Blog Post 56 – Walpurgisnacht

A caveat before I begin today’s post:  Walpurgisnacht is not terribly “New World.”  Most of it will be related to the British Isles and Europe, though I will include a little bit on New World practices, too.  But I think it’s still relevant to witchery, so I’m going to write about it anyway.  Mostly because, well, I really want to.

This is quite possibly my favorite witchy holiday, with the conditional exception of All Hallows/Halloween.  I do like May Day/Beltane celebrations, of course, but the night before is really what I love.  The association of this night with witchcraft seems to go back a long way.  The name of the holiday comes from a Catholic Saint who died in the year 777 C.E, St. Walburga.  Rosemary Ellen Guiley, in her Encyclopedia of Witches & Witchcraft, says this about the holiday:

“In the Middle Ages, Walpurgisnacht, or Walpurgis Night, was believed to be a night of witch revelry throughout Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia.  Witches mounted their brooms and few to the mountaintops, where they carried on with wild feasting, dancing and copulation with demons and the Devil…In Germany, the Brocken, a dominant peak in the Harz Mountains, was the most infamous site of the witch sabbats…[S]o common was the belief in the sabbats that maps of the Harz drawn in the 18th century almost always depicted witches on broomsticks converging upon the Brocken” ( EW&W, p.347)

What shifted the focus from holy martyrdom and sainthood to witch-filled revels?  Well, there’s no single reason why that I’ve found, but the date is directly opposite Halloween in the calendar year, so that might have something to do with it (what, you thought witches would be content with one night of fun a year?).

There are lots of stories about this night.  One from the Isle of Man between Scotland and Ireland tells the story of two witches and their (mis)adventures on Old May Eve.  Dennis Wheatly’s occult novel The Devil Rides Out features a Walpurgisnacht ritual rather prominently, as it does in Goethe’s Faust tragedy.  The scene at the end of the original Fantasia film featuring Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” also makes heavy reference to the revelries of Walpurgisnacht (I think I mentioned this in the Media Episode, too).  There are also many unusual traditions associated with this night.  When I was living in Prague, they had a tradition of building huge bonfires on hilltops on this night, and burning brooms or effigies of witches to keep evil spirits at bay, for example (it was really more of an excuse to drink around the bonfire).  Vance Randolph, in his Ozark Magic & Folklore, describes an Ozark tradition for May Eve:

“On the last night of April, a girl may wet a handkerchief and hang it out in a cornfield. Next morning the May sun dries it, and the wrinkles are supposed to show the initial of the man she is to marry. Or she may hold a bottle of water up to the light on the morning of May 1, just at sunrise, and see apicture of outline of the boy who is to be her husband” (OM&F, p.176)

My personal practice incorporates a storytelling bent, and there’s one story that I turn to every year as part of my Walpurgisnacht ritual.  “The Horned Women,” as recorded by Lady Wilde (in a collection with many tales also recorded by W.B. Yeats which I’ve mentioned before—Fairy & Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry), is not explicitly about this wild night.  Yet certain elements—the assembly of a coven of witches, and the prominent mention of a mountain where they revel, especially—have always called to mind this tale in relation to May Eve.  I glean much in the way of magic from this story, and incorporate things from it into my workings (such as the use of “feet water” to guide all harmful forces away from my home).

Walpurgisnacht doesn’t register on everyone’s radar.  Some are definitely drawn towards the Beltane side of this holiday, and I rather love that celebration, too.  But Walpurgisnacht will always have a special place in my heart.  There’s no night I more earnestly wish I could climb on a broomstick and sail off into a moonlit sky than this one.

Thanks for reading!


Blog Post 48 – Comparing Tales

Greetings everyone!  On Podcast 8, I mentioned two stories which share remarkable similarities.  I was speaking of a story in the W. B. Yeats collection Fairy & Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, specifically a story called “The Witches’ Excursion” (I incorrectly called it something like “James and the Red Cap” on the podcast…my apologies to Yeats and anyone who went poring over that tome looking for that non-existent title).  For comparison, I cited the tale “Greasy Witches,” in The Granny Curse, by Randy Russell.  You can read most of that story here, on Google Books (though I can’t guarantee how long that much of the book will remain free to read).  Briefly, I thought it might be fun to go over a few of the similarities and commonalities found in these tales, for the sake of seeing how Old World witch lore migrates and transforms in the New World.

In the Appalachian version, the cabin is located on Roan Mountain.  In this case, I think that the “roan” referred to could be tied into the “red” of the red cap being used to induce magical flight in the Yeats tale.  Or, “roan” could be a variant on “rowan,” which is a mountain ash tree (which derives its name from its red berries, and thus could still have the “red” connection).  The rowan tree is loaded with magical significance—some of the most potent anti-witchcraft charms are crosses made from rowan twigs bound with red thread.  However, it could also be used to make magical tools as well, such as wands or staves.  Oh, I should also point out that Roan Mountain is actually a real mountain on the Tennessee/North Carolina border.  (Side note:  would there be any interest in me doing a sort of “Witch’s Travel Guide” to various parts of the US?  Places with strong witch lore or with a history of magical activity, perhaps?  Comment/email and let us know!)

There’s a strong indication that the Dobbs sisters use a powerful sleeping draught on Riley the same way that Madge and her cohorts attempted to drug James in the Irish version of the story.  I’m not sure if I’d prefer my witch-administered pharmaceuticals via nightcap or squirrel soup, though.

The unguent used in both stories seems to be, basically, a flying ointment.  In the version from Yeats, I would lean towards a mixture that uses amanita muscaria, but I base that almost entirely on the fact that the “red cap” is a key feature of the tale.  It’s not unthinkable that such entheogens  would grow on Roan Mountain, but it is a bit less likely.  In both stories, the mixture is activated by the recitation of a short, rhyming phrase, which seems to be a common enough way to trigger witch-flight in many stories.  In some tales, the non-witch makes a mistake, it causes some sort of comic misfortune, like being lifted up and dropped to the floor unexpectedly.

An interesting difference between the two tales comes during the heavy drinking portion of the tale (don’t all interesting things come during the heavy drinking portion of the tale?).  In the Irish story, Red James never tries to go home once he starts drinking—he just passes out.  Riley, in the American version, does try to leave (which is when he notices his body “felt like feathers or fur,” a sure sign of shape-shifting.  Another difference worth noting is that in the Old World version, James knows his witch-lore and remains silent while in flight, but in the “Greasy Witches” variant, Riley has to say additional magical words while in flight to follow the Dobbs sisters.  I’ve had a gifted witch tell me that when making a profound crossing like this, silence is better, and I trust that idea.   But there’s clearly some flexibility, too.

The stories end quite differently, with Riley finally having to do what the witches have been manipulating him into doing the whole time:  marrying one of them.  Red James faces no such fate, but merely gets his red cap back and flies off at the last possible moment, avoiding his hanging in dramatic fashion.  But they do both get away, and both with a little magical aid from witchcraft.  It’s nice to know we witches are good for something other than breaking-and-entering, right?

I’m interested in your opinions on these tales.  Is it all just metaphorical hedgewitchery?  Do you think these sorts of events might have happened?  And most importantly, do you think that as these stories evolve, anything is being lost or gained in the process?  I personally love how much alike they are, but I also find myself pausing over the differences, too.  What about you?

Thanks for reading!


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