When Did St Walpurgis Become Walpurgis Nacht?

Photo by Adam Wilson on Unsplash

The Gist

St Walpurgis, English name Walpurga, was a real person. She was an Anglo-Saxon women from a family pretty thoroughly invested in the Jesus sauce. Her father was a man named Richard the Pilgrim, and he had two sons named Winnebald and Willibald. (Dibs on naming my next two cats Winnebald and Willibald.)

He took his two sons to go a missionary-ing and put his daughter in the abbey in Wimborne. She stayed there 26 years and learned how to copy and ornament manuscripts as well as to create a type of fine embroidery called Opus Anglicanum.

(It’s not actually a surprise that nuns were painting and writing books. There was a recent study of a nun’s teeth that found crushed blue and gold pigment, which led the researchers to decide she was a painter in life that put a point on her brushes by licking them. So, Baby Walpurga was one of these nuns trained in the arts.)

She was born in 710- ish. No one was good with dates back then, but the important part here is that at the time, Germany was still largely following polytheistic religions. Walpurga’s uncle, Boniface, was pope, and he asked Winnebald and Willebald to convert the pagans in Thuringia. They were established in Eichstatt by July of 741.

Walpurga came with them, and she acted as their recorder. Winnebald had been ordained a priest of 7 churches, and not only did she help him with his duties, she wrote his biography and an account of his adventures in Palestine.

The siblings did a heck of a job converting people. She became known as a healer, and particularly as someone who could lift curses. Her brother, Willebald, established a double-monastery in Heidenheim am Hahnenkamm which he and Walpurga made into a center of learning. Willebald was the abbot at this monastery until his death in 760, when Walpurga succeeded him as abbess. (Fun fact: abbeys staffed by both sexes were actually pretty common before the high Middle Ages. A queen named Emma retired to act as the abbot of a monastery that controlled an important river in England back in Alfred the Great’s time.)

She died on February 25, 777 or 779. (Did I mention that people were not great with dates back then?)

One date we are clear on is the day she was canonized: May 1st, 870. Or maybe that was the date that her bones were moved from Heidenheim to Eichstatt. She was canonized on May 1st and moved on May 1st, but I’m pretty sure she was moved a couple years after canonization.

These days, you can make a pilgrimage to Eichstatt and get St. Walpurgis Oil. But why do people celebrate her sainthood by lighting bonfires? What does Mt. Baldwin have to do with her, and why is her name coming up in works like ‘Faust?’

How Did A Saint Protective Against Witches Get Mixed Up With Mt. Baldwin?

St. Walpurgis became the saint to appeal to against witches. She is also supposed to be strong against pests, whooping cough, and rabies, but witches are the selling point and important for her transformation here.

The day she was canonized happened to be a day that Europeans of most stripes were already lighting bonfires and doing things like jumping over the fire to shake any bad juju from the last year. Some of those celebrations used to honor Walpurga coincided with festivals such as the Roman Floralis and the Celtic Beltane. (Although, Germany was an area that was never conquered by Rome, and I’m not sure how closely Beltane lines up with celebrations of Woden. They were neighbors, so they could have borrowed some celebrations.)

Over time, this nice chronicler-turn-abbess became associated with the fires already going on. In particular, the Brocken was supposed to be where witches gathered for Sabbats. April 30th was called Hexennacht (Witches’ Night) in German.

Certainly, people were collecting at her new tomb in Eichstatt to celebrate her on May 1st shortly after her reinternment, and we know that some of the pilgrims were lighting bonfires. The annual party seems to have grown over time, and it became insanely popular as a local festival by the 1600s.

Sixteenth and 17th century writers brought it up as a motif, and the bonfires seemed to have started in Sweeden in the 17th century.

These fires kept burning through the 19th Century, when Nationalism went into full swing, and writers and artists of the Romantic Movement depicted Beltane/Walpurgis Nacht as a return to Europe’s pagan roots. Goethe depicted witches flying to the Brocken for a witch’s Sabbat (singing that women naturally went ahead of men to hell, if I recall ‘Faust’ correctly.) Bram Stoker gives it a mention in ‘Dracula.’

Despite the plethora of fictional mentions and blog posts covering her day, I’m having a miserable time trying to nail down when the Walpurgis Nacht got its associations with witchcraft before the 1500s. I start to suspect the Victorians and modern Wiccans of some retconning. It’s hard to tell, though.

In the end, Walpurgis Nacht became the fun-spooky night.

Mt. Baldwin is now a party spot on May 1st, and there are bonfires and drunken festivities on Walpurgis Nacht in places such as Croatia. There are variants in Finland, Denmark, and Norway.

Two of my books take place around St. Walpurgis Day, so the parties effect the plots. But don’t worry, there are no drunken frat-boys. There are only some out-of-control bonfires and bell-ringing. Got to scare away the evil spirits of boredom, after all.

Sources:

Medium post by Evelina Gaizutyte

Walpurgis Night — History — Culture & People (histure.wiki)

Wikipedia articles on St Walpurgis and Walpurgis Nacht

Wigington, Patti. “Walpurgisnacht.” Learn Religions, Sep. 22, 2021, learnreligions.com/walpurgisnacht-german-spring-holiday-2561662.

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Vivian Yongewa

Vivian Yongewa

Writes for content farms and fun. Has an AU historical mystery series on Kindle.