Amongst Europeans, it is said that on this night the witches fly to the Brocken Mountain in Germany, where they hold the Grand Sabbat and dance away the winter snows and darkness and await the arrival of spring in the company of Dame Holda, the Witch Goddess. Near the summit of the mountain is a holy well, an ancient stone alter and a flat dancing ground.
This belief or knowledge of the Grand Sabbat was known about as far back as the 9th century (and probably far longer ago than that) when it was recorded in c. 1015, when the Bishop of Worms, Bishop Burchard wrote:
“It is believed that somehow it is possible for some females to do this, who had been deceived by the Devil, and who confessed themselves compelled to do it by a spell; that is, by a demon changed into the form of a woman whom vulgar stupidity calls Holda. Being forced on certain nights, to ride upon certain beasts and to be numbered among their company.”
The modes of transport that the witches chose for their journey were varied and wonderful; on bats, goats, pitchforks, shovels and of course, the broom. They may even turn themselves into an owl or other fantastical flying beast. Once at the Sabbat, there would be much revelry, with dancing, singing and feasting.
The Grand Sabbat is still accessible today and is still visited by those who know the way. Once there, it is not all about merrymaking but also a time to catch up with those that have not seen each other since their last meeting at the Sabbat. It is a time to learn new things, in the form of gossip and a sharing of discoveries; it’s also a time to ask advice and maybe help. It is also a time to do “work” that requires more than one or two people to make it successful; to combine knowledge and energies towards one outcome.
Walpurgisnacht is six months before All Hallows Eve and is just as magical as its twin. It too is a time when the veil between the worlds is very thin and communication with the spirit world is more easily possible. For this reason, fires are lit to keep away the malevolent spirits while we speak to our ancestors. It is also like All Hallows in the fact that there is feasting and merrymaking but this time to celebrate our survival through the winter months; to rejoice and give thanks that we are still here.
“Come with us speeding through the night
As fast as any bird in flight
Silhouettes against the Mother Moon
We will be there soon “. Inkubus Sukkubus – Wytches
The following morning brings May Day and around here it was traditionally all about the May fairs. There used to be huge fairs or “Mops” where business and fun were intermingled for the day. The business was the hiring of the year’s farm labourers and house staff and it was tradition that once hired, a employer did not release hired labourers from service until the next May fair, if at all possible, as it was considered extremely unlucky to break the “twelvemonth” contract.
There was always a May-Pole made from birch and decorated with ribbons on almost every village green and early in the morning, people would go out and collect the birch that was to be hung over the door of every house, where it would stay throughout the day. The lads and lasses would make either a bower, arch or May-Pole that was decorated with all the flowers that could be found and they would carry it around the houses accompanied by a fiddle and a drum; singing “May Day, Pay Day, Pack your rags away Boys!” and also “Hip-pip-hoo-ray, It’s May Day!” At each house they stopped at, they received a gift of pence or some other pleasing present.
There was plenty of cider too, with this being the heart of cider apple orchards and so with the air of celebration and high spirits, it is not surprising to hear of the young lads and lasses disappearing into the greenwoods where the lads “lifted the petticoats” of the girls.
So this is when and where the spirit of lust, love, fertility and renewal was truly felt and honoured but it is never referred to as Beltane – it was and always has been May Day around here.
Today, we still have the village and town day of fun – whether it is celebrated as a fair, festival or as a day of well-dressing. The birch and the May-poles are still very much in evidence and so are the Morris Men. The lads and lasses are still “lifting petticoats” but in a much more discreet manner these days and in much more private places ; )