WALPURGA was a British nun who went to Germany in the eighth century to found holy houses. After a pious life she was buried at Eichstatt, where it is said a healing oil trickled from her rock-tomb. 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. As, like a Valkyrie, she rode armed on her steed, she scattered, like Holda, spring flowers and fruitful dew upon the fields and vales. When these deities fell into disrepute, Walpurga too joined the pagan train that swept the sky on the eve of May first, and met afterwards on mountain-tops to sacrifice and adore Holda, as the priests had sacrificed for a prosperous season and a bountiful harvest.
So this night was called Walpurgis Night, when evil beings were abroad, and with them human worshippers who still guarded the old faith in secret.
This is very like the occasion of November Eve, which shared with May first Celtic manifestations of evil. Witches complete the list of supernatural beings which are out on Hallowe’en. All are to be met at crossroads, with harm to the beholders. A superstition goes, that if one wishes to see witches, he must put on his clothes wrong side out, and creep backward to a crossroads, or wear wild radish, on May Eve.
On Walpurgis Night precaution must be taken against witches who may harm cattle. The stable doors are locked and sealed with three crosses. Sprigs of ash, hawthorn, juniper, and elder, once sacred to the pagan gods, are now used as a protection against them.
Horseshoes are nailed prongs up on the threshold or over the door. Holy bells are hung on the cows to scare away the witches, and they are guided to pasture by a goad which has been blessed. Shots are fired over the cornfield. If one wishes, he may hide in the corn and hear what will happen for a year.
Signs and omens on Walpurgis Night have more weight that at other times except on St. John’s Day.
“On Walpurgis Night rain
Makes good crops of autumn grain,”
but rain on May Day is harmful to them.
Lovers try omens on this eve, as they do in Scotland on Hallowe’en. If you sleep with one stocking on, you will find on May morning in the toe a hair the color of your sweetheart’s. Girls try to find out the temperament of their husbands-to-be by keeping a linen thread for three days near an image of the Madonna, and at midnight on May Eve pulling it apart, saying:
“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.
A heavy dew on this morning presages a good “butter-year.” You will find fateful initials printed in dew on a handkerchief that has been left out all the night of April thirtieth.
On May Day girls invoke the cuckoo:
“Cuckoo! cuckoo! on the bough,
Tell me truly, tell me how
Many years there will be
Till a husband comes to me.”
Then they count the calls of the cuckoo until he pauses again.
If a man wears clothes made of yarn spun on Walpurgis Night to the May-shooting, he will always hit the bull’s-eye, for the Devil gives away to those he favors, “freikugeln,” bullets which always hit the mark.
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.
Both May Eve and St. John’s Eve are times of freedom and unrestraint. People are filled with a sort of madness which makes them unaccountable for their deeds.
“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.”
–SUDERMANN: St. John’s Fire. (Porter trans.)