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.
We are the Priests of our ancestors, and how to begin being the Priests of our ancestors.
When each one of us was born, we were initiated into the cult of our ancestors, the initiation weather planned or surprise, is officiated by the priestess of your ancestors, our mothers, and that through the rites of water and blood are we baptized and enter into our life, aware that we are alive, unaware that we are to be the next priest of our ancestors.
To be a priest is a lot of things. It is knowing the rites and ceremonies, it is knowing or understanding the nature of the world, the people, and the unseen world, it is knowing that while maintaining the knowledge of what has been done before, it is also having the wisdom, to stop the practices of some ceremonies, rites or practices, and to start new rites, ceremonies and practices for the times you live in.
There are lots of rituals we all do without considering them rituals especially here in the protestant west where ritual is something Catholics do, something that has become so uninterested with that it has been reinvented in other ways. Cooking meals, or treats during the holidays, birthday traditions, celebrations, and the things we do when mourning the passing of someone or welcoming a new life. While these may seem, mundane there is at the root a powerful spiritual symbolism. The things we take for granted today, tomorrow we will cherish the memory of. Some of us whose families are problematic, it may be the things our friends’ families may have done that we were included in, or the things we did on our own, nevertheless these ceremonies are important and should be respected as such.
As the priest of our ancestors we have the responsibility to learn the stories and the lessons therein of the people who we were born to, or raised by, even if the stories we lived through or learned are salty, and tearful or sweet and sumptuous. It is important to know where you are, where you were, and where you could go, it is important for you to know, so you yourself can avoid what needs to be avoided, and develop what needs to be developed.
You are the priest of your ancestors by virtue that you are the product of your ancestors, if we were to look before us and saw a line of all the people responsible while knowing, or not knowing that we would be here today, the line of people would meander far off in the distance beyond sight. Don’t hyperfixate on the problematic ancestors, or the traumatic ancestors, they are but a few among the many who support you. Build relationships with the ancestors of your trade, your spirituality, and other areas of your life, to build a foundation you need, where one may not be present.
We who are alive and draw breath are in the driver’s seat of our ancestral vehicle, we do not have to pay attention to the backseat drivers that are the problematic, or the longings or wishes others had for us that at no point in our lives did we ourselves want for us. Some of our ancestors made regrettable choices, or have interacted with unwholesome or unhelpful things. Correct these things, amend what you can, be better than them as a choice to be an example of what can be instead of what was.
You be the priest, and change the cult of your ancestors, build a better future for the new ones, build a brighter hope for the old ones. For the ones who need some help with this i offer you….
The following is an article i published with the Irish pagan school:
“One of the most challenging things to confront in the personal practice of ancestor veneration is dealing with the toxic, and challenging recently deceased. It’s all quite fine to romanticize about the long lost dead. But what about the troubling ones, the disappointing ones, the toxic or abusive ones? It’s not our job to “fix” abusers, but it is also not our job to take on the emotional labour of reconciling these relationships while trying to interact peaceably with your spirituality.
For many, family isn’t a positive experience and is not a helpful place to start. I would like to offer these suggestions of ways of interacting with the dead, and ancestors that have been helpful for both my self and clients in the past. These are not set in stone and so you should feel free to customize as you see fit. Ancestor veneration is also not set in stone, there is indeed no one way that is correct. There are perhaps some ways that are better than others. Personally I know a lot about my Ancestors, on both sides of my family. In my spiritual journey, my ancestors presented a lot of challenges, however the cure to this was not ignoring them and pretending like the problem in the relationship did not exist. The solution began when I took up the matter within my personal power to form and shape relationships just as I would with living breathing people, or the Spirits, Gods, and Guides within my own practices, and tradition.
Ancestors as a monolith, ancestors as the rock of ages:
This is advice I recommend to people who have been orphaned early or late in life. To have knowledge of your ancestors is helpful, but not exactly necessary. We all know what humans needed to live, anywhere where humans are to be found. Namely water and light, an occasional meal and shelter. It’s ok to not know where you are from, just as it’s ok to not have a connection to the most recent dead. Each human being walking the earth now, drawing breath and reading this article has ancestors spiraling back into time immemorial.
Amongst all these souls, dreams, and individuals there has to be at least *one* (more than likely more than one) that wants to see your journey successful and fruitful. Have you ever considered, why you a modern Pagan is paying so much lip service to Christian ancestors who do not expect, anticipate or even want the kind of devotion you are prepared to give? Why torture your self over how to deal with an abusive, destructive or unhelpful individual? Perhaps focus on the concept of your ancient ancestors, or your ancestors by virtue of your trade or occupation, or simply by the virtue of you being alive today. This can be accomplished in the way of the veneration of a single stone. Find yourself a stone, any stone will do, (don’t take them from sacred sites, nor do I recommend any from a federal/national/provincial/national trust sites either) – my first stone came from one of the many defunct railroad tracks that criss-cross the United States, and many people who have followed these instructions have gotten their stone from landscapers heaps. You have a lot of options, I recommend not spending too much time picking the stone, there is something to the random selection of this stone, much like the random selection that happened to each of us to our present circumstances.
Take your stone home, gather the following:
Water (tap is fine)
Candle, or other safe holders of Fire
A small clay plant tray, a saucer
Sit in your most comfortable spot, and hold the stone, feel it’s rough spots, smooth spots, all the spots, sides corners and edges. Hold the stone till you can feel the warmth of your body, or heartbeat however so slight. Breathe deeply, focus on your breathing, and heartbeat. Tapping gently on the stone, begin to call back, to your earliest ancestor, the primal grandmother, and grandfather, the ancient mother and father, who your life would have been a wild dream too. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, call the names of your chosen deities, guides, and other spirit helpers or trusted folk who have passed on who you know would have your back. Call on the forces you trust to make this possible, ask them to help you reconnect with the ancient source of you.
Sit with this energy a while, do this several times over with the same stone. Find a place of honour & respect in your home: for me and others I know who keep full on ancestor shrines, the kitchen or living room is acceptable. If you have a challenging relationship with your ancestors, consider leaving the stone with a trusted divinity, spirit guide, spirit helper or other predetermined sacred space for some trusted entity who can act as a mediator or caretaker of this new bond between you and them. You can even go so far as to leave them at the entrance to your front door.
Ancestors are in your blood, and bones; they go with you. Wherever this place is, consider doing the following. With the stone on your plate, dish or other receptacle, pour a little water on the stone, and set the water vessel near the stone – I aim to refresh this water once a week or when it starts getting murky. Start with water, its cooling, basic, and neutral. If anything, it may make your interactions with the ancestors more chill. If you can, light a candle (it does not need to stay lit, it just has to be on long enough to acknowledge them). If you cannot have a candle lit in your living space, you have the glorious power of the living and vivid sun!
While the ancestors I’m sure can discern what you are doing without words, I encourage you to speak out loud to them, tell them what is happening, and why, tell them what you need. Make them do some work, to meet your work halfway. It’s never wrong to ask them for what you need. Start with the basics, “food, water, electricity, rent for shelter”, tell them about the troubles you may be having at work, or school, or in your social or romantic life. Don’t worry if you think they agree with you or not, honestly, who cares? You are the one who’s alive and in the driver’s seat, they may have power, but that power is also from you. If you can’t think of anything to say or are uncomfortable with asking, sing a song, say a prayer, just say something. A few words, water and light may seem little to us, but it’s everything to the deceased.
Elevation of the dead is a special side effect of a weekly observance of water, light, and meaningful words that connect you to them. Ancestors don’t have to be a daily practice; they can be if they prove themselves worthy of that attention, but weekly is also very fine, and acceptable.
Ancestor veneration doesn’t have to be hugely complicated or a headache. It’s simply acknowledging your relationship with yourself, and the ones who came before you. Before you doesn’t have to mean logically, it just means prior to you. The venue of the ancestors is in you. The actions of a few don’t spoil the wholeness of where you are from, just like not having knowledge of your origins doesn’t change the intrinsic value of you being here and present today.
July 22nd is the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, who is the saint mask for Maman Brijite, and Metress Dayila found in the Rada, not the one of the same name found in Petwo. We can tell she is a saint mask for a Guede because of the skull in the image, and we can tell she is Rada, for the sake of her fair complexion. The masks for the Lwa are complex puzzles and involve looking at the image not for the who is in it, but for the what it is comprised of , not looking at the individual depicted as the way the Lwa appears, but as a code that if you can imagine living in a time when there are no televisions, no internet, that you could look upon some art work and see the depth of what is there, even if you don’t understand what your looking at or why its even there. I’m sure this was the case with many saint images used to disguise the Lwa. decoding this image further for you all is as follows: the book indicates that they know magic, and secret information, the cross -though that may be common in many saint images, here it is standing alone and not connected to the saint by touch so we can tell that they are not subject to the rules of mortality, or morality. because her hair is loose, we know she is a witch or possesses her own power in the world.
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.