Title illustration of Johannes Praetorius (writer) (de)' Blocksbergs Verrichtung (1668)

Title illustration of Johannes Praetorius’ (de)’ Blocksbergs Verrichtung (printed 1668)

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).

Walpurgis' Night (based on an illustration by Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1829, steel engraving)

Walpurgis’ Night (based on an illustration by Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1829, steel engraving)

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.

Illustration to Walgurgisnacht by Goethe (Ernst Barlach, ca 1920s, woodblock print)

Illustration to Walpurgisnacht by Goethe (Ernst Barlach, ca 1920s, woodblock print)

To celebrate this strange haunted pagan fertility festival I have included three great images from German art.