of the germanic great-goddesses, such as Nehalennia, Nerthus, Holda, Berchta, who in themselves might well be different names for the same goddess, or for different aspects of her. I venture to suggest that Waelburga the goddess is not greatly different from the goddess Ostara/Eostre; in fact personally I like to see them as twin sisters or even one and the same, though I have no firm basis in the lore for doing so. Though Ostara's playmates are the shining elf-women while Walpurgis' Day is celebrated for its dark witches, I think originally there was little distinction between the two. Eostre-tide and Walpurgistide both celebrate the power of returning life, both its dark, mysterious, blood-deep side, and its bright, shining, blossoming side. They cannot be separated. Christian fears, mythology and superstition have separated the "white lady," the supposed St. Walburga, from the darkness of the Wild Hunt, and have set her as a charm against ills such as bad weather and mad dogs, often thought to be caused by "witches." Yet on her own holy night, it is the supposedly dark witches who have power, who gather in ancient places of sacrifice to do what is needful to be done, even when the folk no longer consciously remember that is the case. In reality, there is no separation here between the dark and the light, life growing out of death and decay, brightness arising from danger and fear, sacrifice given for fertility.
I see Ostara and "Walburga" as being closely similar or identical goddesses of spring and all that spring bears with it: the bright and the dark, the festal and the mysterious, youthful beauty and age-old wisdom. I see them accompanied by shining elves and old wise-women, and by the often-described companions and worshippers of Holda and the other germanic goddesses. They rule the whole of springtide, from the first Summer-findings of robin and violet and the spring Even-night, up to the gateway of Summer and the godly powers that there hold sway.
The Name of the Goddess
In the name "Walburga," we are dealing with a folk myth containing several apparent conflicts. Factually speaking, Walburga was an historical christian abbess. According to folklore, "St. Walburga" is a white lady with magical attributes, closely similar to the other germanic "white ladies" whom we know as Heathen goddesses. Walpurgisnacht has been seen for many centuries as a night of witches and occult powers. I hope I have shown here how all those pieces fit together and what they mean in a deeper sense. The one remaining "mystery," to me, is what to do about the name itself.
I really hesitate to call a Heathen goddess by the name of a christian saint! Yet the name itself and its "overtones" in the term "Walpurgisnacht" have been blessed by folk-tradition with a set of nuances and subtle meanings that can clearly be seen as genuinely Heathen. My personal solution to the dilemma here of what to call the goddess and her holy tide is simply to accept and use one of the variants on the name "Walburga." I do not want to use that exact name since it belonged to an historical christian, but neither do I want to abandon tradition and call the goddess something completely different, not even "Ostara" although I think they are closely related or the same. Ostara belongs to the beginning of spring and to its shining, airy, elf-like nature, while "Walburga" has become associated with the more witch-like, dark and earthy rites of Walpurgisnacht, of spring moving into the earthiness of summer, in spite of her "white lady" image in folklore.
So, I call the goddess Walpurga, or Waluburg, or Waelburga, with the latter being my preferred version of the name. "Waelburga" picks up on the dark nature of the bright/dark Eostre/Waelburga pairing, since this Anglo-Saxon spelling variant can also mean "burg of the slain." Considering the divination and spellcraft activities of Walpurgisnacht, and the great assistance that can be given in these by the souls of the dead, Waelburga seems especially appropriate. This variant of her name also gives me the satisfying image of Waelburga being herself a refuge of the dead: the dead resting in the care of a goddess who brings springtide and new life. The alternate spelling "Waelbyrga" would also emphasize this imagery, with its meaning "burial-mound of the slain." Mounds are an ideal place to conduct many kinds of witchcraft and occult activities, as well as serving as the refuge of the dead, and as something like a miniature "hollow hill" of Holda and her host. Seeing these aspects as being part of Waelburga's nature brings her even closer to the other germanic goddesses: Nehalennia, Holda, Berchta and the rest. They, too, rule fertility and new life, yet also guide and guard the dead in their care. All of them fit well with Rochholz's description: "the worthy wholeness of a germanic goddess."
Calling our springtime goddess by the name of the seeress Waluburg is also appropriate, as is simply calling her by the name that her holy night has come to be called: Walpurga. Waluburg is listed and identified as a seeress of the Semnoni on a Roman army payroll in Egypt dating from the second century C.E., but according to Simek, the names are unrelated. Walburga stems from Wald-burg, forest fortress or mighty fortress, while Waluburg stems from Walu=stave or wand (same as gand). (Simek p. 370) Even though the names are etymologically unrelated, however, I see no reason not to call the goddess Waluburg if we think that fits her well. After all, Walburga is also probably not related to the goddess's original name.
Though it is sad not knowing her "real" name, we must keep in mind the tendency of germanic goddesses to be called by quite different names in different localities, so that even if we did have a "real" name, it might only be from one place and time. In truth, I believe Waelburga is quite comfortable with the name that has grown up around her and her holy day during the last thousand years and more. The historical accidents, apparent contradictions and confusions surrounding her name are all simply the way things usually do come about, in a wyrdly natural, organically mythical and folkish sort of way! Her original name may have been forgotten, but she herself certainly has not suffered that fate. It simply remains for us to care enough, about her and the portion of Heathen godlore and holiness that she represents, to delve beneath the apparent confusion into the true heart of who she is: a deed of wisdom and troth that all our gods and goddesses expect us to achieve, for each one of them.
Bookhoard Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology. (J.S. Stalleybrass edition) George Bell & Sons, London, 1883. Hoffmann-Krayer, E., and Bächtöld-Stäubli, H., eds. Handwörterbuch des Deutschen Aberglaubens. Walter de Gruyter & Co., Berlin & Leipzig, 1929-1930. Rochholz, E.L. Drei Gaugöttinen: Walburg, Verena und Gertrud, als deutsche Kirchenheilige. Sittenbilder aus germanischen Frauenleben. Verlag von Friedrich Fischer, Leipzig, 1870.