Kupala Night begins with lighting the “holy fires” in forest clearings as well as on the banks of rivers and lakes. Participants strike fire from ash, birch, or oakwood. In sacred places, they drive birch pegs into the ground and place ash hubs on them—that is, wheels with spokes wrapped in tarred straw. They spin the wheels so fast that the friction causes them to burn. They roll the burning wheels to nearby piles of wood and straw—symbols of home and hearth—and flames burst into the sky, sparking and roaring, symbolizing a new, clean home and hearth. At the same time, there’s singing and dancing. Women collect magical herbs and flowers. They weave wreaths and gird themselves with wormwood.

It’s a night of celebration and erotic awakening, with all-night revelries among the smoke of bonfires and the intoxicating smells of a summer night outdoors. In the past, marriages were arranged by the head or the elders of the family and matchmakers… but for the young women who had not yet been engaged and wanted to avoid the usual form of mating, here, among the flame and flowers, was a chance to win a loved one. A boy might even “kidnap” a dancing girl from around the fire and try to woo her.

In some traditions, young maidens release their previously woven wreaths to the waters of rivers and streams in a collective ceremony with singing and dancing. The wreaths might have a candle stuck in them, so that the beloved one can more easily find the right wreath in the dark. Downriver, boys stand ready to jump into the water to pick out the wreaths of their beloveds. Anyone who does so returns to the celebrating crowd to find the lucky (or not) owner of the retrieved wreath. A quick retrieval of a girl’s wreath meant a quick marriage. If the wreath swam but not so soon. But if the wreath was burned, sank, or became entangled in the rushes, she was likely to become an old maid. Wreaths in hands, the bachelors might invite their beloveds for a romantic walk in search of a magical fern flower, and then together they might walk into the darkness of the forest …

Kupalnocka, Sobótki, Ivan Kupala, or Saint John’s Eve, as it’s often called today, are the names of this joyful yet mysterious pre-Christian Slavic holiday that traditionally fell on the astronomically shortest night of the year, around June 20 or 21. Kupala Night was the culminating celebration of the Slavic summer holidays and, unlike other holidays, pushed agrarian elements into the background. Instead the ancient cults of fire (a symbol of love and family life) and of water (a source of health, purification, and life) came to the fore in an exuberant and often dazzling celebration.

The roots of Kupala Night are deeply anchored in Slavic culture, and in the rural folk tradition, the holiday is still alive—slightly transformed, of course, but recognizable nonetheless. Christian influence assimilated the holiday under the name of Saint John, after unsuccessful attempts to completely eradicate the rite of the old faith. The name was a reference to the ritual baths performed that night as a form of baptism—like those performed by John the Baptist. The holiday also moved from the summer solstice to the birthday of John the Baptist, June 24. A similar thing happened in East Slavic rituals: The Orthodox Church called the holiday Ivan Kupala, which is mainly celebrated in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia on July 6, according to the Gregorian calendar, or June 23 and June 24 according to the Julian one.

But where does the name Kupala come from? In Ruthenia, Kupala was mentioned already in the 13th century as kupalija, and in the 14th century Ivan Kupala appeared as a name of both the holiday and the ritual effigy used in the ceremony. That effigy might be the figure of a mythical god of the summer sun, marriage, and the earth’s fertility, though not all experts confirm this. More certain is that a puppet called Kupala was used in rituals by eastern Slavs. People gathered around the fire and jumped over it, carrying the puppet with them. According to old Russian and Bulgarian testimonies, the name was derived from the ritual bathing in the river for the first time in a year. The word Sobótka was a Polish name for the massive fire that was burned during holidays and celebrations. Christians later associated the name Sobótka with “sabbath”—as they considered the fire celebrations to be devilish.

The summer festival occurred during the full bloom of nature and the hottest month of the year, which probably contributed to this full-scale awakening of passions and feelings among the community that led to a symbolic discharge of excitability. This, in turn, became the reason for the Catholic Church’s strong opposition to Kupala Night as a “satanic practice.” As a result of these actions, Kupala Night celebrations gradually began to disappear or get distorted as Christian beliefs took over, but the Renaissance era brought a return to and longing for nature and old traditions.

People began to rediscover these old customs, and to celebrate them. Today, the ritual and symbolism of the holiday have a joyful character and it attracts many young people hoping to get closer to their chosen loves… but in Slavic Rodnovery circles, where practitioners reconstruct and follow pre-Christian Slavic religions, Kupala continues to be a deeply important religious holiday.

In these modern celebrations, sacrifices (obiaty) are still made to the sacred fire for Swarozyc, Swarog, Dazhboh, Jarylo, Mokosh, and others, and are believed to give people fertility and abundant harvest in return. It is also a farewell ritual to the spring god Jarylo. The Rodnover priest (called Zherts) who presides over the rite raises toasts to harvest, fertility, gods, and ancestors, and then throws the offerings into the fire for the gods. People gird their loins with wormwood and jump through the fire, in pairs or singly, and the sacred fire is thought to purify them and protect against evil. People also lead their cattle through fire to protect against disease and pestilence. Fire jumping is the most common ritual in the entire Slavic region, while the best preserved rite in Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian folklore is the custom of burning a straw effigy of Kupala (or Mara in Belarus), or a horse head or cow head decorated with flowers. Girls throw bunches of flowers and herbs into the fire to ensure health, fertility, and reciprocity of feelings with their chosen ones. Burnt herbs (thyme, wormwood, mugwort, mullein, burdock) are supposed to cleanse souls and bodies and protect against spirits with dubious intentions.

The fire is also used for prophecy, with the behavior of the flame predicting the weather and abundance of the harvest. If the flame is high and even, it heralds a rich harvest of fruit. If sparks jump out of the fire, it means a successful harvest.

The release of wreaths is an inseparable element of Kupala Night, but this holiday is also a time of searching for the legendary, mystical fern flower. The peculiarity of this mythical plant is that it was believed to bloom only once a year, during the shortest night of the year, at midnight.

According to legend, the fern flower shone with an extraordinary glow and was believed to point the way to hidden treasures, and wealth and abundance. To those who found it, the flower revealed all the wisdom of the world and provided wealth and happiness, especially in love. According to botanists and ethnographers, on the other hand, the legend of the fern flower probably originated from the custom of women smearing themselves with Adder’s-tongue fern leaves (Ophioglossum vulgatum) during the celebration of the holiday, which was supposed to magically increase their attractiveness. Of course, many types of plants found in wetlands and wooded areas were collectively referred to as ferns, many of which grow and bloom in June.

Water and bathing also played and continue to play a huge sacred role. In some regions, it was forbidden to bathe in rivers, streams, or lakes during Kupala Day, but at night the water became a healing element belonging to the moon and could then cure various ailments. Only after the climax of the summer solstice did the power of various water demons weaken under the influence of incantations and rituals; water then gained salutary properties of healing and purification, even allowing for spiritual rebirth. The Slavic Rodnovers re-create all these ritual elements with an incredible attention to detail, based on source documentation, during the fully religious Kupala holiday—all against the background of beautiful songs, joyful dances, colorful processions, and fortune-telling by the fire.

Follow Lena Lenard on Instagram @lena_fox_art.


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