For those of you who do not know about the St. John’s – Ivana Kupala festival, this is the original pagan midsummer night. In pre-Christian Ukraine, the festival was really a fertility rite that was supposed to assure a good harvest. (Kupalo was believed to be the god of Love and of Harvest. He was personified as the earth’s fertility — RJO). From the descriptions in ancient chronicles it was rather wild, featuring all kinds of sexual excesses… in other words, a lot of fun.
With the coming of Christianity, the Church tried to suppress the festival, but it was unsuccessful. So they did what they normally did: they combined the festival of the pagan god Kupalo with the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (July 6th, Julian Calendar) and called it “Ivana Kupala.” The customs were cleaned up a bit, but it’s still a feast for young unmarried people, with plenty of opportunities for “making whoopie.”
They gathered together outside the village in the forest or near a stream or pond, where they built bonfires. The fires were not allowed to go out. They were also used to burn herbs and various items that were blessed.
The girls sing special songs (“kupalni”), with a lot of references to love and marriage. They also float flower garlands on the water and tell their fortunes from the behavior of them. Both boys and girls jump over the bonfire, again to tell fortunes.
The most adventurous go into the forest in search of the tsvit paporoti – the magic flower, which blooms only on that night. If found, the finder gets untold riches and happiness. But beware! On that magic night the forest is of full of demons and other scary beings (nechysta syla), which are out to get the unwary. In particular, there are Rusalky, the water nymphs, who are the souls of those drowned. They try to entice you into the water, so that you would join them in death. But around the bonfire all is merriment and joy. Songs are sung (many of them survive to the present day), music is played, and everybody dances and makes merry.
The old village witch is around, of course, telling fortunes, selling love potions, making magic to assure a large crop of marriages. Magic is done also to assure the good harvest, but that part is subdued. Nothing assures fertility of the fields, after all, as well as fertility of people. This is the “sympathetic magic” – the strongest type of magic there is.