You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘witches’ tag.

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.

Roman sarcophagus of Italian marble (ca. 3rd century AD, Getty Museum, California)

Almost every culture has myths and stories about the undead—supernatural beings trapped between the living world and the underworld.  The majority of such creatures are horrible, monstrous, or sad, yet such is their dark hold on our imagination that they reoccur in the legends of many different places.

An ancient Roman cemetery complex along the Via Latina

This year, in order to celebrate Halloween, that special time between seasons when the veil to the underworld if lifted, Ferrebeekeeper presents some of the undead who are less familiar than Hollywood’s smooth-talking vampires and shambling zombies.  Although undead folklore stretches back to prehistory, an appropriate place to begin with our exploration is in the cemeteries and columbariums of Ancient Rome–which were haunted by several sorts of undead spirits. Roman funereal practice changed back and forth from burial to cremation several times (and some families or individuals preferred to stick with the unfashionable tradition).  Cemeteries and funereal monuments were found by the side of thoroughfares just outside of towns and cities.  One can imagine how spooky these unlighted tombs were at night when filled with footpads, desperate fugitives, wild animals, and pre-industrial darkness (even without the various wandering dead whom the Romans believed in).

Ancient Roman Cemetery from Roman Gaul (today at Alyscamps, Arles, France)

The most common Roman apparitions were two sorts of ghosts: the manes and lemures, which were separated by moral alignment.  Manes, the spirits of deceased loved ones, were basically benevolent– although they still enjoyed drinking blood, which Romans provided for them with animal sacrifices and with gladiatorial games (which were originally intended for funereal purposes).  Wealthy Romans held sumptuous feasts to satiate the manes, and even people of more humble means sacrificed and gave offerings to the spirits of the dearly departed. The lemures, however, were not so benevolent.  These were dark and restless spirits who died bad deaths.  Some lemures were forever lost and could not find the underworld.  Others were tied to this world through foul acts or evil temper.  The lemures were imagined as shapeless black forms of malevolence.  Romans tried to placate the lemures with sacrificial offerings of funereal black (most often black beans, superstitiously cast behind—although other black sacrifices are hinted at).

Colombarium of Pomponius Hylas Within The Park On Via Latina (ca. 1st century AD)

Beyond such ghostly revenants, Romans greatly feared witches and the liminal tricks which they could play with life and death.  Anyone who has read The Golden Ass will recall the indelible first story within a story–wherein the wicked Thessalonian sorceresses Meroë and Panthia kill the narrator’s friend, drain his blood, and rip out his heart which they replace with a sponge.  After an agonizing night of fear, debasement, and suicidal thoughts, the narrator is delighted when dawn breaks and his murdered friend is alive (all the night’s horrors merely a dream).  The two men proceed out of town and stop at a spring to drink, whereupon the sponge in the murder victim’s chest falls out and he falls drained & dead upon the sand (The Golden Ass is an unrivaled work of literature, but not for the faint of heart).

The Romans also feared the Lamiae.  According to myth, Lamia was a beautiful Libyan queen who was loved by Zeus, but something went (badly) awry with their affair and Lamia wound up devouring her only child and pulling out her eyes.  Thereafter she roved the dark on a serpent’s tail looking for other children to devour.  The Romans were fascinated by this horrifying figure, and in later Roman folklore the Lamiae are an entire category of monster rather than one being.  These later Lamiae were able to alter their appearance to become fair.  They would then seduce young men and eat their life essence.  The Romans were not the only ones fascinated by this kind of misogyny mythology and the Lamiae outlived the manes, lemures, and witch-cursed victims, to find a place in 19th century poetry and art.

Lamia (John William Waterhouse, 1905, oil on canvas) note the snakeskin wound around her legs

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

September 2020
M T W T F S S
 123456
78910111213
14151617181920
21222324252627
282930