Friday, February 24, 2012

Walpurgis Night In Translation

People generally think that the spring holiday of Walpugis Night was really made famous by the great German poet Goethe, but let me tell you a little secret: he actually got the idea from my ancestor, Johann Friedrich Loewen, the frontispiece of whose 1756 book of poetry is shown over on your left. Goethe wrote about Faust and Walpurgisnacht in 1800, 44 years after Loewen did.

And Loewen's giving Goethe a Very Good Idea is one of his main claims to (very minor) fame. He also was a theater critic and writer, though ultimately not a very successful one, since he ended his career as a minor government employee in the city of Rostock. All of which is a roundabout way of telling you that this frontispiece got me thinking both about my forays into translating and reading German - and about Walpurgis Night, which will be coming up on the 30th of April, the night, that is, before May Day.

The Brockenberg
Walpurgis Night is something like All Hallows' Eve (and in fact is exactly 6 months before it). Named for the English medieval Saint Walburga, It is traditionally a night during which witches celebrated and bonfires  were made, bells rung, and aromatic herbs were burned to fumigate rooms that had been shut up during the long winter months.

It was celebrated in northern Europe mainly - Scandanavia, Germany, Scotland and England, so is not known as much in North America. In Germany the celebrations are especially associated with the Harz Mountains, in particular the Brockenberg or Brocken Mountain - which is where Loewen was born and grew up, in the town of Clausthal. Perhaps Lowen learned about the Walpurgis legends as a child.

In his 1888 translation of Faust*, Bayard Taylor notes that:

Johann Friedrich Lowen, a native of Clausthal, in the Hartz, published in 1756 a comical epic entitled 'The Walpurgis-Night," wherein, apparently for the first time in literature, Faust appears on the Blocksberg. I quote the following lines as a specimen: - 

'At Beezlebub's left hand there Doctor Faust was sitting;
He filled his glass and drank most bravely, as was fitting,
And when the nectar made their spirits warm and strong,
The spectres cried 'Hurrah!' Faust sang a drinking song.'"

I am glad that Mr. Taylor has lent his translation services to this verse. Still, I might celebrate this year's Walpurgis Night by translating some more of the poem. I might also sip a glass of homemade May Wine, the traditional beverage for spring in Germany - and quite possibly what Dr. Faust and the spectres were imbibing up on the Brockenberg.

To make May Wine, one 1883 cookbook** suggests that you put a bottle of hock (Rhine wine) into a punch-bowl, and add to this a glass of sherry, a sliced lemon, a sliced orange, and some sliced strawberries. Then add sugar to sweeten and 12 sprays of woodruff, an aromatic herb. And I am sure that a glass of May Wine, and the fires of Walpurgisnacht, will inspire me to brush up my college German and start translating.

*You can see it on Google Books, right here.

**Cassell's Dictionary of Cookery, p. 411.

Pedantic accent-related note: Loewen's surname is often spelled with an umlaut over the o (the e following the o is an accepted substitute). I wasn't able to get my computer to comply with typing an o-umlaut so I'm using the oe spelling instead - but when I quote Taylor I just leave it off altogether. So there you go.


DearHelenHartman said...

Wow. I now have a head full of Walpurgis Night info and am not sure what to do with it. Perhaps some May Wine will help. Interesting post.

A Mom said...

nice contents! i enjoyed reading it.

Marcheline said...

Ahhhh.... bilberries again! 8-)

Eric said...

I have 'killbugus night' every quarter in which a service stops by and sprays insecticides around my place.

Awesome that your relative gave Goethe an idea, he was one of the most creative / intelligent people around back then, huh?