What’s up with Walpurga?


I’ve never celebrated Walpurgis Night, which seems to be a big bonfire party held across large swaths of Europe every spring (April 30/May 1), but I am curious about the name of the holiday. Where does it come from?

It was named after St. Walpurga, an 8th-century English missionary whose name in Old English would have looked more like “Wealdburg.”

Her name reminds me of Willibrord, and for good reason — the corresponding saints were both Anglo-Saxons who lived right around the same time.

So what does her name mean?

As with Willibrord, there are two elements to Wealdburg.

The first element comes from the Anglo-Saxon word weald, meaning “power,” “authority” or “ruler.” This element can also be seen in Germanic names like Walter and Waldo.

The second comes from the Anglo-Saxon word burg, meaning “fortress,” “castle,” “town,” “city,” or something similar.

Now, Germanic names weren’t constructed so that the meanings of the two elements would form a phrase. So combining these two definitions to create something catchy like “ruler of the fortress” would be taking things a bit too far. Better to leave the definition at “power + fortress” or something like that.

Walpurga has never made the SSA’s list of baby names, but Walburga has — on and off from the 1890s until the 1920s.

Image: Adapted from Valborg 2177 by Bengt Nyman under CC BY 2.0.

2 thoughts on “What’s up with Walpurga?

  1. The etymology you cite is the most plausible one (given the vast popularity of the name element WALD / WEALD) but it is not the only possible one: There is another name element WAL
    (with possible meanings: Gaul, Celt, Roman, Foreigner; dead) that could be in the first part of the name.

    For more info on WAL, see http://www.nordicnames.de/wiki/VAL

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