Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Walpurgisnacht -- Halloween's Diabolical Cousin

Halloween’s Diabolical Cousin

According to occult tradition, there was once a single night of the year when evil women gathered on a demon-haunted mountain, with the denizens of Hell, and worshipped Satan, danced naked around a bonfire and engaged in a supernatural orgy – it was Walpurgisnacht, or the Eve of St. Walpurga, which occurs every year on April 30. According to pagan lore, it is the one night of the year when “evil has full sway over the world.”

The dark festival takes its name from Walpurga of Devon, England, a convent leader from the 700s who was canonized as the patron saint of rabies. Though far from as popular as its eerie cousin, Halloween, Walpurgisnacht has cast a shadow over many works of Gothic art, literature and music from the night Bram Stoker chose for Jonathan Harker to meet Dracula to Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.”

An old postcard of Walpurgisnacht 
To understand the significance of Walpurgisnacht, we also have to understand the druidic Samhain, known today as Halloween. Samhain was the solstice festival that celebrated the start of the darkest months of the year: winter. That meant that the days got shorter, food supplies dwindled and sickness and death lay ahead. This meant that the season’s conclusion called for a ritual festival to commemorate and end to that darkness, which the druids called Beltane – a spring ritual that took place six months after Samhain. Beltane spread with the druids across Europe and eventually found a home in Germany. However, around 800 A.D. Christianity also arrived in Germany with Charlemagne and many things that the pagans believed in from Wotan [a.k.a. Odin], the other gods, the burning of the dead and other things became forbidden under penalty of death. However, some of their celebrations survived, named the one held on April 30.

But – as with some many other festivals co-opted by the Church – Beltane was replaced with a day of veneration on the following morning: the Feast of St. Walpurga (an equivalent to All Saints Day). And just like with All Saints Day, the Feast of St. Walpurga proved to be much less interesting than Beltane. For this reason, Walpurgisnacht – the night before the Feast – haunted Germany long after its intended replacement was started and continued to symbolize the end of a long darkness for the people. But how dark was this final night?

A gathering of witches on Walpurgisnacht
 There are many different opinions about what took place on Walpurgisnacht, but most agree that it was some sort of witch’s Sabbath. It’s been said that witches dance naked around a bonfire before copulating with demons. Others stated that it was a Black Sabbath during which witches flew on broomsticks to a secret location where they were joined by the Devil to worship. Most of the folklore in Germany was situated around the tallest mountain in Northern Germany, known as the Brocken – “the father of mountains.” On the summit of the giant, craggy peak are two formations called the Witches’ Altar (Hexenaltar) and Devil’s Pulpit (Teufelskanzel). The region has inspired a number of horrific tales and even the surrounding plateau has stories of its own – so many that it’s known as the Witches’ Dance Floor (Hexentanzplatz). It’s said that the region is named after a fleet of witches on broomsticks scared off a battalion of Frankish soldiers who were occupying the area. Ancient ruins dot the landscape and many of them, like the Pagan Wall (Heidenwall – built between 750 and 450 B.C.) offer proof to many of occult activity in the region’s past.

Occultist Anton LaVey was inspired to found his Church of Satan on Walpurgisnacht
Goethe, who set the first act of his famous play Faust on the Brocken during Walpurgisnacht, wasn’t the only one inspired by it. Famed occultist Anton LaVey was so taken by the celebration that he established his Church of Satan on April 30, citing Walpurgisnacht as one of the most important satanic holidays. On the other side of the coin, the famous “Night on Bald Mountain” scene in Disney’s animated 1940 film Fantasia was based on a phenomenon called the Brocken Specters (Brockengespenster). The Brocken Specters are giant, diffracted shadows created by anyone going above the cloud line of the Brocken. These confusing shades were dangerous to mountain climbers, especially when mist encircled the mountain, sometimes causing men to fall to their deaths. The phenomenon makes it seem as if an enormous figure is stalking you, which gave rise to the belief that ghosts and demons were haunting the Brocken – and not just on Walpurgisnacht.

Today, Walpurgisnacht continues to be celebrated in Germany, in many other European countries and in America among Satanists, pagans and occult practitioners. Many still see it as a sacred holiday and the last night of evil before the months of warmth and light control the world. In many locations, towns are decorated with witch and devil dolls, people dress in costumes, bonfires are lit, a lot of beer is consumed and costumed enthusiast party late into the night. Don’t miss your chance to revel on this last night of darkness – and lift a glass or two for me while you’re at it! Happy Walpurgisnacht!

A modern Walpurgisnacht celebration

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