Christianity received its first introductions to Ukraine in the middle of the 9th century but it wasn’t until the middle of the 10th century that it would really catch on. Prince Volodymyr was so taken with this religion and the ideals and beliefs that accompanied it that he had himself baptised in the area of Kherson and would ensure that the area which he governed would also soon be converted. That aspiration was acknowledged in the year 988 as citizens were ordered to gather on the banks of River Dnipro and step into the water. The fascination would not stop there and he in fact had Pagan idols and deities destroyed by his own inhabitants following the initiation.
While baptism characterises only one element of the Christian faith, it has been around for thousands of years. It’s significance is felt here and at this time because St. John the Baptist, considered it’s initiator, was born on 24 June and the church considered this the best tool with which to rid the Slavs of the Pagan rites which had taken root.
Perhaps they underestimated however, just how deeply ingrained this particular tradition was, as they were simply unable to eradicate it and so instead, united the two:
Ivan (John, in Ukrainian) + Kupalo.
It emerged into a unique festivity celebrating aspects of Christian religion with an attitude appropriate of the Pagans and has remained firmly embedded in folk ritual becoming Ivana Kupala.
Abundance is the theme of this party and the games, traditions and customs that are practiced come the 24th of June, wholly encompass this idea. The main elements include fire and water with herbs playing quite a large part as well. Kupala in fact, is derived from the Slavic word for bathing and so has many foundations connected to it. Those who pull toward the religious slant accept it as the first day of the year that the church sanctions swimming in ponds, lakes and rivers. Those with slightly more mystical inclinations accept that fertility and purification have more to do with it than any regulation a religious body might put on it. However, you want to spin it, it’s a night to go out, wash up, and have a lot of fun!
Girls would weave and then set afloat flower garlands on the river and would be able to tell their fortunes from the movement. The longer the wreath stayed afloat, the better the girls’ possibility for happiness and love.
Herbs became quite an important symbol with regard to this event because magical properties were attributed to certain plants. There is an ancient belief that on this particular eve, the fern plant takes on a life of its own and begins to bloom. Legend has it that whoever finds this fern-flower will prosper until the end of his days. Which is why you see so many people going out into the forest at night – they are looking for magical herbs!
Pre-Christian accounts tell of Kupala as the god of herbs, sorcery, sex, and midsummer and the festival celebrating this deity was really a fertility rite that was supposed to assure it’s participants of a good harvest.
One of the easier tasks to accomplish is to wash your face with the morning dew. It promises to free you from all illness.
Another tradition has to do with the decorating of trees. The men would go out deep into the forest to find a tree befitting for the occasion and the girls would creatively decorate it. It symbolised something bigger, something that was akin to the world as a whole – Asvattha, a sacred object for all. The entire community would gather around to celebrate: if anyone refused, it was considered bad luck.
One of the more popular traditions is jumping over the fire. Young couples would join hands and jump! If their hands remained united, it was thought they would live a long and happy life together.
These stories aren’t all wrought around good fortune and for those girls not quite lucky enough to find her beloved, tradition advises that she run around a rye field three times, preferably naked. According to the belief, her beloved is meant to see her in his dreams and the moment he awakes, he will find himself madly in love.
There are many traditions that have unfortunately fallen to the wayside but one that remains today is the burning of Kupalo dolls. Men create dolls in the female form and women create the Kupalo doll in the masculine form. At the end of the celebration the male doll is burned to ashes and the female doll is drowned.
Once the male dolls had smoldered down to ashes, everyone would grab a handful to throw it on their fields for a fruitful harvest. Another variant is the burning of a very large straw man with large genitalia. The idea is that the bigger the ‘privates’ the better the crops resulting from it’s very fertile ground.
But the most important tradition is to stay up past the witching hour, all night if you’re able.
Ukraine is rich in its mythology and well known for keeping its traditions alive. To celebrate this year, make your way up to Blad Hill on the eve of the summer solstice (21st) and go wild with the locals who meet there every year to honor their roots.
Various other events are also in the works this year and one that is to promise a very good time is being put on by the Kyiv Lions Club. Kozak Night, 27 June, will have you dancing under the stars, howling round the fire and above all growing merrier by the minute as you listen to the sounds of Eugenia Vlasova, Mad Heads XL and DakhaBrakha. Come on out and help them raise a few kopecks for charity.