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Walpurgisnacht

Walpurgisnacht (Engraving by W. Jury after original by Johann Heinrich Ramberg, 1829)

There is a sort of second Halloween on the calendar: Walpurgis Night (Walpurginacht) is the eve of the Christian feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th century Frankish Abbess.  The event was celebrated from the night of April 30th until the end of the night of May 1st, and although putatively sacred to Walpurga (a healer and exorcist), it was really counter-holiday against the ancient pagan rituals of spring.   In German folklore, May Eve was the night that the witches had a great dark feast/sabbath/orgy with unholy beings on the top of the Brocken, the tallest peak of northern Germany.   Similar tales of similar events are widespread across Europe.

Walpurgisnacht appears in many German operas and plays (perhaps most notably at the epic conclusion of Faust, a play which truly brings the sturm and drang!) but today I thought I would celebrate with a picture, up there at the top by Johann Heinrich Ramberg, a Hanoverian illustrator of great prowess.  Since the Elector of Hanover was also, by strange quirk of dynastic succession, the King of England, Ramberg’s illustrations had broad importance, and had great influence on opera backgrounds, storybooks, engravings, and such like popular arts.  Perhaps there is even still a dollop of his fantasy left in Hollywood and on tv and the internet.  His Walgurgisnacht picture is fairly tame (although perhaps that is because the engraver, Jury, cleaned it up) but some of his other illustrations are rather saucy. Also, I am sure my favorite graphic novelist, Jim Woodring stole a character from this engraving for his contemporary “Frank” books, which are arguably the finest works of our time.

At any rate, happy May Eve! Next year I will try to be more timely and mention the dark sabbath on the actual night so you can go out and rave with witches, instead of (checks yesterday’s post)…writing essays about Jesus??? Oh man…I need to get out more.

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.

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