Friday, April 27, 2012

Night of the Witches by Linda Raedisch

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was my first introduction to Walpurgis Night; asked when her birthday is, Lisbeth Salander replies, "On Walpurgis Night . . . Very fitting, don't you think? That's when I gad about with a broom between my legs." In time for this year's Walpurgis Night, which is always April 30, I read Night of the Witches: Folklore, Traditions & Recipes for Celebrating Walpurgis Night by Linda Raedisch.

Walpurgis Night falls six months after Halloween. Not coincidentally, it is also the eve of Beltane, the midpoint between the vernal equinox and summer solstice.  As one might expect on such a spooky date, Walpurgis Night is said to be when witches from all over northern Europe fly to the Harz mountains of northern Germany on their broomsticks for a night of revelry and bonfires. 

Night of the Witches describes more contemporary celebrations of Walpurgis Night - from children's parades to bonfire-jumping - as well as the folklore behind the night. Walpurgis Night is named after a saint - and not just any saint, but one from whose remains sacred oil is said to flow every year.  The chapter "A Field Guide to Witches" describes types of European witches - from Valkyries, the Norse goddesses who decided who would die in battle, to wolf crones - hags living in the forest with a pack of wolves to do their bidding. The chapter "A Walpurgis Herbal" explains thirteen of the herbs used on Walpurgis Night, and why.

Chapters of recipes and crafts round out the book, ranging from origami kitchen witches - good for keeping the pots in your kitchen from boiling over and the toast from burning - to the more difficult: making your own besom (twig broom).  Broomstick Bread (in German, stockbrot) sounds fascinating.  Apparently you can make fresh bread by wrapping thin strips of dough on a stick and holding it over a fire, like roasting marshmallows.

Harry Potter fans will discover J.K. Rowling's inspiration behind Fenrir Greyback and the mandrake root in the folklore retold in Night of the Witches.  A few other of the many interesting things I learned from the book: witches fly with the sweeping part of the broom behind them, the better to cover their tracks, and the Victorians dreamed up the pointy black witch's hat.

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