Walpurgis Night

It is hard to overstate the importance and influence of the Walpurgis Night theme in German literature, largely as a legacy of its portrayal in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's "Faust". It features in both Part One and Part Two, although only the first part draws explicitly on Germanic legend, whereas the second marries it with a more Hellenic tradition.

Walpurgis Night or Saint Walpurga's Eve is named after Saint Walpurga, daughter of a Wessex kind in 8th century England (ca. 710-79) who set out to evangelise the Germanic lands and whose name has the same root as Valhalla and the Valkyries. The date of her canonisation, May 1st, had also traditionally been regarded as the first day of spring. A model of human kindness, Saint Walpurga inspired a cult soon after the transfer of her human remains from Heidenheim to Eichstätt in Bavaria. Her stone tomb covering apparently sweats a liquid that has been bottled and sold as a balm since the year 893.

That provides a very neat segue to witches, who were said to have a "Flugsalbe" or "flying ointment" (rather than the traditional fly in the ointment) which they rubbed on broomsticks and pitchforks so they could fly up to an exposed mountaintop for a witches' Sabbath – unless, that is, they rode there on sows and goats. (The famous motif of a witch on a broomstick became common in the visual arts after 1489.)

The last night before the beginning of spring was the high holiday of the witching calendar, and the Brocken, a bald mountain and the highest peak in the Harz Mountains on the former border between East and West Germany in what was long considered a mysterious and terrifyingly remote region, has been associated with black masses for centuries. Witches would converge, according to Jacob Grimm for example, 12 days before Walpurgis Night to dance away the remaining snow.

(I spotted this announcement for a Walpurgis Night Medieval Market in Uster, my local town, at the station on Sunday.)

Satan, embodied as a billygoat, receives the assembled guests and there ensue multiple weddings, much fornication, copious drinking and the all-important dancing – the last show of resistance by winter demons before the start of spring. Then, usually quite abruptly, the guests disperse. A witches' sabbath is depicted above in an engraving from "Blockes-Berges Verrichtung" by Johannes Praetorius (1630-80).

Goethe drew heavily on the work of Praetorius for his depictions of the Walpurgis Night scene in "Faust", but he also travelled to the Harz Mountains to see the landscape with his own eyes. He drew it and also produced poetry inspired by the site including "Harzreise in Winter" and a ballad, "Die erste Walpurgisnacht", which was later set to music by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy as a cantata.

Goethe was interested in the notion that this wild region brought together the four symbolic elements of Water, Earth, Wind and Fire, and they are heavily represented in his mise en scène; in fact, they are more fundamental to his story than notions of evil. Nevertheless, the Devil is associated with Sexus, Plutos and Mammon – sex, power and money.

So how does all of this relate to the Walpurgis Night scene in the exact centre of "The Magic Mountain"?

Thomas Mann relates the traditional events and the excesses of 30 April to the carnival madness of Shrove Tuesday, which you can still witness in Cologne or Basel nowadays. The theme uniting Carnival and Walpurgis Night is unruliness and disruption of the prevailing order and customs, a moment when hierarchies are upturned and the unexpected happens.

Many of the characteristics of the witches' gatherings are present in the scene at the sanatorium: alcohol, dancing, costumes, the abrupt end when everyone starts to leave ... but it is eroticism and the promise of sex that pervades the "Walpurgis Night" section of "The Magic Mountain". It is Madame Chauchat lending the phallic pencil to Hans Castorp, their subsequent conversation (in French) and what it leads to in "this dream and magic-sphere".

And throughout the build-up to that moment Settembrini, the Italian humanist who is naturally familiar with Germany's national literary treasure, sprinkles quotations from "Faust". These include the line that resonates with the title of the novel: "But then reflect: the mountain's magic-mad today." Thomas Mann acknowledged his debt to the Venusberg in Richard Wagner's "Tannhäuser" , but the "Blocksberg" – a generic term for the kind of flat-topped mountains on which witches congregate(d) – was undoubtedly an influence too.

Another line Settembrini quotes is "Alone, old Baubo's coming now". The rhyming couplet appended but not printed is "Riding on her farrow-sow".

According to the researcher Alexander Kost, Baubo is an alternative name for Hecate, an ancient Greek goddess associated with magic, ghosts, the moon and graves, among other things. Baubo is also the vulva personified, the Italian Dea impudica – to whom Settembrini compares Frau Stöhr in her charwoman's outfit.

Alexander Rost's published PhD thesis "Hexenversammlung und Walpurgisnacht in der deutschen Dichtung" ("Witches' Sabbaths and Walpurgis Night in German Literature", Peter Lang 2015) is invaluable reading on the subject.

One of the translation questions thrown up by this scene was what to do with these quotations from "Faust". I consulted three 19th-century versions by Charles T. Brooks (1856), Bayard Taylor (1871) and John Stuart Blackie (1880). I chose to extract the few lines that Settembrini recites from Bayard Taylor's translation as the language is rich and sonorous and seemed to me to be in keeping with the Italian's character and the times.

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