June 24, 2017

Celebrating Summer in Russia's Pagan Tradition


Celebrating Summer in Russia's Pagan Tradition

According to ancient tradition, during the first hours of July 7 (June 24 before Russia switched to the Gregorian calendar), peasants set tremendous bonfires and jumped over them, bathed naked in rivers, sang and danced around the fires, and rolled tremendous burning wheels that were then pushed into the water.

But these weren't just the idle games of pre-industrial rabble-rousers. Many centuries ago, the existence of those living in Eastern European lands was ruled by the rhythms of the seasons. The most important events involved changes in the natural world. The arrival of every new season was a magical moment, when cosmic forces burst to the surface, taking on a special significance and determining much of what was happening in the present and what would happen in years to come.

In this perpetual cycle of natural elements and phenomena, the sun played a tremendous role. When winter triumphed over the sun in the depths of winter, it was believed that ancestral spirits walked the snow-covered Earth, potentially coming into contact with the living and sometimes telling them what the future held. When the Sun regained its power and winter gave way to spring, ceremonies were conducted to magically reinforce the power of the sun and help nature awaken from its slumber.

And then, summer made its entrance. Flowers emerged. Ears of grain started to erupt. The ice of the past half-year receded into distant memory. As the next harvest came to life, the power of nature was reaching its zenith. It was believed that water sprites, having spent most of the year asleep underground, came to the surface and swung from tree branch to tree branch. The magical denizens of the woods – snakes, bears, wood goblins – were awake.

The task of people in all of this was to support the great force of nature by conducting the required rituals without which the natural cycle could not exist. The pinnacle of these traditions occurred on the night of July 6-7, when night is short, days are seemingly endless, and the sun shines with its greatest force. 

That's where events like jumping over bonfires, skinnydipping, and rolling flaming wheels into the river came in. The elements of fire and water were of key importance: the fiery wheels were like symbols of the sun, and those who danced and sang in circular khorovody around the bonfires also suggested the Sun’s circular path. Fire and water were united, a joining akin to the principle of the masculine and feminine. Indeed, throughout the ages, vast numbers of couples came together on this night – a time when anything goes.

Rus' became a Christian nation in the tenth century, but this did not alter the pagan foundations of peasant life. It is believed that there were remote places where people contrived to openly profess paganism up until the fourteenth century, not allowing churches to be built or priests to enter their communities. Gradually, however, the church managed to spread its influence over virtually the entire territory of Rus'.

But in the countryside – under the surface, at least – life still followed the unhurried and unchanging courses set through thousands of years of pagan tradition. Ancient beliefs molded themselves to fit new ways of life. Veneration of ancestors in December became associated with Christmas; feasting on pancakes during Maslenitsa became the final frolic before the deprivations of the Great Fast leading up to Easter. Springtime agricultural rituals were performed on the Thursday of Holy Week.

And the summer celebration of the elements? It just so happened that this day coincided with the birthday of John the Baptist (Ivan Kupala in Russian), who had foretold the coming of Christ and christened the Savior in the Jordan River. The magical powers of water were thus given a Christian “basis.” But the nature of the celebration remained the same. Whatever view village priests may have taken, bonfires were still lit, peasants still swam naked, and couples continued to disappear into the woods. And, of course, everyone knew that, during this magical night, trees and grasses began to speak, and that this was the only night of the year when the fern flowered - a plant that could be used to locate treasures sleeping underground, in the kingdom of the dead.

In the nineteenth century, when ethnographers started to study and describe Russian village rituals, they were struck by how many pagan beliefs had survived almost unchanged over the millennia. Peasants, often unaware of the ancient meaning of their rituals, and sincerely believing themselves to be true Orthodox Christians, nonetheless were following the practices of their pre-Christian ancestors. The ancient gods were still around; they had merely been transformed into Christian saints. For example, the protector of beasts and wealth – Veles – had become St. Vlasy, the protector of livestock. Others became spirits: wood goblins (leshii) and house goblins (domovoi), for example, the reality of which no one doubted. During Ilya’s Week in August, the Biblical prophet Ilya traveled across the sky in a rumbling chariot – and there was the explanation behind thunderstorms. 

And what about Ivan Kupala? Even today, city-dwellers and country folk alike know about this holiday, largely thanks to Gogol’s dark tale “St. John’s Eve,” in which a fern flowers and an evil witch forces a village youth to kill an innocent baby. Everyone remembers that Ivan Kupala is a time for lighting bonfires and swimming naked. Some use this night as an occasion for high-society gatherings and wild parties; others mark it with folkloric celebrations. These observances are marked by a certain artificiality, as are many attempts to “ revive” ancient rituals.

Of course, many rituals have been completely forgotten. Not many men spend New Year's Eve hiding from their wives behind pastries to ensure a good crop, for instance. But Ivan Kupala is an exception. And the essence of many such traditions – the great power of the natural elements – will probably never die. And St. John’s Eve will remain an eerie and majestic moment of transition, even for those who know little of the flowering fern, the fiery wheel, and the other intricacies of how their ancestors marked this night.

This article is adapted from "The Celebration of Summer" by Tamara Eidelman in the Jul/Aug 2006 issue of Russian Life.


Photo at top of post: Simon Kozhin. Kupala Night, Divination on the wreath. (2008) CC

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