HISTORY IS WRITTEN BY THE SINNERS: A WALPURGISNACHT SERMON
Another Walpurgisnacht is in the books, and then those books have subsequently been banned from public school libraries in the midwest, and thus the cycle continues.
For obvious reasons, we had to cancel our usual Walpurgisnacht Black Mass this year, substituting a virtual ritual dubbed Walpurgis-NOT instead–so-called in part because technically we conducted it on Beltane Eve. There’s no extra devil points to be had for punctuality.
Holidays are tricky things. Supposedly they represent people’s oldest traditions, but in reality they change more often than the Hypercolor shirt that your oldest Millennial friend still secretly wishes they owned.
As our own Simone Lasher explained, Walpurgisnacht traces its origins back to Norse myths about Odin’s wedding day, for which he presumably sported an extra-fancy formal eyepatch.
The “Walpurgis” designation represents a mostly failed attempt to Christianize that festival by naming it for a long-dead missionary nun. By the way, fun fact about St. Walburga: her corpse apparently produces essential oils.
I’m sorry did I say “fun fact,” because I actually meant the inverse of both of those words. People really do believe this though, the online magazine Simply Catholic holding that “oil has flowed from her bones for more than 1,000 years,” which is close to the most unappealing thing I’ve ever heard of a dead body doing.
Keeping with the theme of things changing, the Satanic Temple’s recently adopted holiday calendar marks April 30 (“Hexennacht” rather than Walpurgisnacht, the two words being largely interchangeable) as a day for “honoring those who fell victim to superstition and pseudoscience, by witch hunt, Satanic panic, or other injustices.”
Although our own observations didn’t touch on these themes–we have other things on our minds right now–I’ve nevertheless been thinking about them a lot lately.
For whatever reason, public interest in the Satanic Panic appears to be waxing over the past five or six years. Just last week I listened to the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Uncover and Gimlet Media’s Conviction, both revisiting previously obscure modern witch hunt cases.
Uncover picks apart the Martensville scare circa 1992, a daycare panic in Saskatchewan that saw even some of the police officers investigating initial allegations of a devil cult eventually put on trial themselves.
In a 2019 interview, Sergeant John Popowich copped to the fact that the scariest thing about being falsely accused was that he “knew what the system could do.” That is to say, he knew the very ways that the institutions he served could fuck people on no grounds at all.
You’d think that would give a guy pause about his career decisions, but after getting an acquittal at trial he went back to being a cop anyway. People do tend to stick by their abusers.
Conviction dissected the case against Melvin Quinney, a working-class San Antonio father accused by his own kids of murderous Satanic crime sprees in 1989.
Son John Quinney even spun a graphic tale of his dad murdering hitchhikers at a Satanic ritual lit by “barrels of fire” in a field somewhere. Which was a terrible place for them to be hitchhiking in the first place, so really everyone shares the blame on that one.
You can probably guess this story never really happened, and the most inhumane things that really happened in America in ’89 were the first Bush inauguration and the fact that we somehow let Look Who’s Talking become a box office hit.
The history debunking podcast You’re Wrong About just wrapped up a five-episode recollection of Michelle Remembers, the fraudulent Satanism scare memoir that narrowly beats out casual shoulderpads as the worst product of that decade.
I couldn’t say why people seem so much more curious about the curiosities of that period in recent years. Maybe it’s as simple as renewed ’80s nostalgia–in between Stranger Things and yet another Ghostbusters reboot we’ve got to tide ourselves over with something.
Or maybe we’re just fretting that the current political moment feels primed for a new American witch hunt. Indeed, we’ve always got a few brewing, singling out the likes of immigrants, Muslims, trans people, and the neurally atypical. If only we could redirect all of that ill-will toward Joe Rogan, where it belongs.
I do find some of this 2020 hindsight assuring in a way, though. We’re often told that it’s the winners who write history, a sentiment that, on top of being of elusive origin, is not really true.
The prosecutors who put people like Melvin Quinney or the West Memphis Three in prison won those cases, but they haven’t shaped the way we remember them. Rather than heroic witchfinder generals, in these 21st century recountings they all come off as general incompetents.
Nor indeed do we remember historic witch hunts in the glowing terms all of that used-up kindling might hope to engender.
Neither did many people at the time. In the aftermath of the infamous Essex County witchcraft scare centered around Salem in the 17th century, shame and confusion proliferated in people’s feelings about what one preacher referred to in a 1707 sermon as “that dark and mysterious season.”
Nobody can give the wrongfully accused and convicted their lives back. Nor, seemingly, can we do much to quell moral panics until after they’ve already fucked things up beyond repair for someone.
But what we do have power over is how it’s remembered. ALL OF US write history; we’re doing it every day.
There are, perhaps, only a handful of moments and a tiny number of people who can ever prevent an injustice from happening. But an infinite number of parties and moments can advocate for those who are wronged.
It’s not much. But it is a lot.
Until next Walpurgisnacht, keep those fires burning.