Walpurgisnacht or Walpurgis Night is a spring fertility festival that’s observed each year on April 30. It’s the Teutonic equivalent to May Day or the Celtic Beltaine, but was later renamed after the medieval Christian Saint Walpurga. It represents the cross-quarter point of our solar year between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice, and it’s a time for warding off the last vestiges of winter. It’s most often observed in continental Europe by wearing scary costumes, lighting huge bonfires, and making all kinds of godawful racket to scare away the evil spirits. In fact, you might say Walpurgisnacht is Germany’s version of Halloween; one might even call it “Samhain in the Spring.”
It should surprise no one that Halloween is my all-time favorite holiday, and that I can get pretty “Halloweeny” all year round. But when I was a kid, my unseasonable “Halloweeniness” would always wax fullest during the spring for some reason. While the rest of the family was getting ready for Easter, I was watching recordings of old Halloween specials taped on VHS. I think this obsession with having “Samhain in the Spring” was most likely suggested to me by the weather that tends to go along with this time of year. If you think about it, spring is much like autumn, but in reverse. It’s a transitional period between summer and winter, leading from one to the other. It’s a time of highly mutable weather patterns, with some weeks being sunny and warm and others being gloomy and chilly. And if you live in the southern hemisphere, the dates of the seasons are reversed. So it’s neat to think that while I was up here in the States, watching Garfield’s Halloween Adventure (1985) in the midst of spring, Pagans in Australia and New Zealand were celebrating Samhain for real. This, combined with learning about Walpurgisnacht, made me feel as if I had been “de-facto” celebrating this holiday each year without even realizing it.
Mind you, I’ve never observed Walpurgisnacht as it is actually observed in Europe; I’d love to visit Germany some year and see how it’s done. But as an American teenager with limited access to good resources, I had to work out my own way of cherishing this holiday occasion over the years. And being Setian, it was only natural that I would do this with a Set-centric theology in mind. For me, the lore of witches roaming mountains on this night, throwing bacchanalian rites to a horned god mistaken for “Satan” was suggestive of my own experiences with Set. Since He’s a nocturnal god of the wilderness, I’ve always preferred to recite my incantations to Him in lonely woodsy areas after dark (or immediately before dawn). And since the ears of Set’s most holy symbol, the sha, resemble “horns” (not to mention that some of His other sacred animals include such horned and hoofed critters as antelope and oryx), I can identify with the theme of being a “witch” or “warlock” who invokes a horned god at night. So adopting Walpurgisnacht into my private religious calendar has always made sense, at least to me.
With apologies to Francisco Goya...
The first Walpurgisnacht I ever celebrated on purpose was in April 1999. The moon was full that night, and I went for a walk in the woods by my apartment. I offered prayers to Set for a good hour or so, and then I played Him some Black Sabbath. It might not sound like much, but it was quite an experience—just me and my god, rocking to “The Wizard” and barking at the moon. Ironically, the area in which we were frolicking that night was none other than Duffy’s Cut, where a mass grave of Irish immigrant railroad workers would later be uncovered in 2004. I remember being blown away when I first learned about this (long after my family and I had moved away), for I had always felt there was something “otherworldly” about that particular area, and it was there that I would conduct most of my outdoor workings with Set. One of these days, I’ll make a pilgrimage back to Malvern, Pennsylvania and pay proper tribute to those ancestors at Duffy’s Cut, to thank them for allowing me to worship in their place of rest.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to observe Walpurgisnacht for the next few years. Having moved to central Texas, it was hard to find a place that felt safe and private enough for worship. Home wasn’t an option either; let’s just say my family has never reacted well to me believing in an Egyptian god. So I had to observe Walpurgisnacht inside my head for the most part, until I reached college. That was when the Tonester and I became brothers in Set and started practicing rituals together. On Walpurgisnacht 2004, we went to Miller Springs in Belton, Texas and called down Big Red from His celestial throne, inviting Him to headbang with us while we blasted some Danzig. I’ll never forget how red the sky became as the sun descended that evening. We then went to the Tonester’s house and watched The Wicker Man (1973), which has since become an annual Walpurgisnacht tradition for us and our families.
Choice music for Walpurgisnacht holiday listening!
There isn’t exactly a surplus of Walpurgisnacht-themed entertainment out there, but the original Wicker Man is probably the very best film of this type. The protagonist is a Scottish police sergeant named Neil Howie (played brilliantly by Edward Woodward), who receives a mysterious letter from someone on the far-off island of Summerisle. According to the letter, a young girl named Rowan Morrison has gone missing, and the unidentified author suspects foul play. Without even hesitating, Sergeant Howie packs himself a bag, hops on a plane, and goes straight to Summerisle, where he meets the strangest assortment of people he’s ever seen. These folks break out into random musical numbers and run around naked in graveyards. They also dance around maypoles, jump over fires, stick frogs in their mouths to alleviate sore throats, and hold eggs while breastfeeding to increase their fertility. But what scandalizes Sergeant Howie the most is that these people still worship the old Celtic gods, and their kids only seem to learn about Christianity in a comparative religions class at their school. In other words, the people of Summerisle are all devout Pagans, and there isn’t a single Christian anywhere on the entire island (save for Howie). What’s more, no one on the island seems to have ever heard of any “Rowan Morrison.” The plot thickens!
As he races against time to determine whether any girl named “Rowan Morrison” is actually in danger or not, Sergeant Howie learns that the people of the island were Christians several generations ago, and that they rejected Christianity after their crops disastrously failed one year. Then the leader of their community, a Victorian agronomist named Summerisle, developed a mutant strain of apple that could survive in the island’s harsh climate. This miraculously revived the island’s economy to such an extent that its people are now able to sell huge shipments of their apples all over the world. Ostensibly, Summerisle was an atheist who simply used Celtic folk traditions to keep his people happily working in the fields; but even his descendants—including the current Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee in what is probably his greatest performance ever)—now accept the old gods of Britain as being unequivocally real. Much of The Wicker Man is spent showing us just how the current generation practices its religion, and the film resembles a documentary in this respect. It’s almost as if Summerisle actually exists somewhere, and the filmmakers managed to convince its inhabitants to let their everyday activities be filmed.
Horror films are usually about chaos intruding upon order, but The Wicker Man is really about a collision between two fundamentally different societies. Being a hardcore evangelical Christian, the most important thing for Sergeant Howie is to always do “what’s right,” even if it means being miserable for the rest of his life. But while his concept of “what’s right” is sadly intolerant of other worldviews (as his belligerence toward the people of Summerisle demonstrates), Howie also has his exemplary qualities. He might be an asshole and a bigot, but he holds himself to the exact same standards to which he holds everyone else, and he’s just the sort of person you want around when there’s an emergency. The people of Summerisle, however, emphasize survival and gratification. They care less about sticking to the letter of any law or scripture; they’re only interested in what will ensure a bountiful harvest for their community. They have no interest in being miserable and will do whatever they can to preserve their serene agrarian paradise. They are much more likable and personable than Sergeant Howie; they’re ecstatic and emancipated, completely comfortable with who and what they are. But just as Howie has his redeeming characteristics, so too do the people of Summerisle have their shortcomings. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet, but let’s just say that Howie is right in thinking something fishy is going on.
I enjoy The Wicker Man because it depicts the kind of society in which I wish I could live. Wiccans, Druids, Goddess worshipers, Kemetics, Asatruar, Discordians, and other Pagans all live in the shadow of one dominant religion (Christianity); but what if things were the other way around? There was a time in history when this was exactly how things were, but no one today was alive back then. None of us will ever know what it was like to live in a world where polytheism was the norm, where we could make offerings to our deities in public and not be ostracized for it. But there’s a sinister flip side to all of this as well. If Pagans were ever to achieve a society like Summerisle today, we would need to be extra mindful of our own dominant group privilege and the terrible harm it can cause. While some Pagans might take issue with The Wicker Man’s ending (and for good reason, as it can be very difficult to sit through), it speaks to the fact that every religious community has a dark and seedy side, including our own.
But the most relevant thing about The Wicker Man in terms of this discussion is that it features some of the most authentic May Day reconstructions ever been put to film. We have children dancing around maypoles, singing songs about the cycles of life, death, and rebirth. We have women jumping over sacred fires to become pregnant by parthenogenesis. We even have a May Day parade with Scottish swordsmen, people wearing creepy animal masks, and Christopher Lee in drag. So watching this film on Walpurgisnacht each year is kind of like attending a real holiday event. The same cannot be said for the 2006 remake with Nicholas Cage, in which Cage plays the Sergeant Howie character. Almost nothing in that film is authentic at all; the people of Summerisle are recast as militant uber-feminists, and pretty much everything they practice in the film is made up. Furthermore, all the nuance of the original film is conspicuously absent; there is absolutely nothing “good” to be found in the people of Summerisle, and we are clearly expected to side with Nicholas Cage throughout the entire film (even though there is nothing “good” to be found in him, either). I have to wonder if the film isn’t really a Westboro Baptist Church PSA against women’s liberation in general. (“See? THIS is what happens when you let women go to COLLEGE!”)
Another flick the Tonester and I always watch for Walpurgisnacht is The Devil’s Rain (1975), directed by Robert Fuest and starring Ernest Borgnine, William Shatner, and Tom Skerritt. It’s about the leader of a Satanist coven named Jonathan Corbis (played by Borgnine) who was betrayed by his congregation and put to death by Puritans in the 1600s. Fast forward to the groovy 1970s, and Corbis has somehow reincarnated himself to claim his revenge against the descendants of his sect. This movie is nowhere near as good as The Wicker Man, but it definitely has its high marks. For one thing, the Satanist rituals in the film are actually authentic, having been written by none other than Anton Szandor LaVey himself. For another, the “villain” (Corbis) really doesn’t seem that “evil” to me. There is no indication that he actually harmed anyone prior to his death in the 1600s; his only “crime” was choosing to follow a different religion. And even after he returns from the dead, Corbis doesn’t kill his victims; he just turns them into walking, talking mannequins with no eyes. I suppose that might seem pretty nasty, but the so-called “good guys” are the ones who trade in guns and violence, and turning them into mannequins seems to help them learn some anger management. Plus, Ernie Borgnine clearly enjoyed playing his role. He is so energetic and likable in his performance, I fail to see how anyone could have been scared by this movie back in 1975.
Yet another movie we love is Incubus (1966), directed by Leslie Stevens (creator of The Outer Limits) and starring William Shatner. (Has anyone else ever noticed that Shatner was in a shit-ton of devil movies back in the 1960s and 1970s? Was he a secret Church of Satan member, or what?) This is a black-and-white film that was made entirely in the constructed language of Esperanto, so you have to watch it with subtitles. It concerns a soldier named Marc (Shatner), who returns injured from a war. Marc goes to visit a local well that is said to have miraculous restorative powers, and when he does, he inadvertently catches the eye of a feisty succubus named Kia (played by Allyson Ames). Feeling confused by her attraction to him, Kia decides to corrupt Marc’s soul so she can drag him down to hell. But nothing she does will work, and the more she tries to thwart him, the more she finds him irresistible. Things get ugly when Kia’s fellow demons catch wind of what’s going on. I guess even hell isn’t progressive enough to allow for interspecies dating, as Marc is considered to have “defiled” Kia with his goodness. So the demons decide to try and kill Marc after nightfall; but the joke’s on them, because they don’t realize they’re really dealing with Captain Kirk. Incubus is less a horror film per se than it is a romantic fairy tale with gothic overtones, but it is a remarkably beautiful film to experience, even in black-and-white. And I for one am impressed that William Shatner was able to say all his lines in Esperanto and not make it sound like total gibberish.
The Tonester and I have both continued to watch each of the aforementioned films every year on April 30. But perhaps the greatest Walpurgisnacht we ever enjoyed together was in 2005. It was on a Saturday that year, and I was living in Houston. The Tonester drove down to visit me for the whole weekend, and we hit the city together like bricks fired from a machine gun. We roamed every Hooters, strip joint, antique book store, and vintage record shop we could afford, growling the lyrics to all our favorite death metal songs and shouting a random “HAIL SET!” at every turn. It was perhaps the only time in my life that I have ever felt completely comfortable wearing my spirituality on my sleeve in public. It was a weekend full of booze, lewd jokes, hot women, horror flicks, and about a ton and a half of heavy fuckin’ metal. We really shook the pillars of heaven, and when it was over, we both knew Big Red was mighty pleased.
“Turn it up to eleven, Hoss!”
I was in my twenties back then, and I am no longer so young and energetic these days. Nowadays, I spend my Walpurgisnacht evenings much more quietly. I might perform an execration ceremony (which can get pretty loud when we get to the part when we smash our demon pots), and my wife might grab a smudge stick to rid the house of any bad energy left over from winter. (Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t help but liken this to what is otherwise known as “spring cleaning.”) If the weather’s okay, we might have a campfire in the back yard. But for the most part, we prefer to keep things pretty low-key. (As long as I get to sit outside in my lawn chair and soak in the natural world for a couple of hours, I’m happy.)
Which leaves me with just one more thought. I understand Walpurgisnacht is a fertility festival, which means we should all expect to see a bunch of phallic symbolism for the next week or two. But some Pagans oversexualize this holiday (or either of its cultural variants) in some extremely unhealthy ways. There’s this weird notion that we’re all “supposed” to be having tons of hot and steamy sex on this date, which has led to all kinds of problems (ranging from severe depression to rape). There are Pagan kids who can’t land a date for whatever reason, and who beat up on themselves because “I’m a Pagan, I’m supposed to be a sexual Tyrannosaurus.” There are also Pagan women who are pressured or even coerced into sex by their partners because “We’re Pagans, this is what’s expected of us.” But let me tell you what Set Himself whispers to me in my heart whenever I hear such garbage. Are you ready?
Now toss out those awful Dennis Wheatley novels you’ve been reading, and get your asses outside—it’s beautiful out there! Have a Safe and Happy Walpurgisnacht, everyone!