In the Middle Ages, during which witch hunting reached its pinnacle, the inquisition declared the 30th of April as the Witches' Sabbath. It was believed that the witches rubbed a special ointment onto their skin that enabled them to fly. Having done so they mounted their brooms and flew to the Brocken where they met other witches. The farmers tried to protect themselves by hiding their brooms, billy-goats and goats which were also used as a means of transport by the witches. Three crosses over the house- and stable door were believed to keep the witches away. In order to protect sleeping children, stockings were crossed over their beds. In urban areas as much noise as possible was made in order to keep the witches away. On their flight to the Brocken the witches were believed to bite pieces out of every churchbell they passed. The Brocken itself is steeped in legend. Countless tales are recounted about what happened to people who found themselves on the mountain while the witches were meeting.
Walpurgis Night probably received its name during the time of the inquisition. Walburga, born on the 30th April, was an abbess of a very kind and gentle nature. She died in Eichstätt in 788. Even after Christianisation some people did not want to give up their belief in pagan gods. In order to frighten Chrisians they dressed up as devils and witches. The Church on their behalf introduced the gentle Walburga as the counterpart who would protect its followers. Thus Walburga has become the protector from witchcraft and magic.
The night from 30th April to the 1st May is also called "Freinacht" ("free night"). During that night it is very common in Germany to wrap cars in toilet-paper and play others little tricks on people. And not only is it celebrated to drive out the winter, or to protect oneself against witches but also conscripts celebrate it as their last chance to have some fun before their medical inspection for the military service the next day." (From the Goethe Institute Ireland Website.)
Strangely, Halloween has caught on in Germany the past fifteen years, but Walpurgis Night just does not seem to have that big a following, at least not in Frankfurt. There are dance parties called "dance into May" (tanz in den Mai) that sometimes play on the witchcraft theme, but often they revolve around the raising of the maypole, especially in rural areas, which does not clearly seem to be linked to Walpurgis Night but certainly reeks of pagan tradition. Wikipedia reports that "in Berlin traditional leftist Mayday riots usually start at Walpurgis Night in the Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg. There is a similar tradition in the Schanzenviertel district of Hamburg." In any event, tomorrow is a holiday, the German Labor Day, so whatever I do tonight, I can sleep in if I want to. I'm not really up for rioting, so maybe I'll crank up the stereo to scare off the
Well, it looks as if I missed a lot of fun last night. Fortunately, Der Spiegel took pictures so that we can enjoy the celebrations in the safety of our own homes. So much for my image of maidens dancing around the maypole.