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Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Walpurgis Night and May Day

Several north and central European countries celebrate Walpurgis Night on April 30. This is the same day as the Wiccan, neo-Pagan and Celtic Revivalist holiday of Beltane. Both Walpurgis Night and Beltane are linked to May Day,  a separate but interlinked secular holiday on May 1.

May Day

May Day itself has been adopted in over 80 countries as an official state holiday in over 80 nations, where it is most commonly observed as International Workers' Day. This is an entirely secular holiday marking the May Day Riots of 1894 (which, in turn, were inspired by commemorations of the Haymarket Massacre of Chicago in 1886 (which actually took place on May 4, when police killed seven and wounded over 70 largely unarmed labor demonstrators after a bomb went off). In 1904, the International Socialist Conference called for the official commemoration of these events on May 1.  The fact that the date selected May 1 rather than the original May 4, however, was likely influenced by the pre-existing celebration of May Day in much of Europe already.  
Although May Day is a secular holiday in all of the nations in which it is an official state holiday, it has its roots in the pre-Christian celebrations of May 1. For many neo-Pagans of various North European traditions, May Day is a religious holiday, just as Beltane is within the Wiccan, British neo-Pagan, neo-Druidic and Celtic Revivalist. Those North European neo-Pagan traditions for whom this is a religious observance include Asatru Folk Assembly, Odinism, Theodism. Romuva and Forn Sed

Walpurgis Night

Though the celebration of Walpurgis Night is not an official holiday anywhere, it is widely celebrated across Europe. Indeed, it is widespread enough, though, to be a de facto half-day holiday in Sweden, Finland and Estonia. With the exception of those practicing Norse neo-Pagan religions, the vast majority of the participants in these highly popular celebrations do so as secular holidays.

Walpurgis Night, Stockholm
In the Czech Republic, the secular holiday is known as Pálení čarodějnic or "the burning of the witches."

In much of the rest of Europe the secular holiday is known by some variation of the name Walpurgis Night. In the Netherlands, Flanders, Germany, and Austria, it is known as Walpurgisnacht. In Finland it is known as Vappu, in Estonia as Volbriöö, in Sweden as Valborgsmässoafton, in Denmark as Valborgsaften, in Lithuania as Valpurgijos naktis.and in Latvia as Valpurģu nakts.

In the Netherlands, the holiday as been displaced since 1948 with the celebration of Queen's Day. This is unlikely to change with the accession in 2013 (on Queen's Day) of Willem-Alexander to the throne. The new king's birthday is April 27.

Saint Walpurgis and the Pagan Tradition

Technically Walpurgis Night is associated with the 8th Century Catholic Saint Walpurga. The English-born
St. Walpurga
Contern Church, Luxembourg
Saint Walpurga devoted her life to traveling what is now Germany with her uncle Saint Boniface converting Pagans to Christianity.
Significantly, tthe timing of the holiday takes place on Saint Walpurga's canonization date (May 1) rather than her Saint's Day which is actually February 25 (the day of her death). 

The acceptance of moving Saint Walpurga's celebration from her Saint's Day to May 1 arguably seems likely to have been influenced by the timing of surrounding Pagan holidays. Interestingly, Beltane is only one of the Pagan traditions influencing this. Indeed, because Beltane is primarily a tradition of the Celtic lands, the English-born Saint Walpurga would likely have known more about the Celtic Pagan holiday than those among whom she proselytized in Germany. That said, throughout Europe, Pagan traditions also marked the cross-quarter day as the beginning of the summer sefason. 

Greco-Roman and Norse Foundations

The Walpurgis Night and May Day celebrations have their roots in two pre-Christian traditions: ancient Greco-Roman holiday of Floralia and the pre-Christian Norse holiday of Thrimilci.

The Triumph of Flora
by Tiepelo
In the ancient Greek and Roman traditions, Floralia took place from April 28 to May 3, honoring Flora, the Goddess of flowers and fertility.  Floralia was observed by going into the woods or fields to gather flowers. This is a tradition still practiced as part of Walpurgis Night (and Beltane as well). 

Floralia also featured public games, including naked dances and mock battles of prostitutes. While neither naked dancing nor mock battles of prostitutes are part of Beltane or Walpurgis Night traditions, this may have contributed to the long-standing accusation by Christians that this was the Witches' Night when witches had sexual relations with the Devil and various demons. While such calumnies were unfairly leveled at Pagans during this time, the belief that spirits walked the Earth on cross-quarter days is true. This is also the case with the cross-quarter day exactly 6 months earlier on the evening of October 31 with Samhain (secularized as Halloween in North America). For more on Samhain, please see:  

Odin on Yggdrasil
by Lorenz Frolich


In the Norse pagan tradition,
Thrimilci celebrates the self-sacrifice of  the god Odin the All-Father on the World Tree Yggdrasil. In the pre-Christian era was and today for Norse neo-Pagan traditions (such as Asatru Folk Assembly, Odinism, Theodism, Romuva and Forn Sed) is a celebration that runs from April 22-May 1. 

Thrimilci marks the nine days that Odin hung from the World Tree. On the ninth night, Odin took in the understanding of the Runes gaining full knowledge of the world. The light of this knowledge flashed so intensely that he died briefly and was reborn. 

Walpurgis Night and May Day Rituals


Walpurgis Night bonfire, Berlin
Bonfires are the central focus of Walpurgis Night. The  death and rebirth of Odin on the last night of Thrimilci has been celebrated from the pre-Christian era with the lighting of bonfires to symbolize the light Odin saw. It is from this tradition that the bonfires of Walpurgis Night (and those of Beltane most likely) derive.  

Sacred Groves, Tree Worship and the May Pole

On Thrimilci, sacrifices were made to Odin in various sacred groves, and the trees associated not only with Odin but with each god in the pantheon were were honored.

The practices conducted today on Walpurgis Night, continue to follow neo-Pagan traditions. In northern Europe, in fact, these traditions are practiced in a manner largely unchanged from before the Christianization of the region.

In German and Scandinavian traditions, pre-Christian pagan worship at the summer cross-quarter day included gathering for rites in holy groves.  Among the most famous of these was the Holy Grove of Thor in Jutland, Denmark which was cut down by Christians only in the mid-15th Century.

Another notable center of tree worship was the Lithuanian Sacred Oak in Sambia (near present-day Kaliningrad) with its temple called Romuva. It is from this temple and Sacred Oak that the Lithuanian neo-Pagan movement Romuva takes its name today.

Sacred Oak of Šventybrastis
Although most sacred groves were cut down during the Christianization era, a handful survive. One of the best-known of these is sacred grove at Šventybrastis, Lithuania. Though the temple that once stood there is no longer standing, the Sacred Oak of Šventybrastis is still standing.

The worship at these sites was for fertility. The sacred trees in many of these traditions were emblems of the masculine force and the offerings to them represented the feminine force. Although this is a far cry from the Church's accusations of wild sexual escapades, the Christian critics were correct in seeing this as a joining of the masculine and the feminine. 

Erecting the Maybaum, Bavaria
It is from these traditions that the Maypole seems to have derived. Its name in German -- Maibaum -- makes this association more clearly. The Maypole or May Tree is a phallic symbol wrapped with the symbols of the feminine (ribbons and flowers). 

For more on May Day itself as well as on the Maypole and the bonfires, please see the post on Beltane at 



This post is not meant as a full explanation of the religious rites and practices of the Norse neo-Pagan traditions such as Asatru Folk Assembly, Odinism, Theodism. Romuva and Forn Sed, although many of the ritual practices of these religions are alluded to here. It is certainly encouraged to look further into this living (and notably growing) religions.

Instead, this post is meant simply to give an idea of the pagan religious foundation to the current Walpurgis Night and May Day practices widespread throughout northern and central Europe today.

Further Reading

Burns, Phyllis Doyle, "May Day Traditions": http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art22507.asp
Carpenter Lincoln, Jenette Emeline (2012, reprint edition), The Festival Book, May-Day Pastime and the May-Pole Dances, Revels and Musical Games for the Playground, School and College, Forgotten Books.
Catholic Encyclopedia, "St. Walpurga": http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15526b.htm

Freeman, Mara, "May Day History: An Invitation from the Sun"http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Pagan-and-Earth-Based/2003/05/An-Invitation-From-The-Sun.aspx

Kaiser, Klaus L. E., "Walpurgis Night -- A Pagan Tradition": http://canadafreepress.com/index.php/article/54785
Norse Holidays and Festivals:http://www.wizardrealm.com/norse/holidays.html

Raedisch, Linda (2011), Night of the Witches: Folklore, Traditions & Recipes for Celebrating Walpurgis Night, Llewellyn Publications.

Wigington, Patti, About.com: "Walpurgisnacht": http://paganwiccan.about.com/od/beltanemayday/p/Walpurgisnacht.htm

Clip Art Sources

St. Walpurga, Contern Church, Luxembourg: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:WalbKont1.JPG

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