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Ivan Kupala Day

July 6, 2010

Taken from

Ivan Kupala Day is one of the great and enigmatic holidays signifing a celebration in honour of the “God of the Sun” (or “Dazhbog”). It is belived that during this time of summer solstice, the sun is strongest, before turning to the winter. They say that the Sun is a personification of light, celebrating its victory over dark forces, so as it rises it’s “playing”, “leaping” and feeling joyful. All Nature is also joyful because of this, becoming special and charmed. The name of the holiday is bound to the name of “Kupajla”, who is the “Divinity of Fertility”,of the harvest, welfare and medicinal healing herbs and plants. Traditional ceremonies are timed so as to celebrate in honour of youth, beauty, love and purification.

On the 6th of July people set off for the gathering of medical hebs and plants. They gather healing herbs at dawn, far from the settlements and paths, all in a good mood and praying. Folklore has it that besides medical properties Kupal’s’ki plants have a considerable magical effect. The main Kupal’s’ki ceremonies were taking place at night 6 – 7 July. Kupala night is a special night.

Not only is it the most mysterious and enigmatic but also the most dissolute night of the year. The people believed that all Kupala’s articles like chaplets, sprigs of sapling, ash, dew and other items had had not only healing properties but also considerable guarding forces from impure spirits as well as witches, which were thought to be very active on Kupala’s night. All night long people keep Kupala bonfires burning, leaping over the flames, cleansing themselves of ill and bad luck.

 The remnants of the bonfire are distributed to the participants, and maybe taken home, to protect against evil forces. It was considered a good sign for their future if young people, while jumping over the fire, would keep their hands locked and their clothes unsinged. Mothers burn shirts of ill children in the Kupala fire as illnesses are believed to burn away with it.

The next ceremony consists of purifying by another element. Water. Girls try to dive in the water in such a way, that a chaplet from their hair would float on the surface of the water. Sometimes girls were sending their own personal chaplet with candles alit floating to the other side of the river or lake as the young men would try to capture the chaplet of his favorite girl. If not able to reach it from shore, some would impatiently jump in the water and retrieve the girls chaplet. A kiss awaits the bearer of each chaplet.

Especially enigmatic were recitals relating to fern blossoms on Kupala night. In order to see it, you have to go at night to the fern bush to spread under it a linen or towel on which the Easter cake was sanctified. Next you must draw around yourself a circle with the knife sanctified in the Church, sprinkle the plant with sanctified water and read a prayer. Impure forces then try to drive away and scare the man ie; wind, noise, blowing small rocks and twigs. It will not, however, be able to overcome the outlined circle. This is why you need to “fear not”.

At midnight the fern begins to bloom and fall on the linen. This is when you need to quickly rap the linen and hide it with the fern blossoms in your bosom. Such bravery rewards the person who did this to inherit the power to see how trees walk from one place to another. To understand the language of birds, animals, plants and trees. He will be able to locate treasure hidden in the ground and retrieve it.

The highlight of the ritual is a decoration of the sacral sapling – “kupaily” (kupailytsi, gil’tsya, madder). Usually it is the branch of a willow, cherry or ash tree, decorated by field flowers, paper ribbons, and burning candles. Girls dance and sing about love and marriage around the “Kupaily”. It is then dipped in water and broken into pieces and given to the girls, “so they would attain riches”.

The Kupal’ska ritual is highly symbolic. Kupal’s’ki fires symbolize a cult of the Sun. Kupal’s’ka water is a symbol of healing power. A fern is a symbol of a happy future. Magic Ivanivs’ka dew provides beauty and love, and the Kupala tree denotes fertility and happiness.

The Kupala ritual, as with Ukrainians, was widespread not only amoung the Slavic people, but also included other segments of Europe and even India. In particular, Bulgarians believed that on Kupala the Sun is “dancing” and “twirling the sabres”. Polish girls baked ceremonial “sun” cakes while Englishmen sought out the fern, not for the sake of the blossom of a burning flower, but for its seeds which can make a man invisible.

Why did I just post this? Because, as you may have guessed, I was invited to participate in a celebration of this day. My day started out normal enough – off to the university, where I found out that on Friday I leave at 4 a.m. for Olivya, whichapparently is a ruins of some sort and where our students go to do some archaelogical digging. After two nights of camping (and people who know me will be amused by THAT thought – me camping), we will be going to Ochakiv, on the Black Sea, for a few days.  I am taking the advice of people who have said when you are invited somewhere or to do something, don’t say “no” (and really, why you I anyway?) so this morning I did some laundry (interesting to wring with a casted hand) and am hoping things are dry by tomorrow night, when I have to pack!

That was already a happy surprise. Then I found out that I was invited to attend a meeting of the local Rotary club. My university wants to start a Rotaract club, and I happen to have a history with Rotary (having been a Youth Exchange student and a Rotarian when I was younger), so I said “of course”. Then I was invited to attend festivities for Ivan Kupala Day, and once again said “of course” and “Thank You!”

So it was around 8:00 last night that I found myself walking through grassy/wooded areas in search of the river. After we got to the river and had a “French Kiss” (a cocktail made from Lena’s (another Lena!!) homemade liquor and champagne), we went searching for 12 different kinds of plants and flowers to make a wreath for our hair. Well, as you can imagine, I am not too skilled at knowing herbs and flowers (outside of those I used to grow in my yard, and I saw  none of those in the growing darkness), so I was aided in my search, and in making my wreath. Yes, I did get photos and I will be posting them, though not today! They even took me home and, ringing the bell after hours, talked to the lady who opens the dorm for me.

The only negative to yesterday was the fact that I lost my lenscap in the dark, by the river. Finding another one should be fun- I hope to find a photo store today and get a lenscap so I can have it for the weekend/next week. That was a bummer, but these things happen.

 By the way, whoever said not to bring light colored clothing here is wrong, wrong, wrong! I REALLY could use some of those clothes now, especially since I keep getting thrown into situations I never would have anticipated!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Gail permalink
    July 7, 2010 6:35 am

    I am really happy for you. It sounds like you have found the perfect place for you. I am also jealous. The Black Sea is beautiful and I hope to see it again sometime.

  2. Mom permalink
    July 9, 2010 8:53 am

    Try putting a piece of tin foil over your lens to protect it in the meantime, or just a piece of dark cloth. You have a wonderful background to be participating in these customs and we are all so glad you are able to (albeit with a cast). Talk with you soon. Love, Mom

  3. July 15, 2010 11:44 am

    Mom, you talk as if tin foil is readily available here. As it turns out, I returned to the site the next day and found my lens cap, luckily. I had gone to a number of stores in the city, only to be told that buying a lens cap was impossible, and that they are only sold with lenses. Yet another cross-cultural moment…so I took a walk back to our picnic site and found the lens cap. Got a good walk too.

  4. Mom permalink
    July 16, 2010 10:41 am

    Hooray for your lens cap find. Re tin foil: Lest we forget our discussion wherein I expressed to you the potential simplicity of your new cultural experience. I’m glad you are learning to relax and commune with nature–a very grounding and reflective experience. Think of me when you’re walking.

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