Posted on April 30, 2015
This will be a short one, and old hat to many, I think.
Today (April 30th) is Wælburges Niht (German: Walpurgisnacht, New English: Walpurgis Night), which immediately precedes Summerdæg/May Day (May 1st). The historicity and influence of the two holidays have become inexorably tied together, with an added dose of utter muddling from Christian-era practices.
By all accounts, Walpurgis Night was so named because it is the night prior to the date of canonization of the Christian Saint/Missionary Wealdburg (Walpurg). Wealdburg’s Christian feast day is on the 25th of February, and May 1st is often used as a date to commemorate her canonization and in some other parts of Europe the transportation of various relics. That festivities remain around the date of her canonization, as opposed to the religious feast day, makes me believe that more of an emphasis was placed in colonization and appropriation of indigenous practice by the Church. Many cultures in Europe, especially Northern Europe, celebrated some variation of a summer welcoming festival around the date of May 1st. It is celebrated over most of Germanic and Baltic Europe.
Trying to piece together the pre-Christian origins of the holiday is nearly impossible, since the majority of people doing so have to go on supposition with no real historic of archaeological fact. Folkloric practice is useful, but one can never know how much to pull away with the assumption that it is a Christian influence or not. Some Pagan authors (Wodening, for one) identify later German medieval beliefs as continuing threads of pre-Christian origin, and utilize these theories in their practices. In this instance, the association with Holda, witches, and the German “Hexennacht” (“Witches’ Night”) as occurring on Walpurgis Night. So it is a night commonly associated with revel, fire, and to some with witches and witchcraft.
I do not hold that “Walpurgis” was a pre-Christian figure that was deviously assumed in to a Christian mythology. We have a pretty concrete lineage and history of Wealdburg’s birth, life, and death to make her one of those pagan figures that could have existed prior to Christian appropriation. After all, this woman is claimed to be the first female author of both England and Germany. That’s a hard title to fabricate by the Church, no matter how many Pagans want to try to explain it away.
Further, the associations of Hexennacht are clearly traced only to the early modern period, of 17th century writings influenced by the literature of the 15th and 16th centuries. We simply do not have any kind of proof or association with the influences of this literary interjection. Since I’ve made the decision to try to create a contemporary approach to practice, this is really a lesser point of complaint – more of an academic one, really – and I encourage new traditions to be established.
That’s the thing, though: “New traditions”, “Unique traditions”.
What this means to me is that I do not know how to approach this holiday, at all. I have written in the past about my hangups with various holidays that are very popular within the Pagan and various polytheist communities. And, arguably, as a solitary practitioner I do miss out on a lot of the communal and festival links which help to reinforce the necessity and position of such holidays within a cultural group. But it seems to me that Walpurgis Night, especially as it is associated with May Day/Beltane, has become one of those monolithic entities inside Paganism. It has blended the practices of centuries, of different cultural groups (adopting English folklore and Germanic folklore several centuries separated), all under the name of a Christian missionary-turned-saint. I mean, honestly. A woman who made it her task to stamp out pagan practice in the Frankish kingdoms.
I approach Walpurgis Night – Wælburges Niht – from the position of someone who wants to establish an Anglo-Saxon tradition within a contemporary sense. Not pay lip service to the continual history of Christianized Europe, and not to operate under the ghost of that action. Not to create or engage in a muddled, watered down “Pan-Pagan” festival. This last point is fine, by the way. I’m not saying, at all, that it isn’t authentic or appropriate, or any other way inferior. I’m a huge proponent of the various Pagan traditions sticking together and there is a place for these kinds of Pan-Pagan festivals. So do not believe for an instant that it is more grumpy Heathen complaining about those “damned Pagans appropriating muh historic and cultural festivals” (I’m looking at you, Asatru).
Maybe these thoughts arise because I’m looking at it from outside, from a perspective of someone who doesn’t have a community. These are community issues, I suppose, and that probably is one of the big hangups I keep running in to. Ultimately, I would like something that speaks to the Anglo-Saxon experience. Nothing exclusionary, but something identifiably unique that can galvanize more of a concrete form of identity.
Just some thoughts for this Wælburges.
Thanks for reading.