"But as soon as the fern blossoms, seize it, and look not round" - Ivan Kupala Night

6 July: according to the Julian calendar, St John’s Eve is celebrated as Ivan Kupala Night in Eastern Europe.

“Do you see, before you stand three hillocks? There are a great many sorts of flowers upon them. But may some power keep you from plucking even one of them. But as soon as the fern blossoms, seize it, and look not round, no matter what may seem to be going on behind thee." (Nikolai Gogol)

Alphonse Mucha’s imagination of a “Celebration of Svantovit” (1912), the second painting of his “Slavic Epic”, taking place on the Baltic island of Rügen and the pre-Christian early medieval pilgrimage site of Arkona.

Kupala might or might not have been known to the pre-Christian Slavic tribes of old. In fact, the deity, revered as a sun and harvest god, might be a 19th century invention of Neo-Pagans, even though there are etymologic claims of “Kupolo” or “Kupala” having the same Indo-European roots as “Cupid”, denominating “passion” and “desire”. Jacob Grimm as well as Sir James Frazer record at least a being named “Kupolo” and his or her significance for Eastern European Midsummer festivals and celebrations held on St John’s Eve. Frazer writes in his “Golden Bough”: “On the Eve of St. John (Midsummer Eve) a figure of Kupalo is made of straw and “is dressed in woman’s clothes, with a necklace and a floral crown. Then a tree is felled, and, after being decked with ribbons, is set up on some chosen spot. Near this tree, to which they give the name of Marena [Winter or Death], the straw figure is placed, together with a table, on which stand spirits and viands. Afterwards a bonfire is lit, and the young men and maidens jump over it in couples, carrying the figure with them. On the next day they strip the tree and the figure of their ornaments, and throw them both into a stream.”

Simon Kozhin (1979 - ): "Kupala Night, Divination on the wreath." (2009)

Whatever the name of the specific deity was that the Pre-Christian people revered, Midsummer Eve was celebrated pretty much the same way in Eastern Europe as in the west, blurring with the customs of Beltaine. Bonfires and pouring of water for ritual cleansing were easily adapted into the new belief system, when the old god became Ivan Kupala, John the Bather or John the Baptist. As a test for bravery and faith, young people would jump hand in hand over St John’s fires, girls were floating their flower wreaths lit with candles in the river, trying to divine their future from the course the wreaths took in the water and young men capturing the flowers to get the girls’ attention more or less along the lines Frazer described together with other regional specialities, such as making St John’s Eve a mischief night, with performing pranks, allegedly getting the attention of authorities to this day.

Henryk Siemiradzki (1843 – 1902): "Night on the Eve of Ivan Kupala" (1892)

Nevertheless, bad things go bump in St John’s night as well and the fires are lit to keep them at bay. Kupala night is one of the traditional dates for the Witches’ Sabbath. Modest Mussorgsky perpetuated the stories in his musical picture “St. John's Eve on Bald Mountain”. And there is the wondrous tale of the fern blooming on St John’s Eve and people who would find a fern flower would get riches, knowledge and general good luck, not necessarily in that order though, and many got out in the woods to find the blossoms, belying botany, since ferns usually reproduce via spores – but who knows what is possible or not on St John’s Eve, as poor Petro learns, much to his and everyone’s dismay, when he sets out during that night to find a fern flower and win the hand of his beloved Pitorka in Gogol’s short story “St John’s Eve”

And more about Kupala Night on:


and Gogol’s tale quoted above on