Sunday, June 22, 2014


With the Summer Solstice arrived, this is my article on Kupalo
This is the original:

Kupalo: fire, water, flowers, nature, and love

by Orysia Paszczak Tracz

There is something about the feast of
Ivan Kupalo that fascinates young people.
Most probably, it has to do with the
unfamiliar, the unattainable, the mythical,
because somewhere, somehow, they
have heard that this particular Ukrainian
celebration has to do with love, passion,
even something about naked orgies!
Since, for most of us, such events are
far-removed from our everyday life, this
makes the feast of Kupalo that much
more fascinating. While we experience
the special rituals of Christmas, Easter
and Ukrainian weddings, this particular
holiday has eluded us.

Ukrainian traditions and customs are
with us throughout the year and on special
family occasions. We are blessed with the
most extraordinary, fascinating and meaningful
customs - ones that have their origins
in human prehistory (we're talking
about the Paleolithic and the Neolithic, the
Upper and Lower Stone Ages).
For most of us, our Christmas, Easter
and wedding traditions are so much a
part of our life that we could not be
without them. However, there are two
other major feast days of the calendar
year - the more non-family oriented
Kupalo and Obzhynky (the harvest
thanksgiving feast), which could not be
that easily adapted to an urban setting,
and for this reason are not as common
here in North America.

Some of us have fond memories of
summer camp, with young men leaping
over a bonfire, young women casting
fresh flower wreaths with lit candles
upon a river or lake. But the symbolism
probably wasn't explained to us in
depth, and we were too young at the
time to understand anyway.
Midsummer's Night, celebrated all
over Europe, is the longest day, and the
shortest night of the year. It is the height
of summer, the turning point, the day
when the sun is at its longest, highest
power. Nature also has reached its peak,
with plants at the pinnacle of their
growth. From here, no more farm work
is needed, and all growth just continues
until harvest. In fact, Kupalo heralds the
harvest to come.

Wild plants, especially herbs and medicinal
plants are at the height of their curative
powers, and are gathered that day for
use throughout the year. The basic elements
of each Ukrainian feast, and their
symbolism, are present here also: fire,
water, holy Mother Earth and nature,
ancestors, and love/fertility/procreation.
Fire symbolizes and reinforces the
power of the sun, and is present in the enormous
bonfires (often a few per village) and
in the burning big wheels of straw careening
down hillsides towards the water.
Water symbolizes life and purification,
and the companion to fire. Fire evaporates
water, water puts out fire. Water
from heaven - the dew - is very powerful
in the early morning of the feast, and people
wash and roll in the dew in order to
be healthy for the rest of the year.
All villagers are expected to attend
the Kupalo festivities, and there are
even songs mocking and shaming those
who do not.

Kupalski pisni, the Kupalo ritual
songs, are about love, nature, and
Marena and Kupalo, symbolic of this
feast. Marena is the goddess of spring,
and Kupalo is one personification of
the god of winter. From evidence in the
songs and rituals, some scholars believe
that Kupalo (a "he") was originally
Kupala or Kupaila (a "she").
Two scarecrow-type figures made
from tree branches or saplings are
dressed as a male and a female, then carried
around by the young people singing
ritual songs. At the height of the night's
festivities, Marena and Kupalo are either
burned in the bonfire, drowned in the
river, torn apart, or buried - symbolizing
the end of winter and spring, and the
Illustration of a Kupalo tradition from a Ukrainian-language brochure by
Lidia Orel, titled "Ivana Kupala" (Kyyiv: Pamiatky Ukrainy, 1992).
decline of the earth's fertility, leading
towards autumn and harvest. Often a
separate young tree is decorated with ribbons,
flowers and other ornaments by the
young women, and is carried as Marena.
Because there are variations from region
to region, and even between villages,
there is no one set pattern of rituals,
although the basic elements are there.
The power of plant life on this night
is reinforced by the fragrant herbs braided
into the vinky, the garlands or
wreaths of wildflowers worn by the
young women. These wreaths, with candles
in them, foretell the maiden's
romantic future as they are gently cast
into the flowing water. Depending if the
vinok floats, sinks, gets caught in an
undertow or tangles on the bank - this
symbolizes if, when, and whom she will
marry, or even if she and/or he will die.
It is believed that all plant life in the
forest comes alive during this night, and
trees walk and talk. The elusive "tsvit
paporoti" - the fern flower that is considered
the flower of good fortune - blooms
at midnight. Whoever finds it, picks it
and manages to bring it home, will be the
richest, wisest, most loved and most
blissful person on earth. But this is a lesson
in the folly of greed and foolishness,
an example of elusivity - because we
know that the fern does not procreate this
way. It never blooms, there is no flower
at midnight and, sadly, maybe there is no
ultimate bliss after all.

Love plays an integral part in these rituals.
Couples who are in love and want
to marry jump over the bonfire holding
hands to seal their fate. Couples frolic in
the water together (one of the ancient
symbols of marriage). In some regions,
the ideal was to jump over the bonfire
directly into the water. In early times
(and maybe not that early), this was done
after disrobing, because certain rituals
were more powerful if carried out in the
"natural state." There is much erotic
symbolism in the songs and rituals, and
much wandering off into the woods. If
anyone ever thought that Ukrainians are
straight-laced and prudish, this is one
feast that would blow that theory out of
the water.

Why is this holiday sometimes called
the feast of Ivan Kupala? As with all our
traditions, it is an example of dualism, of
the combination of pre-Christian and
Christian religions. For centuries, the
Church tried to forbid the pre-Christian
rituals, but the population would not give
up what had been part of its life and
belief for millennia. In time, beginning in
the 16th and 17th centuries, Church
authorities conceded, and began combining
the pre-Christian feasts with Christian
ones. The celebration of Kupalo fell
around the time of the Feast of St. John
the Baptist, Ivan Khrestytel, so the name
of the feast became that of Ivan Kupalo,
and the feast was moved from the June
summer solstice to July. The earliest ritual
songs do not mention any Ivan.

Ukrainian tradition, with its abundance
of ritual and symbolism, is a testament to
the richness, antiquity and power of our
culture. We are fortunate that our ancestors
lived in such a naturally beautiful and
bountiful place, that they valued their
way of life and beliefs, and passed them
down so many generations. It is remarkable
that they did so in spite of the invasions,
persecution, dangers and lack of
freedom over the centuries.

On this night, we can go back in
time to the enchanted world of magic,
nature, and love. And if some of you do
wander off into the woods, the organizers
of the festivities and the vatra take
no responsibility for the consequences!