Sunday, August 16, 2009

Walpurgis Night

Walpurgisnacht by Johann Heinrich Ramberg 1829

Walpurgis Night is the title of a chapter in Faust, part one by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1749-1832. It describes a pagan festival taking place on the Harz Mountains in Germany at night. Witches, Warlocks, Lilith, Mephistopheles (the devil) and Faust attend.

FAUST. How the gale rages through the air!

How furiously it lashes at my head!

MEPHISTOPHELES. It will lash you right off the precipice;

take care!

Grab those old ribs of rock, or you’ll be dead.

A mist thickens the night.

Hear the storm in the wood! The owls

Are startled into flight.

Hear now, in those ever-green halls,

The columns crack, the boughs moan

As they split! On every side

The mighty tree-trunks groan!

Their roots creak, gaping wide!

In fearful chaos they all

Crash together as they fall,

And through the half-choked clefts of this

Their ruin, the winds howl and hiss.

Do you hear voices in the sky?

Far away? And nearby?

Yes! There it rages, up and along

The whole mountain, a torrent of witching song!

WITCHES [in chorus] . Where have the Brocken witches


Stubble is yellow, young corn is green.

Now we meet again, and up we ride!

Lord Capercailzie will preside.

So come away let’s make a start!

A goat can stink, a witch can fart!

Goethe (1808, p.124-125)

The poetry in this passage conjures up the image of the mountain in my imagination. I love the way literature and oral storytelling can do this. Goethe’s story was based on sixteenth century german folktales about a magician named Faust. Its an important literary work because it was written in the late eighteenth century, a time when Europe was in transition from the age of Enlightenment to the age of Romanticism. As a student Goethe was discontent with rationalistic philosophy and was more attracted to pantheism and mystery. He is credited with beginning a new avant garde movement in German literature that became part of European Romanticism.

Walpurgis night was named after Saint Walburga, abbess of Heidenheim monastery (died 779). Her day was made May 1 by the church in efforts to Christianize traditional pagan festivals.

Reference: Goethe, J, Faust, part one, New York: Oxford University Press, 1987, (translated by David Luke).