Six months ago I profiled Chernabog in my Halloween list of the most frightening Disney moments. Chernabog is a Slavic deity; not much is known about him, but as Christian traditions took over the pagan ones in Europe he was seen as a black god, even sometimes associated with or as the devil.
The Night on Bald Mountain sequence from “Fantasia,” which contains Chernabog, is according to the conductor who introduces the segment set on Walpurgis Night. I’d never heard of Walpurgis Night, or at least it never registered as I watched “Fantasia,” so I thought I would research it.
Of course you might be asking: why didn’t I do all of this back in November, right after I wrote about Chernabog and other scary Disney moments? I thought about it, but I decided to wait until now because tonight, April 30, is Walpurgis Night. The Slavic holiday falls precisely six months from Halloween and it shares many similarities with All Hallows’ Eve.
Walpurgis Night comes from a Viking tradition and thus is celebrated in many northern and central European countries. Sweden, Finland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Germany have the most common celebrations, though sometimes it’s also observed by smaller crowds in the Netherlands and even as far off as Spain.
Walpurgis Night falls on the traditional eve before the beginning of spring, and it was seen by the Vikings as the last night for witches and evil spirits to get their work in before spring began. That’s the common ground it shares with our Halloween.
The night is often celebrated with bonfires, originally lit to keep witches and spirits away. The bonfire angle and celebration of the coming of spring is similar to Beltane, a Celtic fertility rite held on the same night. The name “Walpurgis,” however, came from the Christian tradition.
Saint Valborg, or Walpurga, was an 8th century missionary who founded a Catholic convent in Wurtemburg, Germany. She was canonized on May 1, which is why her name was given to the holiday held the night before. Walpurga was known for standing against witchcraft, so that might be another reason why her name is associated with the holiday.
I’m fascinated by learning about new cultural traditions and holidays, especially ones that are similar to ours and thus might shed some insight into our own traditions. What I’m most curious about, however, is why Disney chose to set his last Fantasia segment on Walpurgis Night and use Chernabog (who, by the way, doesn’t usually have a lot to do with Walpurgis Night aside from being a sort of dark spirit, although some modern celebrations erect a facsimile of Chernabog over their Walpurgis Night bonfires).
At first I thought it might be related to the music; perhaps the composers of the two pieces used in the segment – Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria – are from cultures celebrating Walpurgis Night, so it’s a nod to them. However, that’s not the case.
Mussorgsky, a Russian, wrote Night on Bald Mountain, and Schubert, an Austrian, wrote Ave Maria. The Russians don’t have any significant Walpurgis traditions, and although the Austrians are geographically close to the Germans, there is no indication that any German celebrations of Walpurgis spread to Austria in any considerable numbers.
I thought perhaps Disney himself came from a tradition honoring Walpurgis Night, but I can’t be sure. His father was of Irish-Canadian descent and his mother of German-English. Perhaps he learned of Walpurgis Night through his mother, but I couldn’t find any evidence of that. It’s something that will remain a mystery.