There are a number of hypotheses on the origin of the word kupała. One of them derives the name from the Vistula Venetis who were most probably absorbed by the neighbouring Slavs. Their language was said to exhibit a certain similarity to Latin (compare the word Kupała and the Roman word Cupido). Another theory refers to the Indo-European kump, which denoted a community or group (that is where contemporary Polish words like kupa (heap) or skupić (to converge) come from). It was to stress the community or social nature of these rituals. Another hypothesis is connected with the alleged Slavonic deity of love and fertility — Kupała. Finally, the last refers to the Russian word form of kąpać (to bathe). The association of Midsummer Night rituals with bathing is most probably quite late; in the Middle Ages church officials decided to assimilate immoral pagan customs, having failed to suppress them. That was when John the Baptist was announced the patron of Midsummer Day. In the Christian tradition it is connected with the ceremony of baptism which, particularly in eastern rites, happens through the ritual of bathing. Initially there were attempts to celebrate Midsummer Night at the time of Pentecost. These failed, however, and finally St. John’s Eve was established on 23rd June (closer to the actual date of solstice, which usually happens on the night between 21st and 22nd June).
Another name for Midsummer Night, Sobótka (or Sobótki) is also linked with the attempts of Christianity to eradicate pagan traditions. The word itself, coined by the church officials and carrying negative connotations, refers to Sabbath, a gathering of witches and demons. Despite the efforts of the clergy, the tradition of Midsummer Night managed to live on, although its form has changed and it has been covered with a layer of Christian beliefs and symbols. After the period between the12th and 15th centuries, when it was forgotten, it was revived in the second half of the 16th century (Pieśń Świętojańska o Sobótce by Jan Kochanowski was written in this period).
What was the way to celebrate Kupalnocka? Firstly, it was a cheerful event. The rituals as celebrated were to ensure good health to each participant and abundant harvest to their entire community. Fire was an important element of the celebrations; bonfires were made for dancing around. Jumping over the flames was to purify the participants and defend them from evil spirits and illnesses. Young girls wove garlands of flowers, put lit candles inside and let them float on the water with the current. On the basis of observations made on the floating garlands each girl’s fortune was told: either a soon-to be wedding or spinsterhood. Bachelors tried to recover these from the water; it provided a way of matchmaking. It is connected with a very interesting aspect of Midsummer Night. Historical sources indicate that in pre-Christian times the holiday was of an orgiastic character and could have been a specific type of sexual initiation rite. It was called the feast of love and the Catholic church fought against it. As early as the times of the post-Christianisation of Poland it was one of the few occasions for the young of both sexes and an excuse to be able to walk to the forest together, without causing a scandal among the community. During these walks they searched together for the legendary fern blossom (the crock of gold), which is another habit associated with Midsummer Night. One of many theories says that the magic blossom of happiness could have been associated with the Slavonic god of thunder. In folk beliefs it is also called perunowy kwiat (thunder blossom); storms and thunder helped it thrive. Yet, much evidence points to the fact that the fern blossom legend was culturally imported from non-Slavonic territories; the legend can be encountered also in France and Germany.
The festivity in the Czech, Russian or Balkan territories was celebrated in a similar way to Slavonic Poland; the most important elements were still fire, jumps over the bonfire and collective fun. The echoes of past rituals connected with Midsummer Night have survived until our times, and not only in the Slavonic countries. It was no different in Scandinavian countries. In Switzerland the festival of summer solstice Midsommar is officially celebrated on the weekend closest to 24th June. There are rollicking festivities taking place all around the country, with bonfires and dancing. It is similar in Latvia, where the local Līgo (23rd June) and Jāņi (24th June) also called Jāņu Nakts (St John’s Night) are a form of national festival. Like in other parts of Europe, bonfires are a must; the Latvian special custom is to eat caraway seed cheese and drink beer, considered as a divine drink in pre-Christian times. Lately, besides the remnants of Midsummer Night in the folk cultures of European nations, we can encounter another interesting phenomenon: attempts to revive the original celebrations by ever-growing groups of Neopagans coming from various remote parts of the continent.
Again it turns out that Polacy nie gęsi, też swój język mają (Poles, unlike geese, have their own language) and cudze chwalicie, swego nie znacie (they should cherish their own traditions because they are as worthy as the traditions of others). Maybe, instead of celebrating the Anglo-Saxon St Valentine’s Day on a cold February day, we should be bringing back our love feast on a beautiful night of June and, like our ancestors, have fun by the light of the fire?
Garlands (Polish ‘wianki’)
Kupalnocka has been most popular for its long-held tradition of laying garlands on water. Telling one’s fortune from a garland, the symbol of maidenhood, was probably a separate tradition, not really connected with Midsummer Night; it was meant only for bachelors and bachelorettes as it concerned marriage and anticipated love. On that magic night marriageable girls wove garlands and lay them on river waters; thus their fortune was told: whether they were to be married soon or become spinsters. Initially the garlands were made of hay with interwoven fresh flowers; the hay was set on fire before the garland was put on the water. In later days girls wove garlands of herbs and wild flowers and put a candle inside. A Midsummer bouquet was to be made of the seven magic plants: mugwort, sundew, burdock, rue, mullein and Saint-John’s wort. They were to keep evil spirits away, protect the maker from illnesses and guarantee a good marriage.
If a garland was floating evenly on the water and the candle was burning brightly, or if the garland was recovered by the maker’s beloved, her fortune was favourable. If the garland was going round in circles, kept floating near the river bank, became tangled in water plants or sank, it augured love complications, misery, bad luck, the end of love, or even death. For young people this night was sometimes the only chance to choose one’s partner freely, without go-betweens or having to obey one’s parents’ will. Nowadays it is just a game and hardly anybody treats it as fortune telling.
The Fern Blossom
Paproć w każdym lesie tylko jedna zakwita, a to w takim zakątku, tak ukryta, że nadzwyczajnego trzeba szczęścia, aby na nią trafić (There is only one fern to blossom in a single forest; it is hidden in such a nook that you need to be exceptionally lucky to find it), as was written by Józef Ignacy Kraszewski in his novel Kwiat paproci (The Fern Blossom). Midsummer Night, the shortest night of the whole year, is full of secrets and magic. No wonder that the magic fern blossom, according to legend, blooms on that very night. It is to show the way to great treasure, attract good luck, wealth and the ability to influence the feelings of others. Only a young, truthful, hard-working, virtuous and courageous person can find this magic plant: thunder, winds, earthquakes happen and devilish laughter can be heard when, at about midnight, the fern blossoms. Therefore the magic power of the blossom can only be poured over a true daredevil.
What is the fern blossom like? Unfortunately, that is something nobody knows. Tales include very interesting but divergent descriptions: the blossom is blue or gold; it shines with unusual light; it has five petals; it looks like a star or even… like a cheerful golden eye.
Midsummer Night is the time of courtship. Therefore, the search for the blossom was often taken up by lovers, expressing their love to each other in a tender embrace. The quest for the fern blossom was only an excuse to walk in the forest with their dearest person… Now it is sufficient to pick a sprig of fern and carry it around in one’s wallet. It is said to attract good luck.
Water and Fire
Water and fire, the two opposing forces governing nature, were worshiped during Midsummer Night. On that night the two opposites joined together: fire with water, light with dark, man with woman and the thunder in the sky with the land.
The most important rituals were connected on the one hand with the setting of fire (the ritual of spark striking, burning bonfires, burning candles), on the other hand with immersion in water (the ever-present symbol of bath and the scene the river bank).
On Misummer Night sobótki were burned in forest clearings. It is thought that the name (first recorded in 13th century) may have originated from the name of the holy mount of Ślęża called sobótka due to the ritual light burning on it. References to ritual dances by women around the fire also come from the 13th century. During Midsummer Night various herbs were put into the fire, e.g. mugwort, Saint-John’s wort, elder, burdock, pimpinella, leaves and twigs of hazel. The smoke of burned herbs was to protect oneself from witches, bad spells and all evil.
This night also imbued water with special qualities. According to folk beliefs, it was only on St John’s Day (24th June) that you could take a bath safely, especially if the water was “thundered,” i.e. if there were thunderstorms and midsummer rains before. Immersion in water made the human body stronger, healthier and beautiful. The bath ensured mutual love, successful marriage and happy motherhood. Therefore one of the meanings of the name Kupalnocka might have originated from the words kupało and kupała, which meant bath in the language of the eastern Slavs.
According to some legends the union of fire with water, repeated in Midsummer customs, was associated with a rite whereby a priest presented the joining of opposites: fire burning in water. This was done by tricky manipulations of torches burning over the water.
Various spells were broken on Midsummer Night: houses were protected with sharp tools (they say witches hate that); women tied mugwort around their waists to protect them from black magic, spells and all evil. Mugwort was also hung on house, shed and barn doors; it was worn sewn into clothes or thrown into Midsummer bonfires. It was in bad taste to leave a sobótka; someone doing this was suspected of being a witch or a witcher. People believed that nixes, lamias, kelpies, demons and devils were especially active on that magic night. In the Middle Ages the church recalled John the Baptist; holy water was to chase away bad spirits.
Dance and Revelry
No norms or limitations were observed in ancient times during pagan rituals. It was believed that the ghosts of the dead and demons possess the bodies of young people and increase their readiness to love, breed and give birth. Kupalnocka could easily become a time of orgies: when dancing, singing and heavy-drinking young men often kidnapped the girls they had chosen before and took them into the forest; traditionally the custom allowed for free lovemaking. According to legend, virgins were advised against taking part in Midsummer rituals. They were warned not to approach bonfires burning in adoration of Kupała. In Christian times the rituals were connected with the cult of John the Baptist and gradually softened (also by the intervention of the church).
Wianki in Krakow
In Krakow and its vicinity Midsummer Night was celebrated as in other regions of Poland; the custom of bonfire burning was more connected with Pentecost, most probably because church officials wanted to adapt the customs of that magic night to the Christian tradition. After the great fire of Krakow in 1850, when 10% of the city area was damaged (160 houses, 4 churches, 3 monasteries and 2 palaces) it was forbidden to set bonfires within the built-up urban area. Midsummer celebrations were moved to the riverside of the Vistula and were controlled by the police and fire brigade; with time the Midsummer celebrations were conjoined with the tradition of garlands. Nowadays the Midsummer tradition has been revived in new forms: concerts, firework shows and presentations of ancient pagan rituals.