The evening of April 30th through May 1st is a significant date in the modern neo-Pagan and Wiccan calendar. It is called: Beltane, Witches’-eve, Witches’ Sabbath, May eve’, May Day, and Walpurgisnacht (and variants). Today the main significance that is emphasized it that this date is exactly 6 months opposite that of Samhain/Hallowe’en and therefore a significant Pagan date that has been somewhat “baptized” by the Church.
What we will see, based on the actual historical evidence that survives to us, is that May 1st was a day dedicated in 870 AD to honoring St. Walburga; May Day/Beltane traditions claimed as pagan precursors tied to the 1st of May do not date back to that time–that is, the so-called pagan rituals actually are not tied to May 1 until later. And many of these rituals actually date from much later.
We will look at the histories of:
- St. Walburga/Walpugrisnacht
- The Origins of Beltane
- When “Maying” Traditions Came Into Being
- The Shift Away From Walburga to Paganism
Walpurgisnacht-St. Walburga’s Eve
St. Walburga is commemorated on February 25th, her birth day, and on May 1, the day she was canonized. She was canonized by the Italian Pope Adiran II (r. 867-872) in 870 A.D.
She is commemorated in Lutheran and Roman liturgical traditions in most of the countries on the North Sea and the Baltic Sea as well as inland to the Czech Republic.
Walpurgisnacht (“Walpurga’s night”) is the German and Dutch name for April 30th, the eve’ of St. Walburga’s Day. The festival is known as “Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish, Vappu in Finnish, Volbriöö, (Walpurgi öö) in Estonian, Valpurgijos naktis in Lithuanian, Valpurģu nakts or Valpurģi in Latvian, čarodějnice or Valpuržina noc in Czech, chódotypalenje Lower Sorbian and chodojtypalenje in Upper Sorbian.” (wikipedia)
For people who grew up outside these cultural traditions the most likely way that they know of Walpurgisnacht is through Faust, Gothic literature, horror fiction, or the Neo-Pagan and Wiccan movements.
Who Was She?
Walburga was born in Devonshire, England; probably in 710. She was the daughter of St. Richard, an under-king of the West Saxons. Her mother, Winna, was sister of St. Boniface, Apostle of Germany. She had to brothers, Willibald and Winibald.
When she was eleven years old her father left her in the charge of the abbess of Wimborne where she spent the next twenty-six years as a nun. Her father took her brothers on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Wimborne gave her a very good education and skills in reading and writing. She is considered to be the first English female author. She wrote a biography of her brother, St. Winibald, and a Latin travel log of her brother St. Willibald’s travels in Palestine. Her father died within a year after he had left England.
St. Boniface was organizing the church and mission work in Germany and called women to help. This is the first time on record of such a call. In 748 Walburga was sent with many other nuns. She was eventually appointed abbess at Heidenheim and became beloved by everyone through the community and countryside.
Walburga passed away in Heidenheim on February 25, 777. She was canonized on May 1st, 870 by Pope Adrian II. May 1st is Walpurga’s Commemoration Day, the evening before is Walpurgisnacht/Walburga’s Night. [source]
“Other spellings: Valborg (the Swedish name for her), Walburge, Valpuri, Auboué, Avangour, Avongourg, Falbourg, Gaubourg, Gualbourg, Valburg, Valpurge, Vaubouer, Vaubourg, Walbourg, Walpurd, Warpurg. She is also known by the seemingly unrelated names Perche and Eucharis.” [source]
Note especially the date, 870 and that she was canonized in Rome by an Italian Pope. Walburga had been adored widely while she still lived. At the end of the 8th century after her death she was held in high esteem by many people throughout the region of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.
Through that period there is no record of witchcraft associated with the evening of April 30 or May 1.
The Origins of Beltane
A fairly standard Neo-Pagan/Wiccan description of Beltane can be found in what Rosemary Ellen Guiley wrote as part of her article on “The Wheel of the Year”:
Beltane Eve (also Beltain). One of the great Celtic solar festivals, celebrated in earlier times with bonfires. It is observed April 30. Beltane is an Irish term meaning “great fire.” Beltane rites celebrate birth, fertility and the blossoming of all life, personified by the union of the Goddess and Sun God, also known in Christianized lore as King Winter and Queen May. Celebrants jump over broom-sticks and dance around maypoles, both symbols of fertility. Great bonfires are lit. Offerings are left for FAIRIES.
Beltane bonfires were believed to bring fertilitiy to crops, homes and livestock. People danced deosil, or clockwise, around the fires or crept between fires for good luck and protection against illness. Cattle were driven through fires for protection against illness. In Druidic times, the Druids lit the fires on hillsides as they uttered incantations. Beltane was Christianized by the church, which replaced Pagan rites with a church service and processional to the fields, where a priest lit the fires. (Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, 2nd Edition, Checkmark Books, New York, 1999. Page 357)
But there are some very big problems with this summary.
Guiley’s claims are that Beltane is:
- A Solar date event
- A Festival
- Celebrated in earlier times with bonfires
- Rites celebrate birth, fertility and the blossoming of all life,
- personified by the union of the Goddess and Sun God,
- These are also known in Christianized lore as King Winter and Queen May.
- Celebrants jump over broom-sticks – a fertility symbol
- dance around maypoles – a fertility symbol.
- Offerings are left for FAIRIES.
- bonfires were believed to bring fertilitiy to crops, homes and livestock.
- People danced deosil, or clockwise, around the fires or crept between fires for good luck and protection against illness.
- Cattle were driven through fires for protection against illness.
- In Druidic times, the Druids lit the fires on hillsides as they uttered incantations.
- Beltane was Christianized by the church,
- The Church replaced Pagan rites with a church service and processional to the fields, where a priest lit the fires.
First of all are the actual dates for Beltane and Samhain and other Celtic/”Pagan” holy days.
When And Where Was Beltane Celebrated?
In J. A. MacCulloc’s 1911 The Religion of the Ancient Celts we find that the Celtic holy days were not determined originally (whenever that was) by lunar or solar calendar, and that only later (whenever that was) they were tied to the lunar calendar and then later again (whenever that was) to the solar calendar.
None of the four festivals is connected with the times of equinox and solstice. This points to the fact that originally the Celtic year was independent of these. But Midsummer day was also observed not only by the Celts, but by most European folk, the ritual resembling that of Beltane.
The festivals of Beltane and Midsummer may have arisen independently, and entered into competition with each other. Or Beltane may have been an early pastoral festival marking the beginning of summer when the herds went out to pasture, and Midsummer a more purely agricultural festival.And since their ritual aspect and purpose as seen in folk-custom are similar, they may eventually have borrowed each from the other. Or they may be later separate fixed dates of an earlier movable summer festival. For our purpose we may here consider them as twin halves of such a festival. Where Midsummer was already observed, the influence of the Roman calendar would confirm that observance. The festivals of the Christian year also affected the older observances. Some of the ritual was transferred to saints’ days within the range of the pagan festival days…(MacCulloch 1911:257-8)
In fact, the earliest extant historical reference to Beltane comes from a very late ninth or tenth century Irish glossary called Sanas Cormaic (or “Cormac’s Glossary”) thought to have been assembled by Cormac mac Cuilennáin (d. 908) Irish king and bishop of Munster. The basis for the modern text is the An Leabar Breac manuscript dating from the 15th century. A translation can be found in Whitley Stokes 1868 version of John O’Donovan’s translation on page 19:
BELLTAINE ‘May-day’ i.e. bil-tene i.e. lucky fire, i.e. two fires which Druids used to make with great incantations, and they used to bring the cattle [as a safeguard] against the diseases of each year to those fires [in marg.] they used to drive the cattle between them.
beltene indiu .i. for cetain ‘May-day today, i.e. on a Wednesday’, Southampton Psalter (Goidilica p. 44). now bealltaine, a fem ia-stem –Ed.
Belltaine .i. bil tene .i. tene shoinmech .i. dáthene dognítis
druidhe triathaircedlu (no cotinchetlaib) móraib combertis
nacethrai arthedmannaib cacha bliadna cusnaténdtibsin
[l]eictis nacethra etarru.
What is apparent in this citation is that “May-day” is not part of the original Irish but an interpretive note by O’Donovan. Also, the smaller print at the bottom of the citation in O’Donovan is a note from the book’s editor, Whitley Stokes. Stokes refers to an eleventh century Psalter called the Southampton Psalter which he had translated in his book Goidelica.
Historian Ronald Hutton in his The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, (Oxford University Press, 1996) pointed out that the only other evidence for the Beltane comes from Tochmare Emire paragraph 55 [English] in the Ulster Cycle: the original of which might possibly date back to the 8th or 9th century. In that text it is “Beltane at the summer’s beginning” in contrast with Samhain as winter’s beginning. (Hutton, p. 218) But the earliest manuscript for Tochmare Emire dates from the 15th-16th century.
These are the earliest examples of the word “Beltane”. From this we could conclude:
- that the word “Beltane” was Irish, and etymologically it probably meant something like “lucky fire”
- as a date the word “Beltane” most likely meant “the beginning of Summer” and not a solar date, but it was probably equated with May 1 by the 10th century,
- that there was at least a legend if not the historical reality that 10th or 11th century Druids plied their magic to protect cows at “Beltane”–the “beginning of summer” or possibly a particular day– by driving them through two great bonfires.
There is no mention of feasts, dances (clockwise or counter-), songs, broomsticks, poles, jumping, fertility, solar gods or goddesses, queens or kings, faeries, crops, or homes. There is no mention that the Christian church tried to replace this day. Both in the Glossary and in the Southampton Psalter (Christian sources) it is mentioned without any statements about suppression or supercession.
All of that stuff came later, some of it much much later. And very little of what was added could find any kind of legitimate Celtic-pagan heritage.
You now have all the “ancient” evidence about Beltane that exists. None of it can be shown to predate 900 A.D. Though it is not unreasonable to conjecture that the word “Beltane” and the ritual with the fires and the cattle may be earlier. But that remains conjecture, not documented history.
There is one more issue with this evidence. That issue is whether or not the word refers to the worship of the false god Ba’al as found in the Scriptures.
Beltane and Ba’al Worship
In the 1860s in a revision of his book The Two Babylons, Alexander Hislop referred to an Almanac published the same decade as he was writing, claiming that Nineveh’s “Bel” = “Ba’al” the next step for Beltane was an obvious extension:
The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain…. From Bel, the 1st of May is still called Beltane in the Almanac; and we have customs still lingering at this day among us, which prove how exactly the worship of Bel or Moloch (for both titles belonged to the same god) had been observed even in the northern parts of this island. (p. 103)
Hislop’s imaginative connection was an expansion on Cormac’s Glossary. And the etymology in that Glossary has been demonstrated as inaccurate many different times. MacCollouch pointed this out back in 1911:
In Cormac’s Glossary and other texts, “Beltane” is derived from bel-tene, “a goodly fire,” or from bel-dine, because newly-born (dine) cattle were offered to Bel, an idol-god. The latter is followed by those who believe in a Celtic Belus, connected with Baal. No such god is known, however, and the god Belenos is in no way connected with the Semitic divinity. M. D’Arbois assumes an unknown god of death, Beltene (from beltu, “to die”), whose festival Beltane was. But Beltane was a festival of life, of the sun shining in his strength. Dr. Stokes gives a more acceptable explanation of the word. Its primitive form was belo-te[p]niâ, from belo-s, “clear,” “shining,” the root of the names Belenos and Belisama, and te[p]nos, “fire.” Thus the word would mean something like “bright fire,” perhaps the sun or the bonfire, or both. (MacCulloch 1911:265)
Hislop’s intention was to discredit the Christian observance of Easter by showing pagan sources for the holiday. Hislops presentation is an Argumentum Verbosium (Proof by Intimidation or Proof by Verbosity)
“The argument is so complex, so long-winded and so poorly presented that you are obliged to accept it, simply to avoid being forced to sift through its minute details”
These traditions are those associated with Beltane by many Neo-Pagan and Wiccan sources. In these traditions, they see what they believe to be ancient pagan rituals that survived oppression and suppression from the Christian church.
Ronald Hutton (The Stations of the Sun, chs. 22-25) has demonstrated the relatively late appearance of traditions like garlanding, the Maypole, May Dances, and the King and Queen of May. A particularly good example of how some of these things become so prominent in modern Neo-Paganism and Wicca is shown by the evolution of the pagan god called The Green Man.
The Green Man
The Green Man is a particularly poignant example of creative fiction in Neo-Paganism and Wicca. Guily’s entry in her Encyclopedia says about the Green Man:
In the British Isles and Europe, a pagan deity of the woodlands usually represented as a horned man peering out from a mask of foliage, usually the sacred oak. The Green Man, also called “Green Jack,” “Jack-in-the-Green” and “Green George,” represents the spirits of the trees, plants and foliate. He is attributed with the powers of making rain and fostering the livestock with lush meadows. He appears often in medieval art, including carved church decorations.
In spring Pagan rites, Green George, as he is usually called then, is represented by a young man clad from head to foot in greenery, who leads the festival procession. In some festivals, Green George, or an effigy of him, is dunked into a river or pond in order to ensure enough rain to make the fields and meadows green. (p. 143)
Garlanding and the use of greenery is itself already a late addition to the May Day festivities. The Jack-in-the-Green was a wicker frame woven with greenery worn by a man in a May Day procession, typically used by chimney-sweeps. The appearance and spread of this costume in the 19th and 20th century England is thoroughly documented. But the name “the Green Man” was actually coined in 1939 by Lady Raglan, a member of the Folklore Society. She took the name “from a popular pub sign displaying a forester, and suggested that both the May Day character and the carved heads were representations of pre-Christian deities or spirits of nature and fertility.” (Hutton 241-242)
[Hutton notes that the actual article where this creative fiction and naming took place is Lady Raglan, “The Green Man in Church Architecture”, Folk-Lore, 50 (1939), 45-57. jstor ]
This would actually make it impossible for the Green Man to appear “often in medieval art, including carved church decorations,” though that is the thrust of Lady Raglan’s article. Chalk this one up to a Folklorist’s wishful imagination. More “fakelore.” The Green Man is neither ancient, nor particularly Celtic, nor even a pagan deity.
The Shift Away From St. Walburga to Paganism
From 1470 and on to about 1750 (in England) Witch Hunting became a profitable venture. Witchhunters just as rigorously creative in their attribution of supernatural abilities to witches as they were rigorously arbitrary in the nature of proof that they used to demonstrate guilt.
This first book against witchcraft is pre-Reformation. It did not have immediate consequences but became the springboard from which the Radical Reformation launched its bloodthirsty witch hunts and massive outflow of witchcraft literature. Itinerant witch hunters (usually Anabaptists) roamed throughout England, Germany, and France looking to root out and kill witches.
From that period, wherever there was a fire, a pole, a broom, there was a witch.
The earliest fuller descriptions of Beltane to contain any reference to witches comes from John Ramsay, a friend of Sir Walter Scott in the 1770s. From the late-1700s to the beginning of the 20th century several second-hand accounts of witches and the symbolic burning of witches became associated with Walpurgisnacht/May Eve’. (Hutton p. 220-224)
This also happens to coincide with when popular culture would come to associate the night with witches due to the first real mention of Walpurgis Night in popular literature through Goethe’s Faust (1808). I think it is likely that Goethe’s story became accepted as history, much like The Drinking Gourd became accepted as history in the United States. After Goethe, Stoker, Lovecraft, and numerous others would weave witches and Walpurgis Night together.
Folklorist and Fakelore
The creative and imaginative period of folklore studies began in the same period, the late 1700s. This imagination driven and non-data based focus found its most clear expression in Sir James Frazer’s 1922 work The Golden Bough. Frazer’s work dominated the field until the late 1970s when anthropologists and folklorists began to look for actual data.
The data did not support Frazer or the old folklorists.
This also coincides with the recent rebirth of Wiccanism and Neo-Paganism as self-creating religious philosophies that now tend to distance themselves from the pre-1970s Pagan and Wiccan writings as well as from the earlier folklore studies.
Walpugis Night has been hijacked and re-made into something that it never was. This is not because it was a particularly significant holiday. It is because it fit the imaginative pattern of those who were hoping for pagan origins for the day; for those who wanted to have Christianity steal something.
But the significance of the date is particularly great in the need for the Neo-Pagans and Wiccans (along with the older folklorists) to make a claim that Beltane is older than Christianity and corresponds to the Celtic pagan year. For many this would demonstrate that Christianity is illegitimate and unoriginal.
Nothing of the kind can be demonstrated by any of the evidence.
See also the Resource Page
Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941). The Golden Bough. 1922. Online
Ronald Hutton in his The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1996
The Religion of the Ancient Celts By J. A. MacCulloch 
html presentation Internet Archive Project Guttenberg
“Calendar (Celtic)” in Hastings’ Encyclopædia of Rel. and Ethics, iii. 78 f.
—All 13 Volumes at Internet Archive
—Volume 3 at Internet Archive
Rosemary Ellen Guiley’s The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, 2nd Edition, Checkmark Books, New York, 1999.
Stokes, Whitley, and John Strachan (eds.), Thesaurus palaeohibernicus: a collection of Old-Irish glosses, scholia, prose, and verse, 3 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1901—1910. <online>