Deep in the forests of northern Germany lays the highest peak of the Harz Mountains, Brocken. It is here that in pre-Christian times the locals would eat magic mushrooms, give sacrifices, and dance around bonfires on the eve of May, all for the purpose of bringing in a fertile spring. This is the image of Walpurgisnacht, or Hexennacht (Witches Night). Popularized later by Goethe’s play Faust, this became a popular image to conjure when fictionalizing witches and their antics, although the holiday is little known to those outside Europe or to non-pagans – but Walpurgisnacht and the time of year in which it’s celebrated have an interesting history worth exploring.
The image I gave you of witches on top of the mountaintop, while stereotypical, began in ancient Germanic tradition of pagan rites of spring and fertility celebration. They made sacrifices to their gods for the sake of their crops, and they had orgies as a celebration of the coming warmth. Time passed, the area and its people became Christianized, which lead to the idea that on April 30th, witches gathered to cause general mischief and evil, and so traditions formed out of driving away said evil. Peasants partook in noisemaking, and towns would build large bonfires to keep witches out of the sky. They would burn straw men in the fires and old belongings for good luck. The Christians who had overtaken this area had also forbade anything remotely witchy, such as fortune telling, spell casting, and even proclaimed belief in things such as fae creatures and other old folklore.
It was around this time that Walpurgisnacht got its name from the Christian Saint Walburga in an attempt to Christianize the day. Walburga was an English nun who came to Germany with the task of Christianizing the Saxons, and she became an abbess at the Heidenheim monastery. She became associated with the May eve holiday likely because of ease – she was believed to have been canonized on May 1st. This, combined with the church’s desire to oust the pagans as much as possible, leads to a strange marriage that has somehow lasted the years.
You may have noticed that Walpurgisnacht falls exactly half a year apart from Halloween – this is not a coincidence. Halloween happens on the same date as the Gaelic celebration of Samhain, and beginning at midnight on May 1st is Beltane; these festivals marked both the changes of seasons as well as the dates where the veil between our world and the world of spirits is thinnest. You could consider all of these holidays to be related; in their recognized dates, themes, and celebrations. Beltane, like Walpurgisnacht, involved dancing around large bonfires and bringing in the spring; though Beltane did not have problems in becoming a forced Christianized holiday like Walpurgisnacht did. The Romans also had a very similar holiday, Floralia, celebrating their goddess Flora – they would drink and dance all throughout late April to early May. It was considered a plebian holiday, and they would play many festival games during its celebration.
In the early 1900’s, after the holiday came back into the knowledge of the general populace mostly due to it appearing in a scene in Goethe’s Faust, a revivalist movement tried to bring the holiday back with new celebrations like fireworks and singing folk songs. This has continued to shift into modern Walpurgisnacht, which is still celebrated in a few Germanic countries as kind of “the other Halloween.” In Germany, they like to dress in costumes – such as a witch – and play pranks on one another. In Sweden, the ever present bonfires are lit and folk songs are sung. In Finland, the night is combined with May Day and is one of their most important holidays, which involves – what else – drinking. Then, of course, there are the modern day pagans around the world who celebrate in their own way, Witches Night.
John Alexander Dowie also established his own utopia just outside Chicago.
John Alexander Dowie was not America’s first faith healer—but he was the first to get rich doing it. Dowie, a Congregational minister originally from Scotland, discovered his unusual gift in 1876, when he was 29. A small girl dying of diphtheria was miraculously cured after Dowie prayed at her bedside.
A year later he launched his healing ministry. After stints in Australia and California, Dowie moved to Chicago and opened a church near the site of the 1893 World’s Fair. Sadie Cody, who was in town to see her uncle Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show at the fair, went to see Dowie about a tumor in her back. After he laid his hands on her, Cody later said, she “felt a new life” inside her. The tumor vanished, and word of Dowie’s seemingly miraculous healing powers spread quickly.
In his lifetime, Dowie claimed to cure scores of serious afflictions, including smallpox, cancer, broken limbs, and blindness, as well as lesser ailments like asthma and arthritis. Medical doctors and mainline Protestant ministers, however, dismissed Dowie as a charlatan, noting that many of the illnesses he claimed to cure were psychosomatic, while the most dramatic healings were obviously staged.
Nonetheless, Dowie’s flock multiplied rapidly, and by 1901 he had amassed enough followers to establish his own version of utopia, a biblical city built from scratch on 10 square miles of farmland 40 miles north of Chicago.
He named the city Zion and proclaimed it a theocracy governed by “the will of God.” Dowie was scornful of the U.S. Constitution, which, he noted, was “capable of amendment and improvement in a Theocratic direction.” Dowie owned everything in Zion: the lace factory, the general store, the bank—even the homes his followers lived in. It was the ecclesiastical equivalent of a company town.
Zion’s residents were required to comply with Dowie’s strict interpretation of the scriptures. “Billboards at the cross streets caution one that swearing or smoking or bad language of any sort are not allowed,” one visitor noted. Also banned: saloons, pork, medical practices, gambling halls, drug stores, and fraternal lodges. Zion’s residents were also required to tithe 10 percent of their income to Dowie.
With his bald head and flowing white beard, Dowie certainly looked like a biblical prophet, and he played the part with aplomb. He appointed himself “General Overseer,” first over Zion, then over all Christendom. “The time has come,” he announced; “I tell the church universal everywhere, you have to do what I tell you … because I am the Messenger of God’s covenant.”
Dowie proclaimed himself Elijah the Restorer, sent by God to prepare the world for the second coming of Christ. Since his mandate was catholic—that is, universal—Dowie named his church the Christian Catholic Church. (The C.C.C. was in no way affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, which Dowie considered irredeemably apostate.)
By 1902 Zion’s population had swelled to 10,000, and Dowie claimed 150,000 followers worldwide. He had also amassed a fortune in excess of $10 million. His annual income from tithes alone was reported to be $250,000. One contemporary scholar has dubbed him a “religious robber baron.” Dowie was not ashamed of his wealth, and he lived in unabashed luxury. “Jesus came to make His people rich,” Dowie preached. Not in the “life to come,” but a “hundredfold now in this time.”
With Zion established, Dowie aimed for new worlds to conquer. He dispatched missionaries to Africa, and he set his sights on America’s undisputed capital of wickedness: New York City. In November 1902 he unveiled a plan to “restore New York” and to “sow New York knee-deep in Zion!” In autumn of the following year, he would bring his “full gospel message of salvation, healing, and holy living to the Gothamites.”
At the time, New York certainly could’ve used a little salvation. Manhattan was so mired in decadence that it was nicknamed the Island of Vice. As Richard Zacks explained in his book of that name, “New York reigned as the vice capital of the United States, dangling more opportunities for prostitution, gambling, and all-night drinking than any other city in the United States.” As a New York police commissioner, even Theodore Roosevelt had been powerless to tame the city. But John Alexander Dowie was determined to succeed where the hero of San Juan Hill had failed.
Three thousand Zionites eagerly volunteered for the crusade. All through the summer of 1903, they immersed themselves in planning. They pored over New York maps and travel guides. Some studied foreign languages so they could evangelize in immigrant neighborhoods. A guidebook published for the crusaders included helpful tips: “Do not make a confidant of a stranger, no matter how agreeable he or she may be. If in need of information on the street ask a police officer.”
On Saturday, October 17, 1903, eight trains carrying Dowie and his “Restoration Army” converged on New York City. While his followers traveled in coach, Dowie rode in a lavishly appointed private Pullman car.
Dowie’s evangelists were instantly recognizable by the black leather satchels they carried and the greeting they habitually uttered: “Peace to thee.” They canvassed tens of thousands of homes in the city, as well as countless saloons, gambling halls, and brothels. They preached on street corners, and handed out pamphlets promoting rallies and healing services at Madison Square Garden, which Dowie had rented for two weeks.
But dissolute New Yorkers were in no mood to be lectured by a horde of bible-thumping hicks from the Middle West. Almost everywhere they went, the Dowieites were greeted with jeers. The rallies at Madison Square Garden were a catastrophe. Dowie’s longwinded and incoherent sermons were frequently interrupted by catcalls and hisses. One especially unruly meeting was cut short by police who feared a riot would erupt. Amid cries of “Blasphemer!” and “Imposter!” Dowie was forced to flee the arena for his own safety.
The healing services were equally shambolic. All candidates were carefully screened before entering the “healing room.” Those granted an audience with Dowie were asked to surrender their wealth to the Christian Catholic Church if they were healed. Revolts ensued. “The indignation of the invalids was intense,” a reporter said of one botched healing service. “Many of them were on crutches, others were blind, while a few left the beds to test the treatment.”
“Those who go to Dowie for healing and are not healed,” another reporter noted, “are simply accused of being short on faith, and Dowie lets it go at that.”
The New York papers were scathing in their contempt for the crusade. The Examiner dismissed Dowie as “a coarse-grained, low-minded, shame-bereft, money-greedy adventurer.” His followers, the paper added, were “weak-framed, dull-witted creatures who crave a master as a dog does.”
The criticism infuriated Dowie, who was accustomed to nothing but fawning audiences. He did not take kindly to being called a fool, and he responded with vitriol. In his sermons at the Garden he denounced his critics in the press, in the mainstream ministry, and in the audience as “dogs,” “flies,” “rats,” “maggots,” “lice,” and “pigs.”
The New York crusade was an unmitigated disaster. The Christian Catholic Church gained just 125 new members. More ominously, the enterprise cost the church an estimated $300,000, pushing it to the edge of bankruptcy. Soon more financial problems arose. An investigation determined that Dowie had been using Zion’s bank “as his personal piggy bank.” There was discontent in the flock. Dowie suddenly appeared fallible in the eyes of his followers.
In 1905, one of his top lieutenants, Wilbur Voliva, orchestrated a coup, charging Dowie with “extravagance, hypocrisy, misrepresentations, exaggerations, misuse of investments, tyranny and injustice.” Voliva was installed as the new leader of the church, a position he would hold until his death in 1942. By then, Zion had become thoroughly secularized, just another sleepy suburb of Chicago. The old religious laws were either repealed or ignored. Utopia was dead.
After he was deposed, John Alexander Dowie went abroad to escape his creditors. He died in 1907, just two years after his fall from grace. He was 60.
Dowie’s enduring influence, however, is undeniable. Despite his unorthodoxy, he is still considered one of the founding fathers of modern American Pentecostalism, the branch of Christianity that emphasizes faith healing. His conspicuous consumption paved the way for modern televangelists like Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen, who preach a so-called prosperity gospel. Dowie is also the spiritual antecedent of unsavory faith healers like Peter Popoff and Oral Roberts, “miracle workers” who have been exposed as frauds.
Dowie’s legacy also endures a long way from Zion, Illinois. One of the missionaries he dispatched to Africa, Daniel Bryant, was an especially efficient evangelist. In 1904 he converted a Zulu chief named Joseph Kumalo; thence Dowieism spread like a brushfire. Today, an estimated 15 million people in six nations in southern Africa belong to so-called Zionist Christian churches. These churches continue to adhere to many of Dowie’s teachings, particularly a belief in faith healing.
It’s likely that few members of these churches are even aware that the Zion in their denomination’s name refers not to the biblical Zion, but to an American hamlet on the windswept shores of Lake Michigan.
A small Montana town commemorates the dog who waited at the train station every day for his owner to return.
A statue of Old Shep, Fort Benton’s unofficial mascot, stands watch in the center of town, waiting for a cowboy who will never return.
In the summer of 1936, a Montana sheepherder fell ill. He was transported to the St. Clare Hospital in Fort Benton and followed by his faithful sheepdog, Shep. As the man lay dying, the old dog remained at his side, fed scraps by sympathetic nurses. When the cowboy died, his family requested that he be sent back East. Even then, Shep the sheepdog followed the cowboy’s casket out to the train depot. He whimpered as he watched his master’s body loaded into a cargo car and carried away.
For the next five-and-a-half years, Shep returned to the train station to wait for his owner to return. Four times a day, without fail, Shep would trot up to the station and scan the disembarking passengers for the man. Though at this point a stray, he became a beloved fixture of the little town and was looked after by the train station employees.
Word of the loyal dog in Fort Benton spread, and Shep became something of a Depression-era celebrity. He was featured as an oddity in early Ripley’s Believe It or Not! syndicated panels. Train travelers would take massive detours to see him at the station. Children sent him Christmas presents. Some of them even tried to adopt him, but Shep never took more than a passing interest in any of his admirers. He was a one man dog.
Ultimately, it was his unending dedication that killed him. On the morning of January 12, 1942, he waited as usual for the 10:17 train. His hearing had failed, his limbs were riddled with arthritis, and he was struck by the arriving train.
Shep was buried atop a hill overlooking the train depot. His pallbearers were a local troop of Boy Scouts, and hundreds attended the ceremony. The Great Northern Train Company paid for a wooden effigy of Shep and a cutout of his name to be placed atop the hill for all to see.
Over the years, interest in “Forever Faithful” Shep waned, and his gravesite fell into disrepair. But in the 1980s a group of local historians and civic organizations cleaned it up. Fort Benton restored its pride in its mascot, and demonstrated their love for Shep by installing a new memorial to him in 1994. This steel representation of the faithful sheepdog stands on a railroad trestle in the center of town, looking expectantly over the Missouri River. His memorial is surrounded by an octagonal patio, paved with bricks dedicated to other beloved lost animals.
Between the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon, on the Kruglaya Dune of the Curonian Spit, there is a forest where the pine trees seem to be doing the twist.
Dozens of trees in the Dancing Forest of Russia have trunks that are contorted into rings, spirals, and other loops and squiggles, and the reason for this mysterious malformation is not known. The trees were planted in the early 1960s to stabilize the dune sand, but the unstable sand is one explanation people posit for the trees seeming so unstable themselves. Locals call the crooked wood the Drunken Forest.
Studies have been done to try to determine the exact cause, though results are inconclusive. The leading scientific theory is that pine shoot moth caterpillars damaged the pine shoot’s apical buds at an early age causing them to start out growing at an odd angle, from their lateral buds. Since plants naturally grow toward the sun, they eventually corrected themselves and started growing up again, but with their new deformities intact.
Some blame strong winds, others manipulation by humans. The supernatural-inclined have suggested that the forest is in a place where positive and negative energies clash and that these forces have manipulated the shapes of the trees. Some say that the trees willfully follow the movements of the dune sands.
One local legend says the dancing trees twist and bend because centuries ago, on that very spot, trees were made to dance in order to prove the power of the Christian God. Superstition fuels many of the theories, and has also made the Dancing Forest a popular source of hope: Climbing through one of the rings has been said to add a year to a person’s life or earn that person a granted wish.
Wondering about some of the major deities of the ancient Celtic world? Although the Celts consisted of societies all over the British Isles and parts of Europe, some of their gods and goddesses have become a part of modern Pagan practice. Here are some of the deities honored by the ancient Celtic peoples.
A daughter of the Dagda, Brighid is one of the classic triple goddesses of the Celtic pantheon. Many Paganshonor her today as a goddess of the hearth and home, and of divination and prophecy. She's often associated with the Imbolc sabbat, as well as with fire, domesticity, and family life. Brighid was the patron of poets and bards, as well as healers and magicians. She was especially honored when it came to matters of prophecy and divination.
Cailleach is known in parts of the Celtic world as the hag, the bringer of storms, the Dark Mother of the winter months. However, she features prominently in mythology and is not just a destroyer, but also a creator goddess. According to The Etymological Dictionary Of Scottish-Gaelic the word cailleach itself means "veiled one" or "old woman". In some stories, she appears to a hero as a hideous old woman, and when he is kind to her, she turns into a lovely young woman who rewards him for his good deeds. In other stories, she turns into a giant gray boulder at the end of winter, and remains this way until Beltane, when she springs back to life.
Cernunnos is the horned god found in many traditions of modern Paganism and Wicca. He is an archetype found predominantly in Celtic regions, and symbolizes fertility and masculine energy. Often celebrated around the Beltane sabbat, Cernunnos is associated with the forest, the greening of the earth, and wild stags. He is a god of vegetation and trees in his aspect as the Green Man, and a god of lust and fertility when connected with Pan, the Greek satyr. In some traditions, he is seen as a god of death and dying, and takes time to comfort the dead by singing to them on their way to the spirit world.
Cerridwen is known in Welsh mythology as the keeper of the Cauldron of the Underworld in which knowledge and inspiration are brewed. She is considered a goddess of prophetic powers, and because her symbol is the Cauldron, she is an honored goddess in many Wiccan and Pagan traditions. The legend of Cerridwen is heavy with instances of transformation: when she is chasing Gwion, the two of them change into any number of animal and plant shapes. Following the birth of Taliesen, Cerridwen contemplates killing the infant but changes her mind; instead she throws him into the sea, where he is rescued by a Celtic prince, Elffin. Because of these stories, change and rebirth and transformation are all under the control of this powerful Celtic goddess.
The Dagda was a father god of the Celtic pantheon, and plays an important role in the stories of the Irish invasions. He was the leader of the Tuatha de Danaan, and a god of fertility and knowledge. His name means "the good god." In addition to his mighty club, the Dagda also possessed a large cauldron. The cauldron was magical in that it had an endless supply of food in it -- the ladle itself was said to be so large that two men could lie in it. The Dagda is typically portrayed as a plump man with a large phallus, representative of his status as a god of abundance.
In British lore, Herne the Hunter is a god of vegetation, vine, and the wild hunt. Similar in many aspects to Cernunnos, Herne is celebrated in the autumn months, when the deer go into rut. He is seen as a god of the common folk, and is typically recognized only around the Windsor Forest area of Berkshire, England. Herne was considered a divine hunter, and was seen on his wild hunts carrying a great horn and a wooden bow, riding a mighty black horse and accompanied by a pack of baying hounds. Mortals who get in the way of the Wild Hunt are swept up in it, and often taken away by Herne, destined to ride with him for eternity. He's seen as a harbinger of bad omen, especially to the royal family.
Lugh is the Celtic god honored for his skills and gifts as a craftsman. He is the god of blacksmiths, metal-workers and artisans. In his aspect as a harvest god, he is honored on August 1, on the festival known as Lughnasadh or Lammas. Lugh is associated with craftsmanship and skill, particularly in endeavors involving creativity. Although not specifically a war god, Lugh was known as a skilled warrior. His weapons included a mighty magic spear, which was so bloodthirsty that it often tried to fight without its owner. According to Irish myth, in battle, the spear flashed fire and tore through the enemy ranks unchecked.
The Morrighan is known as a Celtic war goddess, but there's a lot more to her than that. She's associated with rightful kingship, and the sovereignty of the land. The Morrighan often appears in the form of a crow or raven, or is seen accompanied by a group of them. In the stories of the Ulster cycle, she is shown as a cow and a wolf as well. The connection with these two animals suggest that in some areas, she may have been connected to fertility and land.
In the Welsh mythological cycle, the Mabinogion, Rhiannon is known as a goddess of the horse. However, she also plays a crucial role in the kingship of Wales. The horse appears prominently in much of Welsh and Irish mythology. Many parts of the Celtic world -- Gaul in particular -- used horses in warfare, and so it is no surprise that these animals turn up in the myths and legends or Ireland and Wales.
Although Taliesin is a documented historical figure in Welsh history, he has managed to become elevated to the status of a minor god. His mythologized story has elevated him to the status of a minor deity, and he appears in the tales of everyone from King Arthur to Bran the Blessed. Today, many modern Pagans honor Taliesin as a patron of bards and poets, since he is known as the greatest poet of all.