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Feast of Ivan Kupalo: Pagan and Christian
This feast was — and is — celebrated in Ukraine on July 7 and it marks the birth of John the Baptist who, in the Ukrainian tradition, is called Ivan. The word “Kupalo” (or “Kupaylo”) got attached because originally, on that day, a pagan feast of bathing had been celebrated, and to bathe in Ukrainian is kupaty. It is not the only case when a pagan feast got merged with a Christian one.
According to the Gospels, John was a holy man who baptized Christ and who later died a martyr’s death. The story that the evangelist John tells differs in many details from the stories related by the other three evangelists. “There appeared a man named John, sent from God; he came as a witness to testify to the light that all might become believers through him. He was not himself the light; he came to bear witness to the light. The real light, which enlightens every man, was even then coming to the world.”
This light was Jesus. “Here is John’s testimony to him: he cried aloud, ‘This is the man I meant when I said, “He comes after me, but takes rank before me” for before I was born, he already was.’”
The evangelist Luke says, “I baptize … with water [said John]; but there is one to come who is mightier than I. I am not fit to unfasten his shoes. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire…”
“During a general baptism of the people, when Jesus too had been baptized, and was praying, heaven opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove…” “John… announced the good news. But Prince Herod, when he was rebuked by [John] over the affair of his brother’s wife Herodias and his misdeeds, crowned them all by shutting John up in prison” and later he had John beheaded.
“John was a lamp,” says Jesus in John’s Gospel, “burning brightly.”
Such is, basically, the story of John the Baptist as it is presented in the Gospels.
But Christianity came to the Lands of Kyiv much later than the feast of Kupalo had begun to be celebrated. In all likelihood its origins can be traced to the earliest times of the Slavs in the territory of Ukraine.
The Feast of Ivan Kupalo has retained, after over thousand years of Christianity in this land, many of its primordial, heathen features.
On that day, in the evening, when the dark came, bonfires were lit and young people jumped over these fires in an ostentatious show of their agility and courage. The jumpers sang as they took leaps over the fire,
Oh, Ivan Kupala,
May my jumps take away
All the evil from under my feet!
In other words, the leaps over the fire were symbolic acts of being cleansed by the fire.
Girls plaited wreaths of grasses and wild flowers and threw them on the water in the rivers and streamlets, with lit candles attached to the wreaths. The girls then watched the wreaths — if the wreath that you made and launched got carried by the current back to the same shore and the candle kept safely burning, it meant that you had a good chance of getting married to a young man from your own village. If the wreath got carried away and far, it foretold a chance of getting married too, but your fiance would come from a faraway place. If, God forbid, the candle got blown off by the wind, or the wreath overturned, it portended all kinds of personal misfortunes, local or even general disasters.
There was a lot of singing and group dancing too. Vigorous games were played. “Communal” bathing in rivers and lakes was a characteristic feature of the Feast of Ivan Kupalo.
Land tillers would take some food to the fields and have their repast there; they also would reap a symbolic sheaf, asking for God’s blessing.
The pagan feast of Kupalo was of an orgiastic nature and indiscriminate and random sex was part of the feast. Naturally, this part was eliminated by Christianity, but characteristically, only single young people were allowed to take part in the festivities which retained a vigorous and active character. The young married couples were allowed only to bring the food cooked for the feast and give it out to the celebrants, and then retire.
There was a traditional belief that on the night of Ivan Kupalo ferns produced blooms (it is well known that ferns never grow flowers). The one who spotted such a magic fern bloom, which shone with its own light, and was lucky to get it, would become rich or would understand the language of animals and plants.
Fortune telling was part of the Ivan Kupalo rituals. Also, weather forecasts were made. If, on Ivan Kupalo, millet showed signs of yielding a good crop, then it was believed that all other crops would also be good and plentiful. If a thunderstorm poured rain on Ivan Kupalo, then the nut shells would grow half-empty and the cores would be shrivelled and not good for eating.
On the feast day nobody worked, but the next day was to be a day of hard work at the end of which wholesome and big meals were served right in the fields — pork fat (instead of meat) — fresh, boiled or salted; eggs, fish, pancakes, garlic, onions, boiled potatoes, cucumbers and reddish in great abundance were shared by the toilers.
The nineteenth-century Ukrainian ethnographer M. Markevych described the Feast of Ivan Kupalo and the next day that followed it: “The whole village would come to the field for early harvesting or haymaking; people were dressed in white loose trousers and white shirts; men wore straw hats and had with them pipes for smoking, tobacco, whetstone and their scythes. I am sure the scythers looked exactly the same way a thousand years ago too. If there was an ancient barrow in the field, then all the wagons would be arranged around it. A shallow pit was dug and fire was made in it; over the fire, big pots would be hung with soup and gruel cooking in them; a barrel of horilka (vodka) would be close at hand.”
During the Kupalo night, desirably still before dawn, medicinal herbs were looked for and collected. It was believed that their curative properties were the best if the herbs were collected on the Kupalo night. The herbs were put in safe and dry places to dry. Brews and potions made from these dry herbs were widely used in folk medicine.
Some of the Kupalo traditions and rituals have survived to this day. One can even say that there is a certain revival of the pagan elements of the Ivan Kupalo celebrations in some parts of Ukraine, though, of course, it remains to be a Christian feast.
Photos have been provided by Baltia-Druk Publishing House