For many pagans, this is the time of year where they honor and celebrate Beltane one of the pagan holidays that comprise their Wheel of the Year. For those of us in the Northern Tradition (referring to the religious belief rooted in ancient Germania, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England with a common worship to Woden/Odin), we have our own celebrations known as holy tides (from the Old Norse hátíðir). Traditions can vary from one community to another in this area, and timing of the celebrations can vary as well. But while our pagan cousins might be looking forward to Beltane, for Heathens we’re getting ready to celebrate Walpurgis, May Day, and Summerdaeg, but trying to discern the pre-Christian celebrations and origins of this holy tide can be a bit tricky.
Typing ‘Walpurgis’ into the ever-handy google… turns up detailed information about the Catholic saint Walpurga, but when it comes to the pre-Christian past the details seem vague at best. One has to do some digging to find anything of more substance. 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.
“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.” – Drei Gaugöttinen: Walburg, Verena und Gertrud, als deutsche Kirchenheilige. Sittenbilder aus germanischen Frauenleben. by E.L. Rochholz
For those of you that LOVE to really read into the meat of the matter with academic factoids, you might find this article by Winifred Hodge a fascinating read. An excerpt follows:
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.
One of Saint Walburga’s chapels is found at Heidenheim Kloster, or Heathen-Home Closter, built by a holy spring there known as Heidenbrunnen, or Heathen Well. The name alone points to a pre-Christian origin, and holy springs were a common connection to cultic sites of pre-Christian worship, as we see in Tacitus’ description of Nerthus‘ holy spring in his Germania, and also in a large corpus of surviving folklore including stories to the Goddess Hel’s pond found in modern Berlin.
But for a more down-to-earth understanding May Day numbers as one of the Summer holy-days, the first being Eostre/Ostara. Do I hear a few mental thought processes screeching to a halt at that statement among my readers? Let me explain. Today, our culture embraces the concept of the 4 seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. But, in the countries of the ancient Northern Tradition by their cultural worldview there were only two seasons: Summer and Winter. Summer began at the time of Eostre… for summer was viewed as life thriving in the land. Thus, the Summer Solstice (which is viewed as the start of our summer today) was their MidSummer. Winter was characterized by the decay and dormancy of the land. A time when food was scarce, people were dwelling indoors within close quarters and the combination of the cold, potential malnourishment, and disease took many lives.
As the first summer holy-day, Eostre coincided with the awakening of the land from its sleep. Even though some plants were growing, it was still a season where cold snaps and the stinging breath of winter still came to nip the noses of ancient Heathens. This awakening of the land told those who worked the fields that it was time to prep the fields. Time to plow the fields and prepare them for the crops to come. May Day is a demarcation, that winter’s lingering sting should be passed and that the awakened earth now laid ripe and powerful with fertility, in other words it was a perfect time for planting as you should be past the season of freezes. The Goddess Walpurga became Christianized as Saint Walpurga, who was prayed to by German Christians for aid in overcoming “pest, rabies and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft.”
There is no doubt to my mind that the burning of witches, was a Christianization that vilified the so called ‘witchery’ and other pre-Christian practices originally associated with the night. But if we look at these prayers as a whole, I think they speak to her having an ability to chase away some of the illnesses that run rampant in winter. There are also Christian traditions tied to the Saint in France and Germany that tied to warding against bad weather. May Day embodies the final chasing away of the Winter, while honoring the local landvaettir, as well as the Gods and Goddesses for a bountiful harvest, good weather, and good health. Although prayers to insure there were no blights be it by insects, disease, or the weather were especially merited.
In De temporum ratione, Bede mentions ever-so-briefly about the existence of the Anglo-Saxon Goddess Hrethe (latinized by Bede as Rheda) who was given sacrifices in Spring. Just as we have certain Gods tied to days of the week (Woden’s Day is Wednesday), Her name was used for a month: Hrēþmōnaþ, just as Eostre‘s was used for Ēostermōnaþ. In the Old English Dictionary by Gerhard Köbler, he suggests Hrēþmōnaþ also meant ‘month of Wildness’. While very little is known about this Goddess, the wildness of the transitional season between Winter and Spring may be somewhat analogous to what we see with the wildness of Walpurga. While in Anglo-Saxon areas the months went Hrēþmōnaþ followed by Ēostermōnaþ, we have records in Old High German that the corresponding months on the continent were Lenzin-mānod (Spring Month) followed by Ōstar-mānod (Ostara / Easter Month).May in the Anglo-Saxon calendar was the month of three milkings, and in Old High German it was the pasture month. This to me supports that we are in warming weather, and things are more stable than they can be in early Spring. It may very well be the wildness was part of the Spring season, and the celebration of Walpurgis Night was a culmination to the end of the worst of the turbulent weather patterns, and the end of the Wild Hunt’s influence for certain geo-specific communities in Germanic areas in antiquity.
Our best sources from the Northern Tradition are seen in Germanic traditions that survived late into the Christian era and persist today, many of them penned by folklorists such as Jacob Grimm. But May–as it does in many places that feel the especially cold bite of Winter–holds a special affinity for the local people.
Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,
Als alle Knospen sprangen,
Da ist in meinem Herzen
die Liebe aufgegangen.
In the wondrous month of May,
When all buds were bursting into bloom,
Then it was that in my heart
love began to blossom.
Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,
Als alle Vögel sangen,
Da hab, ich ihr gestanden
mein Sehnen und Verlangen.
In the wondrous month of May,
When all birds were singing,
Then it was I confessed to her
my longing and desire.
Excerpt from “A Poet’s Love” by Heinrich Heine (1779-1856), translation by Richard Stokes, The Book of Lieder.
These stanzas express all the romantic feelings Germans associate with the month of May. But more than just this, as we see in the surviving traditions most especially in Germany, this was a time associated with witchcraft and the things that go bump in the night. While Americans tend to think of the time around Samhain or Halloween as the ‘spooky’ time, in Germany these associations are more prevalent with Walpurgisnacht rooted in the pagan Frƒhjahrsfest (Spring Festival). Folk tradition talks about such things as women flying around on broomsticks, witches throwing curses, mysterious blue flames, and the Wild Hunt pursuing the Goddess Walpurga through both snow and hail. (In other areas of the Northern Tradition, we see the Wild Hunt associated with Odin or Holda/Perchta during either Winter Nights, or Yule as there was regional variance).
“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.” 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.”
The mountains described are in Germany’s Harz Mountains, which straddle the former border between East and West Germany. The mountain range is known for moody river valleys dwarfed by towering cliffs, gloomy forests, and a multitude of craggy peaks, add in some fog and it’s the perfect setting for the classic horror yarn. Plus it has a unique meteorological phenomenon all its own: the Brockengespenst, which is an optical illusion that during the setting sun a person walking at certain spots will have their shadow cast in such a way that it becomes greatly magnified and it will appear on clouds or in the mist far, far removed from where the person actually is. This shadow in turn, can even sometimes be surrounded by an aura of rainbow like bands or rings, which science tells us is the result of the diffraction of sunlight by water droplets in the clouds.
It is no wonder that this mountain range has so long held symbolic ties to witchcraft and the other worldly, this is even where Goethe chose to set the Witches’ Sabbath scene in Faust. The mountain range is also the unfortunate site of a multitude of real world ‘witch’ burnings. In 1589, ecclesiastical authorities of Quedlinburg’s St. Servatius Abbey sentenced 133 “witches” to be burned at the stake covering everything from herbalism, folk healing, or anything that was deemed “heathen”, and everything from failing crops, convulsions and seizures were deemed to be caused by witches.
Even after the end of the ‘Dark Ages’, during the so-called Age of Enlightenment “witches” were still being burned in large numbers, between 1623 and 1633, the prince-bishops of the Bavarian communities of Wƒrzburg and Bamburg, had executed at least 1500 “witches” alone. Even the bishop of Wƒrzburg’s own nephew could not escape the death sentence.
Science may have found the true culprit behind the “witches’ curses” that caused the failed crops, unexpected livestock illnesses and loss, as well as convulsions and seizures in humans: a fungi known as ergot. One of the staple crops, rye, is particularly vulnerable to this fungi when there’s been an abundance of both warm and damp weather. The fungi contains nerve toxins that can cause very vivid hallucinations, muscle spasms, pinpricking sensations, convulsions and even death in both humans and animals. The drug LSD is in fact derived from ergot.
Today, the shops in the mountain villages sell Harzhexen in droves (little felt witches on broomsticks) as Walpurgisnacht approaches, and witch hats or devil horns are also sold. In the village of Schierke there’s a kindergartener-led parade with the kids dressed up as witches and devils. When evening falls, the atmosphere has changed, as now there are shield maidens, kobolds, witches, devils, vampires and more. It becomes a giant village-hosted faire with entertainment, fireworks, and a bonfire.
The bonfire was used here in these mountain villages as a way to protect house and home against evil spirits and witches. But we also know that bonfires in other areas of the Northern Tradition were used by some to burn away the garbage of the year: broken items, and old clothes, symbolic representations that by burning them in somewhat effigy one gained good health and protection from ill-intended sorcery. Others leapt the flames, or their broomsticks. I can see many of these customs boiling down to key concepts, such as a symbolic representation of chasing away the winter with summer heat, and by getting rid of the bad times and bad items to start renewed.
Farmers who had been lazy and hadn’t yet plowed their fields were ‘gifted’ with little dolls to “shame” them into work. Folklorist E. L. Rochholz, says these dolls were called Walpurga, which may be yet another tie to that Goddess, and harkening to similar pre-Christian traditions such as how the Goddess Holle would punish those that hadn’t finished their work by the yuletide. These admonishments… were critical to community survival. Failure to contribute could, especially in a lean year, might mean starvation not only for the farmer but his neighbors.
So, in a day and age where many of us do not work the land, and certainly don’t farm for a living, sometimes there can be a bit of a disconnect with just how important these agricultural cycles are to the health and prosperity of a community. In the dead of winter, we can import strawberries from South American countries. If we have a hankering for some meat we just go to the store. Most of us don’t have to balance out which animals should be slaughtered, which kept for breeding or labor later in the year.
In fact, not only is May Day about the transition of Winter to Spring, but it also denotes a key time of industriousness. We see this represented in conjunction with the more obvious fertility aspects of May Pole traditions.
From ancient times, through to the present day many communities will erect a May Pole that has iconography or guild crests at the top to represent the ‘industry’ in the town. This is a symbol of pride, but it also shows the ‘growth’ that can happen, and needs to happen to help their community both survive and thrive.
While there is usually a larger communal May Pole erected, there are also smaller May Poles erected sometimes that are more for personal use. In parts of Germany, especially in the Rhine, men (usually younger ones) may erect a May Pole outside of the home of a woman he fancies (a girlfriend, a fiancée, or the girl he won at the village’s auction). The bachelor’s club of the village has certain rules for the man and his ‘prize’ they must observe from the time of the auction (usually around Ostara/Mardis Gras until May Day). Whichever man paid the most of any of the auctions that were held, becomes the May King and his lady the de facto Queen. In some regions, these May Poles need to be guarded, or men from other villages may steal them. This custom of the ‘auction’ we know dates back to at least the 1500s, and therefore I think dates back still further still, and it would not surprise me that it is a surviving folk tradition from a pagan practice. In other areas of Germany, the May King is determined through the “scramble” as they see who can climb the May Pole first, and he can choose his Queen.
The May Pole is quite clearly understood as a phallic object, and many academics have made much about the fact that most polytheistic and pagan traditions have a combination of earth-mother and sky-father (or vice versa). So, the pole can be seen as the union that brings fertility between land and sky (sun and rain). In the Northern Tradition we have the God Thor & the Goddess Sif as a rather obvious example of this symbolic formula.
There are a plethora of regional folk traditions associated with this holy tide throughout the modern-day places where Northern Tradition polytheism once reigned supreme. Today in Sweden for instance, their practices are tied quite intimately to song. On the evening of April 30th, you will hear voices raised in musical tribute to the Walburga, all throughout every village in Sweden as they celebrate Valborgsmässoafton (Walpurgis Eve). Huge bonfires are lit at dusk, and choral groups sing songs that celebrate Winter’s ending and the much-heralded arrival of Spring. This choral tradition dates back several centuries of continuous observance by student singers at both Uppsala and Lund Universities. There’s no doubt in mind that this is yet another example of the wassailing / caroling traditions we see in other places that also had once worshiped Odin as well.
For graduating high school seniors in Sweden, those young adults wear special clothing: their white studentmossor (caps). Celebrations tend to go through the night long after the fires have died down, and since May first is a national holiday it enables the revelry to be unreserved without worries of missing an early class, or shift at work.
So how can we celebrate this today?
Instead of burning old clothes, donate them. We may not have so many broken items that we haven’t already gotten rid of like in olden days, but it can even be a time to try to put past mistakes and grief behind you. You may not plow the land or reap the crops… but even if you make your livelihood as an artist you can pray that you may grow in skill and in customers.
Hailing and honoring your local vaettir is always a good idea. Traditional gifts are bread and butter, milk and honey. But vaettir are known for local tastes. So, if you’re in Texas your local vaettir may just appreciate some cool fresh water, Shiner Bock, or Cerveza with lime in addition to other offerings.
Hailing the Gods and Goddesses is (of course) always welcome. Many will hail those associated with the land or the working thereof: Goddesses like Nerthus, Jörd, Gefjon, Sif. The Vanic deities of Freyr and Freya are also popular because of their strong associations with fertility of the land, most especially Freyr. In fact Adam of Bremen in the Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. writes how Fricco (believed to be Freyr) had a statue fashioned with a phallus, was known for bringing pleasure to mortals, and libations were given to him upon marriage too. We see some of this echoed in the Gylfaginning “Freyr is the most renowned of the Æsir; he rules over the rain and the shining of the sun, and therewithal the fruit of the earth; and it is good to call on him for fruitful seasons and peace. He governs also the prosperity of men” (Brodeur’s translation). Scholar Britt-Mari Näsström writes of how Freya was targeted by Christianization: “Freyja is called “a whore” and “a harlot” by the holy men and missionaries, whereas many of her functions in the everyday lives of men and women, such as protecting the vegetation and supplying assistance in childbirth were transferred to the Virgin Mary.” Despite the Christianization some folk remnants have remainds, for instance in Sweden, we have surviving folk tradition that lightning is Freya checking to see if the rye is ripe.
Others may hail Thor (as he has ties to storms) to ask that He brings rain to help the crops, but would He be so kind as to please keep His enthusiasm in check… well at least over the crops. Many will choose to hail Weyland since His role as blacksmith is representative of all the other types of industry through which we use so that we can provide for ourselves, our family, and in turn strengthen our community. Some groups put far too much importance on Hailing a specific Deity, but to me the importance is not in any one Deity over another, but that you choose to a Hail a Deity based on the dictates of your own heart and conscience within the theme of the season or what is occurring in your own life at that time. Follow your heart, so long as the words come from a place of sincerity and respect all will be well. But if you’d like perhaps a suggestion here’s a prayer I’ve drafted to the Goddess Walpurga:
Hail Walpurga! The blessings fall from your voice, carrying over the mountains, rustling the leaves of the linden trees, to make the dance grass on the hills, and the water’s surface shimmer. Let us drink. Let us thrive. Walk through the plowed fields Nourishing the seeds of your benediction So wheat and rye grow green in your steps Flames of summer lip at your white hem As Your song tames the Windhound. Let us eat. Let us thrive. Garlanded in a floral crown Your hair tossed in the wind As new love sprouts and grows Love’s fortune flourishes In the gales of your laughter. Let us love. Let us thrive.
You can give offerings of flowers and food. Great offerings to give in the way of food are dishes incorporating some of the seasonal fare available in your local area. In Texas the month of May is known for blueberries, blackberries, peaches, pears, all sorts of peppers, cucumbers, honeydew melon and cantaloupe. Not sure what is seasonal? Epicurious has you covered with an interactive seasonal map for the United States. (For any readers elsewhere, sorry! You’ll have to hope your google-fu is mighty!)
In addition to food, libations are always welcomed. A traditional German May Day punch known as Waldmeister Bowle can be made using sweet woodruff.