This night is called Walpurgis Night, and not unlike Hallowe'en, November Eve, which shared with May the first Celtic manifestations of evil, a night when strange things happen.
The 1st May marks the Celtic fire festival of Beltane, termed as one of the cross quarter days, marking the mid point in the sun's journey from the vernal equinox and the summer solstice and the termination of the dark half of the year. Beltane indicates the beginning of summer. In Celtic countries the earliest writings of the festival in the 10th Century Cormac's Glossary, record the driving of cattle through fires as an act of purification as they are released out to pasture for summer grazing.
From the Old Irish word Beltene meaning 'bright fire', the name of festival is likely derived from the Celtic deity Belenos, the 'shining one', often equated with Apollo in ancient Gaul and Britain, Apollo who carried a multitude of different Celtic names and epithets. The consort to Don in Welsh mythology, Beli Mawr (Beli the Great) is, ancestor deity of the Children of Don from the Mabinogion: Gwydion, Afallach, Caswallawn (the historical Cassivellaunus), Llefelys, Nudd/Lludd, Amaethon, and Gofannon and two daughters Penarddun, Arianrhod.
In ancient Ireland the main 'Bealtaine' fire was held on the central hill of Uisneach 'the Navel of Erin', the ritual centre of the country. In Irish mythology, the beginning of the summer season for the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians started at Bealtaine. Great bonfires marking the time of purification and transition, heralding in the season in the hope of a good harvest later in the year, and were accompanied with ritual acts to protect the people from any harm by Otherworldly spirits. Like the opposite festival of Samhain on 31st October, (Hallowe'en), Beltane was an overnight festival commencing with the setting sun, when the veil between the living and the spirit world was at its thinnest and often breached.
Traditional May day celebrations include Morris Dancing, Jack-in-the-Green, Maypoles, May Queens, Greenmen and the Cornish 'Obby Oss', all centred on an ancient fertility rites and the arrival of the warming sun and the growing season. The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, probably as solar celebrations at megalithic sites, later the Romans record the festival of Flora, Goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the North European Germanic countries can be traced back to at least 2nd Century AD.
Maintaining the tradition over the overnight festival, Walpurgis Night is celebrated over the dark hours over-night of the last day of April to the first day of May in northern Europe and Scandinavia. Viking fertility celebrations took place at this time, when celebrations typically included the singing of traditional folk songs, the drinking of alcoholic sima, a type of sweet mead, and the lighting of bonfires. Today in Scandinavia it is one of the main holidays of the year in Sweden alongside Christmas and the Midsummer holiday. In Germany, the holiday is celebrated by dressing in costumes, playing practical jokes, and creating loud noises meant to scare away evil spirits. The festival of Walpurgis derived from ancient Pagan customs, where the arrival of spring is celebrated with bonfires at night, which became associated with Saint Walburga.
Walburga was born in Wessex, England, in 710 AD. She was the niece of Saint Boniface and, according to legend, a daughter to the Saxon prince St. Richard. Together with her brothers she travelled to Franconia, Germany, where she became a nun and lived in a convent in the German town of Heidenheim, where she presided over a community of monks and nuns, which was founded by her brother Wunibald. Walburga died on 25th February 779, her feast day in the Catholic calendar. However, it wasn't until 1st May of that year, that she was canonised as a saint, which became her feast day the Swedish calendar.
In German folklore, Walpurgisnacht (or Hexennacht, meaning Witches' Night), is the night when traditionally witches are said to join in large masses and meet on Brocken mountain, at 3,747 feet, the highest in the Harz Mountains of north central Germany, and celebrate their Gods and await the arrival of Spring with the coming May day dawn. Jacob Grimm, in his Teutonic Mythology (1888), said of the Brocken:
"There is a mountain very high and bare, whereon it is given out that witches hold their dance on Walpurgis Night............Our forefathers kept the beginning of May as a great festival, and it is still regarded as the trysting time of witches."
Sometimes shown on old maps as the Blocksberg, a terrain bearing witness to traditions dating from pre-Christian times, the Brocken beholds an eerie landscape of bizarre rock formations, craggy peaks, dark forests, and river valleys over-shadowed by towering cliffs; an atmosphere steeped in tales of witchcraft, magic, and ghostly apparitions; a landscape conjuring with legend to create a realm of bewitchment.
The phenomenon of the ghostly 'Brocken spectre' (German Brockengespenst), draws its name from the magnified shadow of an observer cast upon the upper surfaces of clouds opposite the sun, which can appear on any misty mountainside, but the frequent fogs and low-altitude accessibility of the Brocken, where it was first reported, has given the apparition its name.
On Walpurgis Night it is said that particular precaution must be taken against witches who may harm cattle. 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. Stable doors should be secured and sealed with three crosses, sprigs of trees, once sacred to the pagan gods, like ash, hawthorn, juniper, and elder, once, are used as protection against the witches. Horseshoes should also be nailed on the threshold or over the door with prongs uppermost. Witches are but one of the many supernatural beings which are said to be active on May Eve. A superstition states, that if one wishes to see witches, one must put on his clothes in-side out, and creep backward to a crossroads on May Eve.
But why should a Christian Saint be associated with Walpurgis night, the Witches Sabbath?
A tradition recorded in The Book of Hallowe'en by Ruth Edna Kelley (1919) states that Saint Walburga was buried at Eichstatt, in Germany, where it is said a healing oil trickled from her rock-tomb. This miracle was reminiscent of the fruitful dew which fell from the manes of the Valkyries' horses, and as 1st May was not only Walburga's feast day but also the wedding-day of the goddess Holda, the people of the Norse countries thought of her as a Valkyrie, and subsequently identified her with Holda. The Valkyrie was a host of female figures who decide who will die in battle, named from the Old Norse 'valkyrja', literally "chooser of the slain", and escort slain warriors to Odin's hall Valhalla. And like the Valkyrie, Holda rode on her horse and scattered spring flowers and fruitful dew upon the fields and vales.
Holda or Holle is an ancient figure; the name cognate with Scandinavian beings known as the Huldra, in female form known as the Lady of the Forest, and the völva Huld, a seeress that practised seiðr magic. The name in the form Hludana is found in five Latin inscriptions dating from 197 AD- 235 AD. The legend of Holle is found as far as the Voigtland, past the Rhön mountains in northern Franconia, in the Wetterau up to the Westerwald and from Thuringia to the frontier of Lower Saxony; the same geographic area as Saint Walburga's religious influence.
Jacob Grimm in his Teutonic Mythology recorded a number of traditions concerning Frau Holda and Frau Holle, goddess of fertility, spinning, childbirth and domesticated animals, from western and central Germany, suggesting that this may be recollections of a local goddess of Germanic antiquity. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland there is much folklore about various supernatural female beings who helped women at their spinning. Some of these female beings were said to travel in wagons, or with ploughs, making journeys to bless the land. Frau Holda was said to go round each year and bring fruitfulness to the fields. If these supernatural beings needed assistance crossing water for example they would reward their helper with gold and in addition to being associated with the world of nature, agriculture and fertility, this group of supernatural beings encouraged spinning and were said to actually spin themselves. Frau Holle would even punish bad spinners by dirtying their distaffs and tangling their thread and her followers might whip anyone who disobeyed her rules by working on days when spinning was forbidden. In Christian times these days became linked with church festivals and spinning was forbidden on Saturday evenings.
Holda is first and foremost among the mythological spinners amongst the ancient deities. Throughout Northern Europe superstitions persisted around spinning; there were certain days around Christmastide when it was held to be unlucky to spin even after the traditions of a supernatural figure working on that day had been long forgotten. Memories of a supernatural being who taught spinning, weaving and assisted young girls can be found throughout fairy tales of the 19th Century.
However in Grimm's tale of Frau Holda the spindle is the magic link between the world of men and Holda's land. In the tale the requirement for girls to wet the spindle with blood and leap into the well has led to suggestions of an ancient shamanistic ritual for making contact with the goddess, requiring blood offerings applied to the goddess's symbol followed by trance in the sensation of falling. The importance of female magic in the Germanic tradition has maintained the connection between spinning and the supernatural and this persists in modern witchcraft.
In German folklore we find a little known local Goddess called Walpurga who seems to closely resemble the Scandinavian Goddess Holda. May Eve was originally dedicated to Walpurga, a fertility goddess of woods and springs. Germanic people called this day Walpurgisnacht, 'the night of Walpurga', after their fertility goddess and like Holda's association with the valkyries escorting the slain to the hall of Valhalla, Walpurga, Waluburg or Waelburga can also mean 'hall of the slain'. Interestingly, she shares many of Holda's attributes, including a propensity for rewarding human helpers with gifts of gold, and like Holda, Walpurga is also associated with spinning. Walpurga, again like Holda, went on to join the pagan entourage known as the Wild Hunt that swept through the sky on the eve of May first, and met afterwards on mountain-tops to sacrifice and worship their gods and made sacrifice for a bountiful harvest.
Despite many similarities, the Goddess Walpurga and Saint Walburga are entirely separate characters. Walburga became known as 'protectress of crops' perhaps betraying the entanglement with the goddess. Religious iconography often depicts the saint carrying a sheaf of grain, which is usually the pagan symbol of the fertility goddesses.
Under Christian influence from the eighth century, the 1st May became Saint Walburga's feast day, as was common practice by the church often covering ancient deities with a replacement saint figure in its attempts to suppress paganism and push the new religion on the old. Like the Goddess Brigid, the Church Fathers changed this goddess into a Saint and attached a similar legend to her origin.