Exhibit and text by Lori Dedeyan
Mephistopheles: Hear the voices on the heights?/ Far away, and then nearby?/ Yes, a furious magic song/ Sweeps the mountain, all along!
Witches: To Brocken’s tip the witches stream,/ The stubble’s yellow, the seed is green./ There the crowd of us will meet./ Lord Urian has the highest seat.”
Faust, Scene XXI: Walpurgis Night
The night of April 30 is known in many European countries as Walpurgis Night, or St. Walpurga’s Eve, a night when witches congregate and bonfires are lit to keep them at bay. Likely originating as a pre-Christian tradition, this night was absorbed into the feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th century abbess who, unsurprisingly, battled pest, rabies, and witchcraft.
Today, local variants are celebrated with varying degrees of lightness and revelry, and some observe the day in celebration of witches. Many have recognized the rebellious nature of witches and witchcraft. During the long centuries of inquisition and witch-hunts, the title of “witch” often fell upon women, indigenous people, healers, heretics, disabled people, and all those who fell outside the parameters of normalcy proscribed by the state and the church.
It is also easy to draw ties between Walpurgis Night and the holiday that immediately follows it, May Day. Traditionally celebrated as a day of anarchic revelry, May Day saw revelers turning to nature, celebrating the full peak of spring, and orchestrating festivities that upended the established social order.
Just in time for this year’s celebration, Walpurgis Night examines these connections by drawing from Library Special Collections’ rich holdings of early European printed books. Continuing the themes of nature and rebellion that so strongly permeate both witchcraft and May Day revels, I have also crafted felt leaves and flowers that surround and overrun these texts, mitigating their influence.
Arranged at the bottom of the exhibit case, we find some of the notorious texts of the witch-hunt, including the Malleus Maleficarum (Latin for “The Hammer of Witches”), written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer, an Inquisitor for the Catholic Church. A treatise on the existence, detection, and extermination of witches, this text was second only to the Bible, in terms of sales, for 200 years.
Above this matrix of violence rises the narrative of one of its accused, Josefa Manuela, an indigenous woman and traditional healer from Tulancingo (in what is now Mexico) who in 1799 was accused of witchcraft and placed in jail for three months by a local Spanish priest.
It seems a harsh irony that the presence of Josefa Manuela arrives to us through the very documents which set her imprisonment in motion. In an effort to mitigate this, I have surrounded the documents with images of healing plants, such as the prickly poppy, and multicolored leaves that cast their shadows onto the inquisitorial texts below, imposing their presence onto the pages.