A Short History of Witches Night and Beltane
Beltane and Walpurgisnacht
The wheel of the year continues to turn, and once again we’re going to look at the hidden history of our Pagan Holidays. As a Germanic Pagan, I love Walpurgisnacht, and who doesn’t love Beltane? But what’s fascinating to me is that it is so easy to love both - because they have much in common!
So for today’s post, I need to take you all back to 5th century Britain.
Rome has retreated, and the brief golden age of technology which brought roads, baths, and other infrastructure have receded into memory. The legions which kept the land safe have retreated, and Rome has fallen away into the East, leaving the British isles exposed to Saxon raiders who prowl the Saxon Shore, beaching their longships and raiding at will. It is still a couple of centuries before what will become known as the Viking Age, but these sea raiders are still a threat a disunified and beleaguered Britain struggle to overcome.
Take note - these are Saxons. Later, they will be Anglo-Saxons, but for now, they are Saxons.
Then a King rose to power in Britain, a King whose force of will and a brief surge of political power proved mighty enough to drive the Saxons from the wealthy, settled lands of Britain and push them aside for a generation. He was called Artos, or Ambrosius, King of the Britons, and he unified the land which would later become Great Britain for perhaps the very first time from within.
In the Middle Ages, he would become the beloved King Arthur of song and story, and his 5th-century setting would be transformed via fan fiction to a more familiar 11th and 12th-century setting, one of knights and courtly damsels and a quest for the holy grail to give it proper Christian overtones, but the real King Arthur was a very early King of post-Roman Britain, one whose claim to fame was fighting Saxons.
So, about these Saxons. Back home, in Saxony, they were still pagan and Germany was only beginning to be colonized and converted to Christianity. Within another century or so that process would be complete in Germany, and the old ways are forgotten, but these Saxons were not yet Christians.
There was a mountain in Saxony called Blocksberg, in the Hartz Mountains, with a platform where the witches danced, and the ancient Saxons held rituals to encourage the tidal shift from winter into Spring. They worshipped a goddess of the spring, and at the first full moon of summer, they went to the Hexentanzplatz, as it was called, and there they danced and sang and made noise and had all in all a wonderful time worshipping their goddess and celebrating Spring.
A couple of centuries go by. The Saxons who went to the Saxon shores of England didn’t all get chased away by King Arthur, some stayed, and they become known as the Anglo-Saxons. Over time, they become Christianized, but like most of the very early Christians, they kept their sacred traditions and just gave them sanitized names and pulled Saints in for goddesses, or gods, and life went on just as it had always done.
The Saxons who had stayed in Saxony, or were chased away by King Arthur, remained in what we know now as Germany. For a time, they kept on with the sacred fires and dancing at the Hexentanzplatz, but we’ve now fast-forwarded into the 7th and 8th centuries. The Christian religion is gaining ground rapidly on Germanic soil, and the old German Pagan folkways are banned, punishable by death.
In Heidenholm, where a sacred spring offered healing waters, a cloister is formed by a British noblewoman turned Nun and eventually Saint, named Walpurga. She makes it her life’s mission to promote the healing spring as a Christian waterway, and to convert as many pagans into Christianity as she can. The sacred spring becomes baptismal waters. The fires which were lit to usher in the spring are now lit in honor of Jesus Christ, the Christian god who died and was reborn. And the garlands of greenery are said to keep away the evil spirits and witches who lurk in the dark of night on the first full Moon of Summer, dancing in fiery circles with Satan himself, who appears very much like the old God Wotan, and those witches bear a close resemblance to the priestesses who worshipped the old Goddess of the German people.
Split by geography and time, and now by going underground and operating in secret, the Saxon pagans and the Anglo-Saxon pagans continue their religious rites and practices under a Christian guise. In the British Isles, the spring celebration of fire and moonlight is named Beltane, the flashing fire in old Gaelic, and in Saxony and throughout Germany, the canonization of St. Walpurga is celebrated on the night when Witches are said to haunt the isolated mountains, invoking the Saint’s protection from their evil. It is called Walpurgisnacht.
Thirteen hundred years later, paganism was legalized in the British isles and Germany. The witches came out of the shadows, each with their own national holiday. Being British, Gardner and the other Wiccans named the first spring holiday Beltane, after the old Gaelic name for the blazing fires, while the German Pagans embraced the witchy fun of Walpurgisnacht and showed the world why it was sometimes called Hexennacht - the night of the witches.
But if we cast our eyes back to 5th century Britain, when King Arthur fought the Saxons on the Saxon shore, we can see for ourselves that the two holidays are one and the same.
Happy Walpurgisnacht and Happy Beltane everyone! Blessed Be