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In Northern and Central Europe, the last day of April is the last day of winter and darkness. The holiday known to the ancient Gaelic people as Beltane is the opposite of Samhain (aka Halloween): in spring, the forces of darkness and the underworld come out for a last wild dance but are driven away by the burgeoning summer. The holiday is called “Walpurgisnacht” in German and Dutch, however the Estonians know it as “Volbriöö, (Walpurgi öö)”, the Swedes call it “Valborgsmässoafton” , The Czechs know it as “Valpuržina noc”, and the Finns, bucking the trend, call the celebration “Vappu”. Except in Finland, the festival is named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who proselytized among the Franks and Germans in the eight century (and who was canonized on May 1st).
Walpurgisnacht is one of the ancient touchstones of German art and culture. Tradition has it that demons, spirits, and naked witches from around Northern Europe come together on that night to dance around bonfires on the Brocken, the highest mountain in Northern Germany (although only a hill compared with the mighty Alps in the south). The climax of Goethe’s Faust takes place on Walpurgisnacht as the witches and spirits attend the devil (although it seems like ancient pagan versions of the holiday were centered around fertility goddesses). Likewise in The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp finally talks at length to the bewitching Madame Chauchat on May Eve as the sanatorium erupts into primeval merry-making.
To celebrate this strange haunted pagan fertility festival I have included three great images from German art.
Kindly accept my apologies for not writing a post last Friday: the sad exigencies of the world prevented me from finishing my week-long overview of ornamental knot designs (which included the valknut, knot gardens, the Saint Jame’s arms, and the endless knot). Today I am returning to the theme for a final post concerning Celtic knotted designs– which represent the beautiful apogee of decorative knots (with the possible exception of certain gorgeous Islamic calligraphy and artwork).
Like leprechauns and shamrocks, ornate knot designs are an iconic and instantly recognizable aspect of Gaelic culture. Yet the history of how these designs came to be synonymous with all things Hibernian is far from clear. Interlace patterns have been found in mosaics and tile work from many different parts of the Roman Empire during the fifth and sixth centuries. It has been speculated that these designs may have originated from Coptic Egyptian manuscripts, but whatever the case, the sinuous interconnected ribbons with animal heads certainly appealed to the people of Northern Europe in the waning days of Roman hegemony.
During the so-called Migration period (the period from 400 AD to 800 AD) waves of Germanic, Slavic, Mediterranean, and Steppe peoples intermingled and pushed into each other’s territory. As these peoples intermingled (and battled), looped, braided, and geometric styles of decoration grew in popularity throughout what had been the Western Roman Empire. Frequently these designs were elaborate knotted ribbons which terminated in interlocking animal heads.
By 700 AD, the style was becoming less prominent on continental Europe, however it continued to evolve in Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia. The insular art of Irish monasteries produced unrivaled treasures such as numerous ancient stone crosses and the world famous Book of Kells, an illuminated Vulgate gospel from around 800 AD, which defies belief due to the microcosmic intricacy of its knotwork men, animals, and sacred figures.
Although the Book of Kells marks an apogee of lacework illumination, geometrical knots continued to be popular in Ireland thereafter. Right on down until today, intricate ornamental knots are a hallmark of Irish culture. For your enjoyment here is a little gallery of Celtic knots, ancient and modern.
Next week, as a lead-up to Halloween, Ferrebeekeeper will feature a week’s worth of dark harrowing spooky posts about…um, flowers. However, just in case botany, herblore, and gardening are not terrifying enough for you, today’s disturbing subject should provide ample horror to fill up your Halloween nightmares [He isn’t kidding, this is a grim subject and squeamish readers should go look at kitten pictures-ed]. I first encountered this subject when I was looking at The Triumph of Death, an epic painting by Pieter Bruegel which portrays an army of skeletons erasing all life from a sweeping sixteenth century landscape. The painting is a bravura combination of surrealist fantasy and extreme harrowing realism: the abstract and alien wave of death is sweeping away the realistically painted living humans . Among Bruegel’s most nightmarish inventions are the high torture wheels dotted around the landscape which feature tiny sad carcasses suspended and spinning in the sky–except it turns out this was not some invention of Bruegel’s dark imagination. The Catherine wheel or breaking wheel was in fact a common form of capital punishment from late antiquity up through the early modern era.
The Catherine wheel was named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a beautiful (and probably fictional) martyr who spurned the courtship of Emperor Maximinus and was then sentenced to die on the wheel. Fortunately Jesus intervened on her behalf. As soon as Catherine touched the wheel it broke to apart and the Romans were forced to merely behead her (sometimes I wonder if divine intervention could be more wholehearted in these sorts of stories).
Catherine’s wheel appears on a great many heraldic devices including the crest of Catharine’s College Cambridge and the coat of arms of Goa. With its metal spikes and hooks it looks rather different from the wagon wheels in Bruegel’s artworks and it seems like it might be a more fanciful interpretation of the actual torture device. Additionally Catherine’s wheel has given its name to a jaunty spinning firework!
The breaking wheel as historically known was a rather crude implement of torture. It was reserved for the lowest and most debased criminals—commoners who had killed their families, committed murder during the course of theft, betrayed their lords, or otherwise outraged the community with excessive crimes. The condemned prisoner was lashed to a large stout wagon wheel (or to a sturdy restraint if the available wagon wheel looked fragile) and then an executioner broke all of the prisoner’s limbs and joints with a cudgel or metal bar. Then the broken limbs were secured to (or threaded through) the spokes of the wheel and the prisoner was hoisted into the sky atop a pole. If the criminal was a gifted briber or a likeable person, the executioner would make sure the beating was fatal. If however the victim was despised or came upon a particularly sadistic torturer (what are the odds of that?) he would probably end up hopelessly maimed but still alive to contend with dehydration and birds. In fact there is an unhelpful looking bird perching on the wheel in the corner of that Bruegel painting (see the detail below).
This grisly punishment was popular throughout Northern Europe during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries (although apparently Russian overuse of the practice during the Great Northern War rather turned people off of it). The breaking wheel lingered for long enough in continental Europe that it dark left shadows lying across many different languages. To quote Wikipedia:
In Dutch, there is the expression opgroeien voor galg en rad, “to grow up for the gallows and wheel,” meaning to come to no good. It is also mentioned in the Chilean expression morir en la rueda, “to die at the wheel,” meaning to keep silent about something. The Dutch phrases ik ben geradbraakt, literally “I have been broken on the wheel,” the German expression sich gerädert fühlen, “to feel wheeled,” and the Swedish verb rådbråka (from German radbrechen), “to break on the wheel,” all carry a meaning of exhaustion or mental exertion.
Additionally the word roué, a French word which has made it into English as a borrow word, originally indicated someone so dissipated that they were destined to end up executed on the wheel.
Ugh enough of that. The moral of this story is to be thankful for the Eighth Amendment. Next week—the flowers of the underworld!