Walpurgis Night in European Folklore: History and Traditions

Walpurgis Night in European Folklore: History and Traditions

Walpurgis Night, also known as Witches’ Night, is a traditional European festival. Its association with witchcraft dates back to medieval times when it was believed that witches gathered on this night to hold their sabbath. When viewed through a scholarly lens, Walpurgis Night offers a captivating examination of how religion, folklore and cultural identity intersect. Additionally, its historical association with witchcraft offers valuable insight into the interest in European cultural traditions. Together, these elements make Walpurgis Night an engaging subject for academic exploration and cultural study.

What is Walpurgis Night?

Walpurgis Night is a traditional Central/Northern European festival celebrated on the night of April 30 to May 1 each year. The name derives from Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who lived in Germany during the 8th century and was canonized on May 1st. However, it is believed that the festival has pagan roots.

Who is Saint Walpurga?
Saint Walpurga, born in 710 AD in England, was a highly respected nun who dedicated her life to teaching, healing the sick, and spreading Christianity. She was the daughter of Saint Richard the Pilgrim and sister to Saint Willibald and Saint Winibald. After her father’s death, she joined her brothers to travel to Germany and preach the Christian faith. They later settled in Heidenheim where they established a convent, and Saint Walpurga continued to devote herself to her religious work. Following her passing in 779 AD, her remains were buried in the monastery in Heidenheim. Saint Walpurga’s feast day, celebrated on May 1st, the day of her canonization, became a significant religious holiday in Germany and across Europe.

A Brief History of Walpurgis Night

Although there are many theories and legends about the origins of Walpurgis Night, scholars and historians have not yet reached a consensus. Some scholars suggest that it was initially a pagan festival, which was later Christianized and associated with Saint Walpurga. However, others argue that it is of Christian origin and not pagan, maintaining that it has always been associated with Saint Walpurga and her Christian veneration.

In line with this view, in some parts of Germany, May 1 is celebrated as Saint Walpurga’s Day, a Christian holiday honoring the life and accomplishments of the saint. This day of commemoration is observed with religious services and processions, reflecting on her contributions to the propagation of Christianity and her works of teaching and healing. Saint Walpurga’s Day is a time for prayer, reflection, and thanksgiving, and it is widely respected and observed throughout the Christian community.

Walpurgis night, witches' day, witches sabbath
“Bloks Bergs Verrichtung” by Johannes Praetorius, 1668

According to the other view, the roots of Walpurgis Night can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane, which was celebrated on May 1 every year. Beltane was a time when the boundaries between the physical world and the spiritual realm were believed to be thin, making it easier for spirits to cross over into our world, just like during Samhain. People used to light bonfires everywhere that night and make offerings to the gods to ensure a bountiful harvest in the coming year.

In Germanic folklore, Walpurgis Night was associated with witches and evil spirits roaming the earth on the eve of May 1st. People would light bonfires and make loud noises to scare away these malevolent forces.

During the Middle Ages, Walpurgis Night was a time when people gathered in the countryside to celebrate the arrival of spring. After the long, dark and cold winter months, it was time to let loose and have fun. Dancing around bonfires, singing traditional songs, drinking mead and beer were the most popular forms of celebration.

From the 17th century onwards, Walpurgis Night became associated with witchcraft and the devil in some societies. The Catholic Church had long celebrated saints’ feast days, including Saint Walpurga’s. However, with the rise of Protestantism, veneration of the saints was considered idolatrous. Protestant authorities began to associate Walpurgis Night with witchcraft, and the feast became a symbol of paganism and rebellion against the Church.

In the 19th century, Walpurgis Night experienced a resurgence of popularity as part of Romanticism. Artists and writers were fascinated by the feast’s pagan roots and saw it as a way to connect with their cultural heritage. They wrote poems and stories about its traditions. Over time, Walpurgis Night became a symbol of the mysteries of the supernatural.

History of Witchcraft in Europe

How is Walpurgis Night Celebrated? Traditions Across Europe

Although Walpurgis Night traditions may vary across different countries, they are largely similar to each other.

In Germany, Walpurgis Night is celebrated with the custom of Hexentanz (witches’ dance) in the Harz Mountains, where people gather around a bonfire and dance to music. The celebration is linked to the belief that witches and evil spirits roamed the Earth on this night, and the fire was meant to ward off their malevolent influence.

In Sweden, Walpurgis Night is a public holiday that marks the beginning of spring. The celebration includes lighting bonfires and singing traditional songs. The largest and most famous festival takes place in Uppsala, where thousands of people gather to listen to speeches, watch performances, and light bonfires.

Walpurgis Night in Sweden
Foto: David Castor (Ringsjön, Sweden)

In Finland, Walpurgis Night is called Vappu, and it is one of the most important festivals of the year. People wear traditional white student caps and overalls, and they gather in the streets to drink sima (a type of mead) and eat tippaleipä (a type of cake).

In Estonia, Walpurgis Night is called Volbriöö. People light bonfires and gather in parks and public squares to sing and dance. In some parts of Estonia, the celebration includes a custom called “driving away winter” where people dress up as witches and parade through the streets.

In the Czech Republic, Walpurgis Night is called Valpuržina noc, and it is a celebration of the arrival of spring. The celebration also includes the custom of burning effigies of witches, which is meant to symbolize the banishment of winter and evil spirits.

In Latvia, Walpurgis Night is called Valpurģu nakts, and it is a celebration of the resurrection of nature. People gather to sing and dance, and they also participate in the custom of swinging on swings. The tradition symbolizes the swinging of the sun higher into the sky, and it is believed to bring good luck and fertility.

Walpurgis Night in Literature, Music and Visual Arts

Walpurgis Night has left a lasting impact on different artistic expressions such as literature, music and visual arts. Many artists have drawn inspiration from the supernatural and mystical themes associated with the festival, which have been depicted in different forms and styles throughout history. For example, the Romantic movement in literature and art of the 19th century, which emphasized emotion, imagination, and the beauty of nature, often included references to folklore and pagan traditions, including Walpurgis Night. This is exemplified in the works of famous writers such as Goethe and Hoffmann, who incorporated the themes of witchcraft and supernatural events in their literary works.

From the 19th century onwards, Walpurgis Night has influenced the musical world. In 1843, the celebrated German composer Felix Mendelssohn composed a cantata titled “Die erste Walpurgisnacht”, inspired by the festival’s pagan origins. Based on a poem by Goethe, the cantata tells the story of pagans who assemble in the woods to celebrate Walpurgis Night and their resistance against Christian oppression. The cantata is widely considered one of Mendelssohn’s finest works.

Walpurgis Night has also influenced the world of visual arts, inspiring artists to create works that capture the festival’s mystical and supernatural elements. Through different styles and techniques, artists have depicted the themes associated with Walpurgis Night, such as witchcraft, pagan rituals, and the celebration of spring. Albrecht Dürer, Ernst Barlach and Hermann Hendrich are among the notable artists who have works on Walpurgis Night.

  • Walpurgis Night“, Encyclopaedia Britannica, britannica.com, April 28, 2023
  • “Night of the Witches: Folklore, Traditions & Recipes for Celebrating Walpurgis Night”, Linda RAEDISCH, Llewellyn Worldwide, ISBN: 9780738728162