Our Spotlight on Traditions is a series to explore the varied traditions of Pagan, Heathen and polytheistic practice. As we move into the season of Lughnasadh and pass the day of Perun (the thunder god) on August 2, we look back at the summer season in the Slavic faiths.
The Slavs of Belarus, Russia, Poland, and Ukraine marked the summer solstice with the feast of Ivan Kupala. Like many seasonal celebrations, Pagan and Christian traditions have intertwined. On this Lammas eve, we look back at the celebration.
In pre-Christian times, this was a feast of Kupala or Kupalo. The dual-sexed god took both a feminine form, Kupala, and a masculine form, Kupalo. Kupala is the goddess of joy and water. Kupalo is the god of summer, the harvest, and fertility
After the introduction of Christianity, this solstice celebration became semi-Christianized. The proximity of the summer solstice, June 21, to the feast of John the Baptist, June 24, resulted in the conflation of these feast days. This hybrid holiday was named the feast of Ivan Kupala. In the 20th Century, Leninist hostility to all religion and “backward” folk beliefs threatened the survival of folk customs.
Today, Russian Pagans celebrate Kupala on the summer solstice. Russian Christians celebrate Ivan Kupala on June 24. This year, the Ukrainian diaspora in Cleveland, Ohio celebrated Kupala. The Feast of Ivan Kupala survives as a folk holiday, a pagan revival, a Christian saint’s day, and a tourist attraction.
Open Pagan culture survived among the eastern Slavs until the 10th century. At that point, militant Christianity become dominant. Some Pagan practices survived well beyond that. Few written sources have survived that describe Slavic Pagan culture. This makes it difficult to distinguish between fragments of surviving Pagan culture and Christian overlays. Christians frequently denounced a freedom from sexual restraints associated with the Kupala festivities.
After dark on Kupala Eve, Kupala festivals feature bonfires with singing and dancing. Photographs of these bonfires show them to be large. People have leaped three to four feet (0.91 m to 1.22 m) in the air over these large bonfires. While none of the written sources mentioned it, photographs of Ivan Kupala festivals show these dances and leaps sometimes occurred skyclad.
In Ukraine, people believe that how a couple leaps over a bonfire prognosticates the future of their relationship. If the couple can hold hands throughout their leap, they will stay together. If not, they will break up.
People in some Slavic regions consider leaping to signify bravery, faith, or luck. The highest jumper receives the most luck, has the strongest faith, or is the bravest. In other Slavic regions, the act of leaping purges sins and improves health. In Russia, mothers would burn the clothes of sick children to heal them. Some people believe that items blessed by holy water should be burned in these bonfires.
They bonfires are not extinguished. Instead, they must smolder out.
Young women weave wreaths of wildflowers to wear in their hair. In Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, these young females would make a wish and set the wreath in a stream or pond. Floating indicated a successful outcome for the wish.
In Poland, young females would weave the wreaths from mugwort, rue, chamomile, hypericum and other flowering herbs. At midnight, young females would set their wreaths in a river, sometimes with a candle. Guys would then wade into the water to try to catch their wreaths. If a guy caught a female’s wreath, they would become a couple. If not, they would remain alone. No one reported on what happened if the female didn’t like the guy who grabbed her wreath.
Bathing in rivers and ponds
A common belief concerns bathing in rivers and lakes. In Russia, people commonly pour dirty water on other celebrants to force them to swim. People believe that the more one bathes in the water, the purer the bather will become.
In Ukraine, people go to lakes and streams, but no swimming occurs. People believe that evil spirits in the water would pull swimmers to their deaths.
A common belief among Eastern Slavs is that the magic of Kupala eve has a major impact on plants. Young couples go into the forest to harvest herbs and to search for the magical Red Fern Flower.
The Red Fern Flower
One plant in particular had special powers on Kupala eve. Around midnight, the Red Fern Flower would bloom. In Russia, people believed that those who saw this red flower would have all their wishes come true. In Ukraine, the flower would show where a treasure would be buried. In Belarus, people believed that finding this flower would give the finder, the power to understand the language of birds and animals. Similar beliefs exist in Poland.
Other beliefs about Kupala
People would make effigies of Kupala. They would then burn, drown, bury, or tear apart the effigy. In some areas this effigy would be a wheel with dry grasses. People would set these grasses on fire and roll the wheel down a hill.
In Russia and Ukraine, Kupala eve had an association with danger. As a result, people tried to avoid sleep.
At one point a common set of rituals and beliefs about Kupala probably united the eastern Slavs. As Pagan culture went underground, beliefs and practices diverged. Over the years, new beliefs and practices were added. As in the West, different fragments of ancient Pagan culture survived and evolved. Regional cultures and practices diverged and evolved.
A recognizable Pagan revival is now occurring in Eastern Europe, and Pagans in the West can learn a lot from those in the East.
The Wheel of the Year now looks to Mokosh, the Goddess of Fate and marking the fall equinox. It begins a time of introspection as the year comes to a close.