The word “equinox” comes from the Latin aequus and nox, which mean “equal” and “night” respectively.
On the March equinox, the length of the day and night is almost equal wherever you are in the world, with the sun shining directly on the equator.
The March equinox marks the beginning of astronomical spring in the Northern Hemisphere and the start of astronomical fall in the Southern Hemisphere.
There is, however, another way to define the start dates of seasons—the meteorological definitions. These are based on average temperatures rather than astronomical events such as the equinoxes and solstices.
The March equinox, unofficially marking the spring season, is traditionally observed as a time of rebirth and renewal. For this reason, many cultures have celebrated the March equinox as the first day of the new year. The ancient Babylonian calendar began on the first full moon after the March equinox, and today, many cultural and religious calendars continue to celebrate new year in the spring
For millennia, these events have played an important role for cultures around the world. There are many ancient archeological sites that mark them, with the designs of temples and other structures taking into account the sun’s movements on these days.
There are also several traditions linked to the March equinox that persist to this day.
Perhaps the most widespread and well-known equinoctial new year is Nowruz, the first day of the year in the Persian calendar. For more than 3,000 years, Nowruz has been a religious holiday in Zoroastrianism, but today it is marked by secular celebrations throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The Nowruz holiday includes mythical figures (such as Amu Nowruz, sometimes nicknamed the “Iranian Santa Claus”), traditional family gatherings, and the items of “haft-sin.”
Haft-sin are seven symbolic foods associated with Nowruz, all beginning with the Arabic or Persian letter sin:sabze (sprouts, symbolizing rebirth); samanu (sweet pudding, symbolizing wealth); senjed (dried, date-like fruits, symbolizing love); seer (garlic, symbolizing health); seeb (apples, symbolizing beauty); somac (red sumac fruit, symbolizing the color of sunrise); and serkeh (vinegar, symbolizing age and wisdom)
Outside new year celebrations, the March equinox is celebrated in holidays all over the world. Vernal Equinox Day is a national holiday in Japan.
Cherry Blossom festivals are harbingers of Spring. They are celebrated in many countries. Japan and South Korea host some of the most well known ones.
The Jewish festival of Passover begins the night of a full moon after the March equinox.
The date of Easter, one of the most important holidays in the Christian calendar, is calculated using the March equinox. Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after the Full Moon that falls after the equinox. The date differs from year to year which us why Easter is called a Moveable Feast.
In Mexico, there are many festivals and gatherings which take place at this time. In particular, many people travel to the archeological sites across the country to participate in ceremonies and rituals.
Many dance, burn incense and chant but the defining ritual is to stand with arms outstretched facing the sun in the morning on the eastern horizon.
Some come because they believe they are following in the footsteps of their ancestors, in asking the gods for energy and health on this day.
The sun shines directly through the door of the Seven Dolls Temple, as it rises on the spring equinox at the Mayan site of Dzibilchatun.
The Wheel of the Year is a modern paganism celebration of seasonal festivals including both solstices, both equinoxes and the midpoints between them all. The equivalent of the Spring equinox is called Ostara and marks the midpoint between the Gaelic festivals of Imbolc and Beltane.
It is believed that Ostara is derived from Ēostre, a Germanic dawn and fertility goddess. In an 1835 text titled “Deutsche Mythologie”, Jacob Grimm (yes, he had a brother) dissects the connection between a pagan deity and the most hallowed of Christian holidays – Easter. He wrote, “This Ostarâ, like the [Anglo-Saxon] Eástre, must in heathen religion have denoted a higher being, whose worship was so firmly rooted, that the Christian teachers tolerated the name, and applied it to one of their own grandest anniversaries.”
The egg is featured prominently as a symbol of fertility along with the rabbit or hare, the animal associated with the goddess herself. An Ostara ceremony includes the cleansing and decorating of homes, meditations on the message of renewal and an abundant appreciation for the longer days ahead.
So in whatever way you are drawn to, we wish you the happiest of Spring Equinox celebrations! Finding balance, walking into the Light, rekindling the flame of Hope within your heart. The world needs more of that these days, so come out of the dark times with some joy to spread around!
In the Celtic calendar, the first of the four fire festivals of the year is Imbolc. It is celebrated on the second day of February.
The divinity acknowledged in these early Spring rites is the goddess Brigid, the queen of heaven. She is a primary member of the Celtic divinities and is closely associated with the land. She is the protector of the wells and springs. She is the guardian of nature, and therefore agriculture. She is specifically associated with livestock. Brigid is also the patron of the poets, artists, and others who create.
The symbolism of wells and springs reflects the connection to the waters of life that emerge from unseen sources. In psychological terms, this could signify the wisdom of the unconscious that flows from mysterious origins. The key is developing a practice of receptivity. For example, contemplating our dreams can open us to an awareness greater than our conscious knowing.
Brigid’s protection of agriculture and poetry underscores the need to tend our inner fertility. Tending our forms of creativity is crucial to a fulfilling life. Her association with fire also pertains to the creative life. Finding passion in our work is of great importance.
The plume of fire radiating from her head connects her to the life of the mind. Learning can be a form of service to the divinities. She is also the protector of travelers. This applies to both those who explore new terrains and those seekers who are on inner journeys.
One traditional practice on her day was to put baked goods out on the doorstep. They were called cakes for the queen of heaven. These offerings were often eaten by hungry travelers in her name. We might honor this custom by giving money to the homeless for something to eat on Imbolc. The idea is to find a way to share the boon. Those who have been blessed in life are called upon to develop some practice of service to others.
Sacred stories continue to touch our souls. We become aware of a dimension of significance in the turning of the seasons that is nothing short of radiant.
So, let us honor the Great Mother, the Queen of Heaven. May we be open to her many gifts of inspiration in this season of renewal.
Our relationship with plants is as old as our species itself. The advent of pharmaceuticals and modern manufactured conveniences have led to much of this part of our history being forgotten. Plants have furnished foods, medicine, clothing, shelter, and comfort to us throughout the ages. Their magic remains deeply embedded within us, and whether we remember or not, it is not so easily cast aside.
Mythology and folklore are rich with stories of wondrous and mysteriously powerful plants, many of which reach across many lands and cultures. For example, garlic has a long reputation for protective magic used against vampires, sorcery, and even plagues. Chinese, Greek, Italian, and Jewish grandmothers still give a clove of garlic to their new grandchildren to protect them from the evil eye.
In contrast, other plants earned darker reputations because of their poisonous or narcotic effects. Belladonna is a well known example of this. It was used in the potions of assassins and earned the name of Deadly Nightshade, Witches’ Berry, and Sorcerer’s Cherry.
Tales brought back to Europe by travelers to India told of a plant whose very fragrance could cause passers by to lose consciousness. This plant turned out to be Datura metel. Related to Angel’s Trumpet and Jimson Weed, it can indeed stupefy one who inhales it. It was said to have been used by an Indian secret society known as the Thugs to drug lone travelers whom they would then rob and ritually sacrifice to Kali. The name of this society is the origin of the English word for a violent lawless person.
Egypt has been well known as a land filled with plant magic. The papyrus plant was the most important amongst them all. Prolific and essential to the lives of the ancient Egyptians, it was often worn as an amulet to ensure the wearer of a long and prosperous life. Another of the most sacred plants of Egypt was the onion. It was a staple in their diet, and also a symbol of the Universe. As each layer of the onion is surrounded by another, so the Underworld is wrapped by the Earth, and the Earth is wrapped by the Heavens. As some would swear an oath on a bible today, the Egyptians would take their oaths upon an onion.
Myrrh was essential to the religious ceremonies of the Egyptian people. The fragrant smoke was pleasing to the Gods, but it was not native to Egypt. Queen Hatshepsut, had them imported from ‘the Land of Rent’ which was a region in equatorial Africa. She planted them around the temples after formally offering them to the god Amon. Amon was so pleased by this that he promised Queen Hatshepsut life, stability, and satisfaction forever.
The mythology of the Greeks included abundant associations with plant magic. Each of the twelve Olympian Gods had their favorite plants. Zeus favored the oak as a symbol of his might, while his son Ares preferred the ash which made the best spear shafts. The Goddess Athena chose the olive which provided wood, fruit and oil. A wise choice for this Goddess of Wisdom whose name was chosen for the city of Athens.
The beautiful nymph Daphne sought to escape the amorous pursuit of Lord Apollo. As he closed in upon her she cried out “ Help me father! If your streams have divine powers change me, destroy this beauty that pleases too well!” No sooner than the cry left her mouth she felt “a heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breast, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy.” Ever after that, the laurel was the sacred plant of Apollo.
There are many more tales of the mythic plants of Greece, such as Dionysos, grapes, and ivy, Persephone’s associations with flowers and pomegranates, Demeter’s with wheat, poppies, and really everything that grows, as she is the Goddess of Agriculture.
Most of us are familiar with the plants in Biblical mythologies, beginning with the Apple in the Garden. And there was Moses who conversed with the burning bush that was not consumed by the flames. King David was advised by a Balsam tree to launch an attack on the Philistines. Rachel wished so fervently to bear two sons for Jacob, but was successful only after taking a dose of Mandrake root. And of course the Gifts of the Magi were gold, Myrrh, and Frankincense.
The Druidic tradition is also rich with plant lore. They used herbs in their rites, but the trees were especially sacred to them. The most sacred of all was the oak, and the mistletoe that grew upon it. Six days after the new moon, the white-robed priests enter the oak groves to gather the mistletoe. One of them climbs up the tree to harvest it with a golden sickle. Another waits below, catching the sprigs in a white cloak. The mistletoe must not touch the ground, or its power will be lost. Then they empower it with prayers, incantations, and the sacrifice of two white bulls. Only then is it ready to be brewed into a fluid with magical and health giving properties.
Branches of mistletoe were hung in homes to ward off witchcraft, disease, bad luck, and fire. The berries contain a viscous white fluid which the Druids believed to contain the seed of the Horned God of the Forest, which would bestow fertility to their livestock. One must wonder about the origins of Yuletide kisses under the mistletoe.
As the Old Ways and the New Religion began to overlap, many ceremonial plants were given new correspondences. Some examples of this are:
Vervain, used in the religious rites of the Germanic and Celtic tribes, was renamed Herb-of-the-Cross. It was said that this plant staunched the blood flowing from the wounds of the Chritst on Calvary.
The rose, associated with the Goddess Aphrodite and offered to the souls of deceased Pharaohs in Egypt became the flower of the Virgin Mary.
Holly, which the Druids taught gave winter refuge for the wood spirits and so protected against bad fortune became another Christ symbol – the spiny leaves recalling the Crown of Thorns and the red berries his blood.
St. John’s Wort, with its golden blooms appearing at the Summer Solstice, was used in many ceremonial ways by sun-worshiping cultures. The Romans burned it on bonfires at Midsummer Day celebrations. It was renamed to commemorate the birth of St. John the Baptist on June 24th, a date very close to the Summer Solstice.
Throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times the practitioners of herbal magic and healing were sometimes called witches. Many have embraced this, reclaiming this word as a symbol of knowledge and personal power. A witch’s reputation often stemmed from the ability to create herbal remedies which healed the body or the spirit. The typical parish priest did not condone such activities, condemning them as black magic, in league with the Devil.
The services these healers provided were ones that the people needed, but the Church could not always provide. Perhaps one needed herbs to assist in an unfortunate pregnancy, a charm for a young man to win the heart of his beloved, to ensure a bountiful harvest, or heal an ailing child. When prayers could not address the need even the devout would seek the aid of the Cunning Folk.
Discovery could result in execution, so their business was conducted in secrecy. Not much is known outside of the unreliable accounts from the transcripts of the witch trials. From what can be gathered, these cunning folk were heirs to ancient knowledge of herbal medicine, energy work, and sympathetic magic which the Church strived to suppress.
The period between 400 CE and 1500 CE included the Crusades and the Inquisition. The Church controlled almost all medical knowledge, and made a point to discard all secular scholars of medicine. But the long arm of the Church could not reach as far as the herb gardens of the rural monasteries and those of the Cunning Folk living far out in the countryside.
The New World was a melting pot where plant magic and medicine converged from many lands. From Europe and Africa, Central and South America, the indigenous peoples of the First Nations, and the mountain folk of the Ozarks and the Appalachians, the practices of these natural arts are thriving even to this day.
The lines between magic and medicine are not clearly defined. Healing is as much mental and spiritual as it is physical. In many cultures past and present, illness is viewed as being caused by spirits or deities, or even as a punishment for some transgression. Look at the word ‘disease’. It is a dis-ease of some kind which causes an illness or affliction. The healers treated the sick with rituals and herbal preparations, finding that certain combinations proved to be effective cures. These were passed down through the generations, from one to the next.
In Neanderthal burial sites dating back 60,000 years, plant substances were found which are still in use today. Among the plants identified were yarrow, marshmallow, and groundsel. From Sumerian clay tablets there were references to the uses of plant medicines such as opium, licorice, thyme, and mustard. The Babylonians expanded upon these to include senna, saffron, coriander, cinnamon, garlic, and many more.
The Egyptians had the legendary healer Imhotep who became deified as their God of healing. One of the first medical texts discovered was the Ebers Papyrus, written in the 16th century BCE which contained over 800 formulae using more than 700 herbs, oils, and plant resins. Some of the treatments seemed bizarre, such as putting moldy bread or mud over sores to treat infections. Thousands of years later it was found that these substances contained microorganisms which we now use to produce our most powerful antibiotics.
The Chinese have a well known healing system which dates back to over 2000 years. Modern science is still ‘rediscovering’ the pharmacopeia they use in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). There is Ayurvedic medicine in India, Kampo in Japan, Curanderismo in Latin America, Traditional Arabic & Islamic Medicine (TAIM), Traditional African Medicine, and so many other great healing traditions in every culture.
There is a world of plant magic and medicine to be explored, rediscovered, honored and preserved. It is a journey with no end, one of continual learning, meant to be shared and passed on to others. It is our hope for a whole and balanced path to healing.
The Rite of Her Sacred Fires is an annual celebration of the Mysteries and Magic of the Goddess of the Crossroads, the Torchbearing Hekate at the Full Moon of May. It is celebrated by individuals and groups, in many languages, cultures, countries and from many different spiritual and magical traditions.
The Rite of Her Sacred Fires was created by Sorita d’Este in 2010, as a devotional offering upon completion of the anthology project Hekate:Her Sacred Fires. It is now available in 25+ languages, all available on the www.hekatecovenant.com website, together with other useful articles and information.
There is a forum managed by members of the Covenant of Hekate community, all of whom are volunteers. You do not have to be a member of the Covenant of Hekate to participate, or to host a gathering.:
This group is for discussion related to the Rite of Her Sacred Fires only, you can share photographs, videos, ideas, ask questions and share experiences and advice. It is also a great place to share information about public celebrations you may be organising so that others can find out.
“Walpurgis Night was when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad—when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel.”
Bram Stoker, “Dracula’s Guest”
“There is a mountain very high and bare…whereon it is given out that witches hold their dance on Walpurgis night.”
Jacob Grimm, 1883
In the Germanic countries of central Europe, there is what is essentially a second Halloween, Walpurgis night, or as it’s often referred to in its German form, Walpurgisnacht, falling exactly six months from All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain.
Many of the ancient cultures divided the year into just two seasons, summer and winter. The dividing line between the two seasons were Beltane and Samhain, with Beltane being one of eight solar Sabbats in the pagan calendar, its date based on the sun.
In Britain, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Beltane often begins at sunset on April 30 and continues through May day. Since the medieval era at least, it was believed that the veil between the world of the living and dead is thinnest on both the night of Halloween and the night before Beltane.
As a result, not just the ghosts of the dead, but fairies, shapeshifter and in regards to Walpurgis, witches were at their most powerful and could more easily cross between the two worlds.
Walpurgisnacht and Beltane
Despite sharing the same date and many customs, there is a distinct difference between Walpurgis and Beltane. At its most basic, Beltane is primarily Gaelic and celebrated on May 1, whereas Walpurgis is Germanic and often celebrated the night before Beltane. If you were able to go back in time however, you’d realize you’re dealing with rural customs, in areas quite often cut off from much contact with the outside world. From that perspective you’d likely see little difference between the two holidays.
The primary difference between the ancient times and more modern history, is Walpurgis has developed a distinctly witchy flavor. Walpurgis in the Middle Ages concerned itself with protecting yourself from or driving away witches.
Today, as the fear of the craft fades slowly into the past, it’s all about celebrating witches.
Walpurgis throughout Europe
Walpurgis celebrations have continued unabated throughout Europe, in its homeland of Germany, as well as the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland and Estonia.
Germanic folklore is ripe with tales of witches, and there the holiday is also known as Hexennacht, from the Dutch (Heksennacht) meaning Witches’ Night.
In Sweden, which has a particularly vibrant association with the holiday, it’s knowns as Valborg, and heavily tied to a celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of spring. It has very little to do with religion and everything to do with the arrival of spring. In Sweden typical holiday activities include the singing of traditional spring folk songs and the lighting of bonfires.
“The first of May is a great popular festival in the more midland and southern parts of Sweden. On the eve of the festival, huge bonfires, which should be lighted by striking two flints together, blaze on all the hills and knolls.”
Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough
There is a practical reason as well as religious or reasons dealing with folklore, for celebrating on this day. During the Middle Ages, the legal or administrative year ended the last day of April. As a result, it was treated as a community wide holiday, celebrated with bonfires, trick or treating for the children, as well as traditional dances and songs relating to the beginning of spring.
In Sweden, the bonfires can only be traced back to the early 18th century, but they are in all likelihood a continuation of ancient ceremonies, the original purpose long since forgotten.
Both Beltane and Samhain relate to agriculture, but these two specifically to herding, rather than growing crops. It was at this time that the animals were let out for grazing, or brought closer to home for the winter. Bonfires has an added benefit of frightening away predators.
Trick or treating, in a fashion, was once celebrated on Valborg in southern Sweden. Though no longer popular, children went to the woods and collected branches of greenery to decorate the village houses, where they were paid in eggs.
In Finland, Walpurg is referred to as Vappu (or Vappen), and borrows the Germanic tradition of celebrating witches. It’s one of the four biggest Finnish holidays and is the biggest carnival day of the year, celebrated in no small part by excessive intake of alcohol.
Estonia too once looked on Walpurgis as the date when witches gathered, and referred to it as Volbriöö. It preceded the day of Kevadpüha which was celebrated as the arrival of spring. Volbriöö still sees carnivals, celebration and drinking, often by people dressed as traditional witches.
It’s worth noting that unlike many of today’s modern witches and pagans, there is no desire to pretty up witches. Instead the tendency is to go with the old stereotype witch as hag. These are countries where witches were once feared after all.
In the Czech Republic, winter is brought to an end on May 30 in a festival called pálení čarodějnic (“burning of the witches”) or čarodějnice (“the witches”). Witches made of rags and straw are burned, sometimes just a broomstick, though in the modern era it’s more of an excuse to get drunk around the fire.
When a burst of black smoke is emitted from the blaze, a cheer goes up as the witch is said to fly away. As the fire dies down and midnight approaches, it’s off to the woods to search for cherry blossoms. It’s thought that a young woman kissed under a cherry tree that night, and ideally through the next day if one has the stamina, will keep both the tree and the young lady from drying up. To Czechs, it’s a day all about love.
The Roots of Walpurgisnacht
Walpurgis: The story behind the name
The first known mention of S. Walpurgis Nacht or (S. Walpurgis Abend) is to be found in the Calendarium perpetuum of Johann Coler (1603). It was also mentioned in the writings of Johannes Praetorius in 1668. Translated into English and stripped of its Catholic connotation, Saint Walpurgis Nacht becomes Walpurgis Night.
If you want to get technical, the holiday is called Walpurgisnacht [valˈpʊʁɡɪsˌnaχt], which is used in both the Dutch and German Language. In English it’s translated to Walpurgis Night, as it is the eve of the feast day of Saint Walpurga.
Saint Walburga was an English nun, born in Devonshire in 710, sent as a missionary to Germany to start churches. She died in Heidenheim on February 25, 777 as best as we can tell.
As Walpurga’s feast was held on May 1, she became associated with May Day, especially in the Finnish and Swedish calendars.The eve of May Day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known as Walpurgisnacht.
She is the patron saint of Eichstadt, Oudenarde, Furnes, Antwerp, Gronigen, Weilburg, and Zutphen. She also might be of assistance against hydrophobia, and in storms, and also by sailors, if you’re into that kind of thing.
She first seemed to have landed on the European continent in Mainz, under the care of her uncle, St. Boniface. Named abbess of Heidenheim, she was aided by her brother, St. Winibald, who governed an abbey in the same town. You think you have trouble living up to the expectations of your family? Try competing with your brother who is a saint.
When Winibald died, she took over the monastery he governed as well.
How does a Catholic saint become the namesake of a holiday dedicated to witches? It’s in part because of the name of Heidenheim. The abbey itself was called Heidenheimer Kloster, which translates to Heathen-home Cloister. Heidenheim it seems was named after a holy spring there, Heidenbrunnen, which was famous for having been where many heathens, or pagans as we like to call ourselves now, were baptized.
The name stuck, even if the meaning for the name was lost to time.
She became associated with May 1 because she was canonized as a saint on that day. The reason she became a saint was in no small part due to a strange occurrence on her burial. Her rock tomb began oozing a healing oil, and it was declared a miracle. So much so that her body was chopped up and sent all over France and German to spread the miracle.
People, still clinging to their pagan traditions were already celebrating May 1 in their heathen manner. This was of course frowned upon by the church, but under the auspices of celebrating St. Walburga’s feast day, the celebrations were able to continue.
If one inspects the stone carvings found in chapels dedicated to Walburga, you’ll find certain recurring symbols, typically a bundle of grain and a dog.
“Nine nights before the first of May is Walburga in flight, unceasingly chased by wild ghosts and seeking a hiding place from village to village. People leave their windows open so she can be safe behind the cross-shaped windowpane struts from her roaring enemies. For this, she lays a little gold piece on the windowsill, and flees further. A farmer who saw her on her flight through the woods described her as a white lady with long flowing hair, a crown upon her head; her shoes were fiery gold, and in her hands she carried a three-cornered mirror that showed all the future, and a spindle, as does Berchta. A troop of white riders exerted themselves to capture her. So also another farmer saw her, whom she begged to hide her in a shock of grain. No sooner was she hidden than the riders rushed by overhead. The next morning the farmer found grains of gold instead of rye in his grain stook. Therefore, the saint is portrayed with a bundle of grain.”
E.L. Rochholz, 1870
This is of course less like a matronly Catholic saint, and more like the tale of a Germanic goddess. The connection grows when one looks at the dog symbol in relation to Walburga. German goddesses were often associated with dogs, the Hilfstier, which is something quite like a witch’s familiar. It was thought that speaking the name Walburga could tame an angry dog.
The Windhound is frequently tied to fertility and abundance in the home and fields, and in some places is called the Nourishment-Hound or Nahrungshund. The Windbound also rears its canine head particularly during the spring fertility festivals.
The spindle and the grain noted in Rochholz’s writings are both associated with Germanic gods and the celebration of the coming of spring.
This miracle reminded men of the fruitful dew which fell from the manes of the Valkyries’ horses, and when one of the days sacred to her came on May first, the wedding-day of Frau Holda and the sun-god, the people thought of her as a Valkyrie, and identified her with Holda.
Like a Valkyrie, she rode armed on her steed, she scattered, like Holda, spring flowers and fruitful dew upon the fields and vales.
Even the slime oozing from her tomb becomes an association with pagan goddesses, as it tended to remind people of the dew which dripped from the manes of the Valkyries’ horses. May 1 was also the birthdate of Holda, whom Jacob Grimm claimed was a Germanic goddess, though that might be a bit of a stretch.
There is no denying Holda’s connection to the supernatural. Her art was spinning and weaving, which formed another connection to Walpurga and the spindle. Spindles and thread were often thought to be essential ingredients for love spells cast during the heathen May celebrations, when love and fertility seemed to be on everyone’s mind.
Holda also rode through the night, albeit on distaffs, which was much like a witch’s broom. She was believed to have presided over all female spirits, who became known as Hulden. According to the Canon Episcopi, the Hulden would slip ”out through closed doors in the silence of the night, leaving their sleeping husbands behind”. They would travel vast distances through the sky, to great feasts, or to battles amongst the clouds.
The Catholic church of course frowned on such behavior and made it known that flying through the night on broomsticks was not only forbidden, but punishable by penance of a year. The ninth century Canon Episcopicame down on ladies who claimed to consort with a “crowd of demons.” In the later De arte magica, the church went even farther, “Have you believed there is some female, whom the stupid vulgar call Holda [or, in some manuscripts, strigam Holdam, the witch Holda], who is able to do a certain thing, such that those deceived by the devil affirm themselves by necessity and by command to be required to do, that is, with a crowd of demons transformed into the likeness of women, on fixed nights to be required to ride upon certain beasts, and to themselves be numbered in their company?”
To go even farther down this path, farmers who had yet to plough their field by May 1 were often given a straw doll, called a Walpurga. This was an identical practice connected to not only Holda, but another goddess as well, Berchta, only theirs were given out during Yuletide, and to women.
And so it seems that Walburga became merged with Holda, which isn’t all that surprising, and the B in her name changed to a P. Germanic goddesses were often known by different names in different places. The Catholic church even went as far as to associate Holda with Diana.
“On Walpurgis Night as on Hallowe’en strange things may happen to one. Zschokke tells a story of a Walpurgis Night dream that is more a vision than a dream. Led to be unfaithful to his wife, a man murders the husband of a former sweetheart; to escape capture he fires a haystack, from which a whole village is kindled. In his flight he enters an empty carriage, and drives away madly, crushing the owner under the wheels. He finds that the dead man is his own brother. Faced by the person whom he believes to be the Devil, responsible for his misfortunes, the wretched man is ready to worship him if he will protect him. He finds that the seeming Devil is in reality his guardian-angel who sent him this dream that he might learn the depths of wickedness lying unfathomed in his heart, waiting an opportunity to burst out.”
“Wild desires, woken in our heart, which life has not fulfilled”
“For you see, pastor, within every one of us a spark of paganism is glowing. It has out-lasted the thousand years since the old Teutonic times. Once a year is flames up high, and we call it St. John’s Fire. Once a year comes Free-night. Yes, truly, Free-night. Then the witches, laughing scornfully, ride to Blocksberg, upon the mountain-top, on their broomsticks, the same broomsticks with which at other times their witchcraft is whipped out of them,–then the whole wild company skims along the forest way,–and then the wild desires awaken in our hearts which life has not fulfilled.”
Suderman, St. John’s Fire
In our pagan past, there were certain days and nights where the normal restraints of society were loosened, and people were free to revert back to nature. Some celebrations loosened the libido, some broke down social barriers that separated the various classes of society, such as the Roman Saturnalia. Walpurgis night and Beltane was such a time as well.
Is it now? Certainly in some quarters, yes. And perhaps that’s how it’s always been, for Walpurgis, though a night celebrated together, was also a night celebrated in isolation and secrecy. Is it any wonder that sexual fascination has taken hold with these holidays, for nothing is known of the facts of the past. Just whispered rumors that might have never been anything more than suppressed Victorian sexuality run amok in the mind.
It was common practice for the church to attempt to plaster over society’s pagan roots. So Beltane became a feast day for Walburga, a Christian saint. In the same vein, pagan sites were rededicated to Walpurgis. There are a wealth of sites in the Netherlands, Belgium, Saxony, and other regions of northern Germany dedicated to her – temples, wells and springs, features of the landscape like mountains and hills, as well as trees associated with heathen worship.
But rather than the saint making these days and sites more Christian, Walburga became more pagan.
According to Rochholz, “The greatest number of the oldest churches in lower Germany are dedicated to this same saint.” Jacob Grimm wrote “The witches invariably resort to places where formerly justice was administered, or sacrifices were offered. …Almost all the witch-mountains were once hills of sacrifice, boundary-hills, or salt-hills.”
“The Witches’ excursion takes place on the first night in May…they ride up Blocksberg on the first of May, and in 12 days must dance the snow away; then Spring begins… Here they appear as elflike, godlike maids.”
– Jacob Grimm.
In the book Harzreise, or A Harz Journey, Heinrich Heine, wrote in 1826 “The mountain somehow appears so Germanically stoical, so understanding, so tolerant, just because it affords a view so high and wide and clear. And should such mountain open its giant eyes, it may well see more than we, who like dwarfs just trample on it, staring from stupid eyes.”
The Harz Mountains lie between the rivers Weser and Elbe in center of Germany. Of those wooded hills, the tallest peak, standing at just over 1,140 meters tall, is Blocksburg. How it came to be called the geographic epicenter of Walpurgisnacht is a tangled tale.
Witches were associated with Blocksberg since Charlemagne was emperor, though in truth they were likely just people celebrating the old religion, worshiping the pagan gods which held sway before the coming of Christianity. The remote, rugged location afforded privacy, which was important during the years when worshiping the gods of your choice could get you burned at the stake.
Blocksburg is snow covered for much of the year, melting off in May. It’s perpetually shrouded in mist and fog, up to 300 days out of the year. With frigid temperatures, it’s not a hospitable place. Today, trails wind through the the forest and up the mountain. The winds have caused the trees to twist and grow gnarled and moss covered. Strange rock formations break through the forest and have such poetic names as the Devil’s Pulpit and the Witch’s Altar.
And then there’s the specter of the Brocken, Walking on the mountain when the sun begins to set, your shadow becomes magnified and is projected onto the low lying clouds or mist, with a rainbow or halo around the head. The first victim was a climber, who lost his balance when he became frightened of a haloed figure coming towards him from the mist. He literally died from being afraid of his own shadow, falling to the rocks far below.
Old pagan myths say that on the night of April 30th a devil named Wotan married his love Freya on the Brocken in Schierke, on the slopes of the Broken on the night before Beltane. This myth and others became the seeds of scenes from the musical drama, Faust, written by Johann Wolfgangvon Goethe
Through Goethe’s poetic use and incorporation of these myths into his famous play, this myth remains today. There are two scenes of interest here, in Faust Part One, Walpurgisnacht, and in Part Two, Classical Walpurgisnacht.
Now to the Brocken the witches ride; The stubble is gold and the corn is green; There is the carnival crew to be seen, And Squire Urianus will come to preside. So over the valleys our company floats, With witches a-farting on stinking old goats.
Goethe may have gained inspiration from two rock formations on the mountain’s summit, the Teufelskanzel (Devil’s Pulpit) and the Hexenaltar (Witches’ Altar).
Goethe was drawing on folklore and legends for these scenes, and they give us a glimpse into a world where witches and demons were feared by everyday people. His sources spoke of a bevy of witches who came by night to the top of the Brocken, to celebrate and show their devotion to Satan in ways incredibly sexual, which culminated in each kissing the ass of a goat.
Goethe tempered the legends quite a bit in the end, downplaying the sexuality considerably. And Goethe wasn’t the only writers of the age to tell of the mysteries of Walpurgis Night.
Bram Stoker, who wrote Dracula, the book that spawned a zillion films, also wrote a short story along the same theme, Dracula’s Guest. In the story, an Englishman en route to Transylvania arrives in Munich on Walpurgis Night. The owner of the inn where he stays warns him against going out in the evening, advice the gentleman ignores. He abandons his carriage and sets off on foot towards an abandoned village, believed to be unholy.
“Walpurgis Night, when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad – when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel…It took all my philosophy, all the religion I had been taught, all my courage, not to collapse in a paroxysm of fright.”
Bram Stoker, Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Tales
Like May Day celebrations, dancing or even leaping about, particularly in conjunction with fire is one of the staples of Walpurgis Night. The lady of the house would customarily leap over her broom. Grain would grow as high as the farmer could jump on Walpurgis Night.
In addition to leaping over or dancing around, Walpurgis Night fires had other uses. It was considered good luck to burn anything that had worn out over the previous year in that night’s fires. Straw men were made and endowed with things like illness and disease, melancholy, even downright bad luck and burned in the fires as well.
If you wanted to avoid bad weather and ensure good crops, you might put out bread with honey and butter for the Ankenschnitt, or Windhound.
There were many things thought to go bump on this night, in addition to witches. To keep them at bay, children would gather greenery from ash, hawthorn, juniper, and elder, which was then hung around the house and barns. Ironic that this was once done to appease the goddesses, then later to scare away the witches.
On Walpurgis Night precaution must be taken against witches who may harm cattle. Blessed bells were hung from cow’s necks. The stable doors are locked and sealed with three crosses.
Not everyone wants to miss out on the witches. Put on your clothes wrong side out and walking backwards to a crossroads might make them visible to you. So would wearing a wild radish around your neck or on your person.
Love potions were thought to be exceptionally potent on Walpurgis Night. Divination worked better as well. Sleeping with one stocking on, you checked it the next morning, and if you found a single hair, the color would indicate the hair color of your eventual spouse. Keep a linen thread near a statue of the Virgin Mary on Walpurgis Night, and at midnight, unravel it and recite the following:
“Thread, I pull thee; Walpurga, I pray thee, That thou show to me What my husband’s like to be.”
They judge of his disposition by the thread’s being strong or easily broken, soft or tightly woven.
Dew on the morning of May first makes girls who wash in it beautiful.
“The fair maid who on the first of May Goes to the fields at break of day And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree Will ever after handsome be.”
Encyclopedia of Superstitions
Speaking of garments and material, clothes worn on May Day, made from thread spun on Walpurgis night, would bring luck in the next day’s shooting competitions. To those he holds in high regards, the Devil turns his ammunition to freikugeln, which are bullets that always hit their mark.
What Does This All Mean?
In days of old, winter was a damned hard season to survive. A good crop or the goodwill of your neighbors was essential. If you had neither, less work in the fields and pastures during the snows left you working to stay alive. It’s no wonder people went a bit bonkers come the arrival of spring.
Walpurgis Night was the kissing away of all of that, in preparation for the celebrations of Beltane. It was the last gasp of darkness over the land before the light started shining a bit more bright.
Both Walpurgis Night and Beltane contain an element of raw, unbridled sexuality. It was the ideal time to mate after all. A woman who found herself with child conceived during this time would only be five months along at the beginning of October, when the crops were brought in, which meant you didn’t have to struggle through a summer’s worth of work, laden with child.
Fertility celebrations are often thought of as a time for licentiousness of all sorts. Excessive drink goes along well with unbridled sexuality, and so even if the sexual overtones are downplayed, Walpurgis Night is still celebrated in many places as a time for drinking.
Goddesses revered for their abilities to aid in fertility were celebrated at this time. The fertility of the crops were magically transferred to people, or perhaps it was the other way around.
The arts of the cunning women, or wise women of the forest were especially potent during this time. Their magic often revolved around love, sexuality and fertility, and this is the ideal time for it, as seeds begin to sprout, animals started to mate, and the world around them passed from the darkness of winter into the light of spring.
One of the drawbacks of having an illiterate populace, is that people tend to learn by oral tradition. Storytellers in other words. As anyone who has studied the history of oral tradition, or even had a grandfather who was fond of tall tales can attest, that while poetic in a sense, oral tradition begets a range of themes. We see the importance of an event in different ways, based on our own loves, fears and prejudices. And so depending on who tells the story, we can get the same story told in a variety of ways. Which imparts a variety of meanings.
As the old gods faded into the background, the collective memory of the people called out by nature for substitutes. The church provided these in the forms of saints and their holy days. And so on a day once celebrated in the name of a goddess, we find the same attributes of that deity transferred onto a Catholic saint, mainly because their holy day shared the same date.
We find that St. Walburga takes on the mantle of an ancient deity, be it Nehalennia, Nerthus, Holda, Berchta, and over time becomes along with Walpurgis Night, the celebration of the witch. The woman behind the saint is forgotten, except for a handful of anecdotes and historical records, lost to time. When the pagan goddesses were shoved back even farther into disrepute, those who still worshipped the old ways had to go further afield to celebrate.
And Walpurga, an English woman who went to Germany to do god’s work, takes on the memory of Holga, a Germanic goddess, and is branded as a witch.
In ancient Rome, the followers of Cybele believed that their goddess had a consort who was born via a virgin birth. His name was Attis, and he died and was resurrected each year during the time of the vernal equinox on the Julian Calendar (between March 22 and March 25).
A dynasty of Persian kings known as the Achaemenians celebrated the spring equinox with the festival of No Ruz, which means “new day.” It is a celebration of hope and renewal still observed today in many Persian countries, and has its roots in Zoroastrianism. In Iran, a festival called Chahar-Shanbeh Suri takes place right before No Ruz begins, and people purify their homes and leap over fires to welcome the 13-day celebration of No Ruz.
The indigenous Mayan people in Central America have celebrated a spring equinox festival for ten centuries. As the sun sets on the day of the equinox on the great ceremonial pyramid, El Castillo, Mexico, its “western face…is bathed in the late afternoon sunlight. The lengthening shadows appear to run from the top of the pyramid’s northern staircase to the bottom, giving the illusion of a diamond-backed snake in descent.” This has been called “The Return of the Sun Serpent” since ancient times.
“At the ruins of Chichen Itza, the ancient Maya city in Mexico, crowds now gather on the spring (and fall) equinox to watch as the afternoon sun creates shadows that resemble a snake moving along the stairs of the 79-foot-tall Pyramid of Kukulkan, also called El Castillo. On the spring equinox, the snake descends the pyramid until it merges with a large, serpent head sculpture at the base of the structure. While the Maya were skilled astronomers, it’s unknown whether they specifically designed the pyramid to align with the equinox and create this visual effect.”
According to the Venerable Bede, Eostre was the Saxon version of a Germanic goddess called Ostara. Her feast day was held on the full moon following the vernal equinox–almost the identical calculation as for the Christian Easter in the west. There is very little documented evidence to prove this, but one popular legend is that Eostre found a bird, wounded, on the ground late in winter. To save its life, she transformed it into a hare. But “the transformation was not a complete one. The bird took the appearance of a hare but retained the ability to lay eggs…the hare would decorate these eggs and leave them as gifts to Eostre.”
For early Pagans in the Germanic countries, this was a time to celebrate planting and the new crop season. Typically, the Celtic peoples did not celebrate Ostara as a holiday, although they were in tune with the changing of the seasons.
The story of the Roman god, Mithras, is similar to the tale of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Born at the winter solstice and resurrected in the spring, Mithras helped his followers ascend to the realm of light after death. In one legend, Mithras, who was popular amongst members of the Roman military, was ordered by the Sun to sacrifice a white bull. He reluctantly obeyed, but at the moment when his knife entered the creature’s body, a miracle took place. The bull turned into the moon, and Mithras’ cloak became the night sky. Where the bull’s blood fell flowers grew, and stalks of grain sprouted from its tail.
This is a good time of year to start your seedlings. If you grow an herb garden, start getting the soil ready for late spring plantings. Celebrate the balance of light and dark as the sun begins to tip the scales, and the return of new growth is near.
Many modern Pagans mark Ostara as a time of renewal and rebirth. Take some time to celebrate the new life that surrounds you in nature–walk in a park, lay in the grass, hike through a forest. As you do so, observe all the new things beginning around you–plants, flowers, insects, birds. Meditate upon the ever-moving Wheel of the Year, and celebrate the change of seasons.
Connor, Kerri. Ostara: Rituals, Recipes, & Lore for the Spring Equinox. Llewellyn Publications, 2015.
K., Amber, and Arynn K. Azrael. Candlemas: Feast of Flames. Llewellyn, 2002.
Leslie, Clare Walker., and Frank Gerace. The Ancient Celtic Festivals and How We Celebrate Them Today. Inner Traditions, 2008.
Neal, Carl F. Imbolc: Rituals, Recipes & Lore for Brigids Day. Llewellyn, 2016.
Saint Patrick’s Day in the United States has devolved from what was once a Catholic feast day into something almost unrecognizable. As we have reexamined the way that Cinco de Mayo is celebrated across the country, people of Mexican and Latin American descent have advocated for a more respectful celebration of the holiday, without the sombreros and caricatures of the culture. St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration which could benefit from some of the same.
Images of drunkenness and one dimensional stereotypes are hurtful for people of all cultures. Since the early days of Irish immigration to the United States, one of the most common insults of Irish immigrants is that they were drunks. In this day Irish people have battled that image, and are assimilated and make up a large percentage of the American population — yet Irish culture to some is still synonymous with the overindulgence of alcohol.
The famous quote by Thomas Wolfe “You can never go home again” can be interpreted in many ways. Nostalgia casts a warm glow on the past, and perhaps the old wounds can be forgotten. Things will not be the same. But if you go back knowing that you are different, and choosing to bring new meaning to things that were cast aside or left behind, it isn’t going home. It is creating a new home.
On Candlemas I chose to attend a Catholic mass for the first time in several decades. In my youth, I had a complicated relationship with the Church. I left and came back several times, trying to reconcile it with my changing views as I gained my independence. Things just didn’t work out. And when I fully embraced the Goddess, I realized that Mary had been that Divine Mother for me all along.
Jesus was just all right with me. I had J.C. Superstar and Godspell to inform my relationship with that Divine Son. Like, I said, it was the ‘70’s … he seemed like a pretty cool dude. But the Almighty Father was a lot like the other father figures in my life at that time. Distant. Never there when you wanted him to be. He would call once in great while, but there was never any real connection.
So why did I decide to go to Mass on Candlemas night? My journey of Spirit has become richer and more complex over the years. In January of 2020 I became part of a spiritual family with roots in New Orleans, Sosyete Racine Dahomey. Our practice is Haitian Vodou. African Diaspora religions in the Caribbean, North and South America have close ties with Catholicism. Part of our practice includes working with the Ancestors, the majority of whom were Catholic in my case. The Saints are part of our practice as well.
This local church was not a grand cathedral. It was a Wednesday night so I figured that Mass would be lightly attended. I had been to a midnight Mass there once a very long time ago so it wasn’t completely new to me. Remembering that the Mass was in Spanish that night, I hoped that tonight might be the same. The parking lot was surprisingly full when I arrived, and I got a little nervous, but got up my nerve and went in.
As it turned out, it was a candlelight Mass … of course it was! Not only that, Mass was celebrated in English, Spanish, AND Latin. We all lit our candles and processed into the sanctuary. Hearing Agnus Dei sung in Latin was magical. Candlemas is 40 days after Christmas, when the Divine Child and Mother went to the temple to be purified. The Child is also then recognized as The Light of the World. In context for me, the universal meanings of this idea reach far beyond the Church.
I celebrated the Child of Light and the Divine Mother. I honored the Ancestors, St. Brigid, and Mama Brigitte. I celebrated the uniting of my past and my future. I felt like I found a home within myself. A new home connected with an old one. The circle is complete and unbroken, and the Wheel turns again.