Tonight is the Eve of Beltane, an ancient Celtic fire festival marking the end of the first planting and the beginning of Summer, and in current times one of the big annual NeoPagan holidays (the others being Samhain, Lammas and Presidents’ Day). Beltane Eve is also called Walpurgis Night, a name I truly adore. I love saying “Walpurgis.” Try it: Walpurgis Walpurgis Walpurgis. Isn’t that a fun word? Or, even better, “Walpurgisnacht.” Oooh, but that’s a satisfying series of consonants. If you hit them right, you’ll totally clear your sinuses.
The name Walpurgis (“Walpurgisnacht!” “Gesundheit!”) derives from St. Walburga, who’s feast day falls on May 1. St. Walburga’s an actual historical figure, but she has a whole bunch of Pagan baggage attached to her–most notably, she’s one of five saints to whom legend assigns the Grain Miracle, which is in itself a remnant of pre-Christian agrarian ritual. Ah, to have been a fly on the thinly-veneered wall back then:
Medieval priest – “What have I told you people about venerating Pagan idols?!”
Medieval Pagans – “We’re not. We promise. We’re just celebrating the fact that St. Walburga had the power to make the grain grow as she passed by, which was a miracle and certainly not any kind of ancient fertility magic.”
Medieval priest – “Oh. Um, I see. It just looked… I mean, what with the corn dollies and orgies and all… well, you know…”
Medieval Pagans – “It was an honest mistake. We understand.”
Medieval priest – “Good, good, I’m glad we’re on the same page. So I’ll see you all on Sunday for the feast of St. Phallus the Foliate-Headed?”
Medieval Pagans – “Sho ’nuff, boss.”
Other names for Beltane include Vappu (see title of this post), May Day, and my all-time favorite… Varbolg. I am unable to speak the word Varbolg. Anytime I try, it comes out as a deep-throated shout, followed by a raucous demand for wenches and grog.
And strangly enough, I have the exact same reaction when I try to say “Pentecost.” I was the crappiest Episcopalian ever.