The article is written and translated by our reader from Poland 🇵🇱, and further edited by KVS management. Many of the things written here as Slavic or Polish are also true in a pan-European manner.
Etymology and names
The day of the summer solstice is called by multiple names in different parts of Europe, such as Midsommar or Juhannus. Solely in Poland there are several names for this holiday. In the south near Silesia, as well as in Slovakia this shortest night of the year is called Sobótka or Noca Sobótkowa. Slightly more north, in the region of Mazovia, functions the name Noc Kupały. In Masuria Sobótka and Kupala Night changes into Palinocka or Kupalnocka.
Of these names, Kupala Night is the closest to ancient Slavic summer solstice festival, celebrating the arrival of summer and the upcoming harvest season.
An ancient holiday
The festivities of the summer solstice is so old in its origin that it is still difficult to fully comprehend. This is not made easier by the fact that the catholic church, like with many other pre-christian holidays, tried to erase this important Slavic event from the calendar.
Various ways and procedures were used in attemp to destroy this indigenous European heritage, variying from requests, bribes to threatening and waging war. However it was not easy, as Slavic rituals and beliefs were – as they still are – very strong and difficult to eradicate. Eventually the church decided to assimilate this holiday, like many others before it. This is how St. John’s Eve appeared, or Midsummer Night, which is still celebrated in churches today. The nature faith was never given up.
One must wonder, just think how much effort was needed to squeeze John the baptist into a Slavic holiday associated with love, fertility and fun. Particularly, as these elements are alien to christians.
Sobótka or Kupalnocka in Slavic tradition
The old ceremonial rituals associated with the summer solstice have survived in our culture to this day. They have a slightly different meaning and message, which results from hundreds of years of mixing ancient beliefs with abrahamic religions. However, the main values have remained the same and it is still a period associated with the return of the time of prosperity, happiness and fertility.
Summer solstice is the end of a series of rituals beginning in the period of All Souls’ Day (Pyhäinmiestenpäivä). This shortest of nights is dedicated to the most powerful of the elements known in heathenism, which were fire and water, and the Moon and Sun associated with them. The sun, of course, is fire, and the moon symbolized water.
Kupala Night is primarily a celebration of fertility and harvest. The spring season is coming to an end and the summer with all its benefits was beginning. The crops in the fields are already abundant and only await the harvest time. An ideal time for fun and joy.
The fire rituals and bonfires🔥
The most important element of the summer solstice celebrations are bonfires. The bonfires are lit just outside the village to light the way to human homes for the good spirits and to ward off evil spirits.
The skill of lighting a bonfire is a art in itself. Traditionally building the bonfire began with the use of an old wooden wheel with a hub set on a previously prepared wooden stake driven into the ground. The wheel is to be wrapped in tarred straws or tarred moss. The wheel has to be spun so long and fast that the hub, rubbing against the wooden stake, becames hot enough to ignite the tar on the wheel.
When the fire was finally lit, the wheel was pulled off the pile and rolled from one previously prepared pile of wood to another. This was done until all the planned bonfires were ignited.
As night fell and the fires were burning at their best, dancing and jumping over the fire began. These, sometimes dangerous games were supposed to drive out the evil from the dancers jumping over the fire. At the same time, they were supposed to ensure health, prosperity, and fertility for the young ones. The smoke from bonfires burning during Kupala Night was supposed to bring good weather during the upcoming harvest.
The whole village participated in the fun, from the youngest children to the oldest members of the local community. However, the Sobótka Night was especially important for young people, who have not yet met their second half. This aspect of the summer solstice is connected with another very interesting ritual – wreaths.
Wreaths and the youth 🌿
Kupala Night was a time for young people to pair up. Admittedly, at that time it was the standard that the parents with the help of elders did the matchmaking. But on this one night all those who were not yet promised to anyone could avoid that form of choosing a life companion. It was a kind of gateway for those who preferred relationships based on love or other feelings rather than on business connections.
To take advantage of the ancient custom, girls wove wreaths. They used all available materials. They usually used flowers, ribbons, and magical herbs that the old women had indicated to them beforehand. In the end, a candle or a candlestick was attached to the wreath and it was let into a river or a stream.
It was important for the candle not to go out, because it could mean old age for the girl. Also, if the wreath got stuck in the bushes and none of the boys retrieved it, it meant that its owner would have to wait a long time for a husband.
The boys, in turn, hid downstream and tried to fish out the plaits flowing with the current. The one who caught the wreath would return to the village and look for its owner. Of course, this was not always the work of chance.
Young people who were attracted to each other would agree on the details even before the game began. After the happy ending, the young people could start showing interest in each other without being the subject of gossip or malice.
An additional reward was that the couple was allowed to go on a night hike in the woods alone. And here comes another custom, which is also quite a well-known legend, and it tells of the fern flower.
Fern flower is a mythical plant that blooms only once a year during the summer solstice. It is supposed to have great power and bring luck and wealth to the one who picks it. Amongst the ancient Slavs the search for the fern flower was a permanent element of the Sobótka Night celebrations.
Young people, most often those who had previously been recognized as a couple in a game with wreaths, strolled through the forest hoping to find the mythical flower. There were, however, mocking and crude chants which told that a boy taking a girl to the forest actually gets what he wants and it is associated with great luck, although it has nothing to do with flowers.
Another custom was for women to rub themselves with an extract from the leaves of the carnation plant. The name of this common plant in Old Polish means elixir of youth. Women, especially those whose best years had already passed, hoped that the plant’s magical power would help charm their husbands.
As is common in magical rituals, in addition to the lubrication of the body, an incantation was also needed, and it sounded more or less like this:
Nasięźrzale, nasięźrzale, rwę cię śmiale, pięcią palcy, szóstą dłonią. Niech się chłopy za mną gonią. Po stodole, po oborze, dopomagaj Panie Boże
Fern blossom, fern blossom, I tear you boldly, with five fingers, sixth hand. Let the peasants chase after me. In the barn, in the barn, God (Perun) help us
Another name for the mythical fern flower is Perun’s flower. It was believed that the old Thunder God Perun, the equivalent of the Scandinavian Thor, was responsible for the flowering of the Fern Flower. It was Perun, the chief God of the ancient Slavs, who with lightning and thunder stimulated the earth and sky to give birth to all kinds of creatures, including magical ones.
Water-related rituals 💦
Water also had its place in old beliefs. It was believed that on the day before the Kupala Night it was not allowed to bathe in rivers, lakes or ponds. It was supposed to result from the fact that all mythical and not necessarily good creatures were given permission by the ancient gods to feed without restraint on that one day of the year.
Drowners, watermen, mermaids, and deceptive mammoths had their day just in time for the summer solstice. Fear and belief in the veracity of old legends effectively scared people away from water during the day. At night, however, when the power of the water creatures disappeared, people bathed with fondness, believing that a Midsummer’s day bath would purify not only their bodies but also their souls.
Divination and magic
It was believed that herbs gathered at home acquire great strength and magical power. Of particular importance in those days were such plants as:
- Fern acquired strong protective properties.
- Hypericum perforatum gave the inhabitants of the house courage.
- Thyme purified and healed the body.
- Geranium helped with women’s problems.
- Hazel made it easier to recover from failed relationships.
- Wormwood enhanced the effects of magic and was used during divination.
- Yarrow calmed and purified the soul.
- Ruta prevented charms and protected against evil spells.
Plants were also used for fortune telling, after all, Sobótka Night was full of magic and sorcery. Below are some of the most popular ones:
When plucking chamomile, it was enough to ask a question such as, ”Will successful love await me next year? If the plant survived in freshness until the next day, the answer was yes, if it withered it meant no.
If you wanted to attract the attention or interest of the opposite sex, all you had to do was write their name on paper and wrap a red candle around it. If it burned to the ground along with the paper, it meant that the person you were thinking of was also interested in you.
Another love divination is to use a red rose. Toss it high up into the air, when it falls and the petals of the flower are pointing towards the sky, it means that the person you have chosen is favourable to you.
The forced abrahamisation of indigenous european rites
The church, realizing that it would not be able to eradicate the strong indigenous european customs, decided to create its own holiday and attribute it to one of its prophets. It fell on John the baptist. They chose him probably only because he introduced baptism with water, which could be associated with its power in ancient Slavic rites. In Finland, the church managed to twist the Midsummer festivities name into Juhannus after the John mentioned above.
Midsummer Night falls two days after the solstice, from June 23 to June 24. (In diffrent parts of Europe the date varies from 20th to 26th.) The rituals taking place in churches and chapels included the blessing of water. Apart from water, healing herbs and garden flowers were sacred.
It is said that the plants sacrificed on that day, kept in the room where the sick person lies, are supposed to bring him/her comfort and strength. That is why in some parts of Europe this feast is called the evening of herbs.
The church presented the Kupala Night as a godless stunt and as a satanic ritual to discourage people from taking part in it, but to no avail. They never managed to eradicate the old rituals.
As you can see, christians did not make a special effort and only took loads of traditions from the indigenous Europeans.
Summer solstice elsewhere in Europe
The night of Saturday is celebrated by the indigenous Europeans all over Europe. The common feature of the ceremonies is burning of fire and worship of water, as well as the Sun and the Moon, of which many legends and myths are created about.
Kupala Night is most strongly celebrated in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Scandinavia, Finland, as well as Germany, France, Romania and Ireland. Different countries have different rituals. For example, in Belarus all villagers would take a bath together just after sunset.
In France, Ireland, Poland, and Ukraine, a straw dummy is burned to symbolize misfortune and bitterness. Swedes, Danes and Russians commonly give dried herbs to each other and burned them to make wishes. Wreath throwing is popular in Poland and Russia.
In Latvia the celebration of Kupala Night, called Ligo or Jani, is very vibrant today. It is such a popular holiday that June 23 and 24 are public holidays. Latvians party to the fullest, jumping over fires, often naked. Drinking beer and eating cheese with cumin is popular. Juhannus is also a public holiday in Finland.
Despite the small regional differences, the core of the festivities is the same, and has originated from the same pan-european heathen culture, likely stemming from several ice ages ago. This is still evident today, as the Midsummer festivities are strikingly similar all over Europe to this day.