Monday, March 28, 2011

Night of the Witches, folklore, traditions & recipes for celebrating Walpurgis Night

Book Review: Night of the Witches, folklore, traditions & recipes for celebrating Walpurgis Night by Linda Raedisch. Woodbury, MN: Llewllyn 2011

In Germany and other Northern European countries, Walpurgis Night is celebrated on the evening of April 30th with bonfires, mischief, noisemaking, dancing and of course, drinking. In Night of the Witches, author Linda Raedisch explains that this traditional witches’ meeting on the highest mountain in Northern Germany is comparable to the American Halloween, although it shares May 1st eve with the Celtic celebration of Beltane. In a charming storytelling voice, Raedisch takes readers through the history of this ancient festival, weaving art, music, literature, linguistics and stories from around the world into her narrative. In keeping with her vast knowledge of folklore, the author connects the dots from the Walpurgis Night scenes in Goethe’s Faust, to references in Grimm’s fairy tales, Fraser’s Golden Bough and Mendelssohn’s music. But this is no dry academic tome. Night of the Witches presents the history and ancient lore of Walpurgisnacht with sly humor and provides recipes and crafts for readers who would like to celebrate the beginning of spring in their own households.

With the current interest in witches reflected in the bestseller list by Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, perhaps the vampire craze of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is giving way to another form of supernatural beings. If you want to know how these beliefs began and persisted through the ages, Night of the Witches will entertain and enlighten you. Do you know why loud noises are commonly favored at many celebrations? “Noisemaking remains a time-honored method of driving out evil at important turning points of the year, such as New Year’s Eve…” (6) Raedisch tells us.

What’s up with bonfires? “Our ancestors understood, perhaps better than we do today, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. If they wanted their crops and livestock to flourish, they had to offer something in return to the source of the abundance.” (7) The bonfires were used for live sacrifices, later straw substitutes. In chapter 5, A Field Guide to Witches, Raedisch describes thirteen kinds of witches, from hags to Valkyries to weathermakers, ending the chapter with a recipe for Poor Hags (similar to French toast), an origami kitchen witch, and a paper crone’s mask – one of which hangs in our library staff room. Full disclosure: why does the library have a crone’s mask? No, we are not a coven of witches, at least I don’t think we are. Author Linda Raedisch is a colleague at the library where I work, a friend, and the only person I know who has not only an encyclopedic knowledge of folklore, a knack for languages, a talent for arts, crafts and cooking, all wrapped up in a wry sense of humor.

This book is recommended for anyone interested in folklore, fairytales, German traditions, cultural studies, and of course, witches. Teenagers who enjoy fantasy books like Harry Potter and the Twilight series should read this non-fiction exploration of the subject. College students of linguistics and anthropology would also find this title fascinating.

Night of the Witches author Linda Raedisch will visit the Berkeley Heights Public Library Blog on Friday, April 1st for a question and answer session.

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