Belarusian ancestors celebrated Kupala Night with bonfires, round dances and swimming in lakes and rivers
The Kupala Night celebration has been one of the most colourful and poetic rituals among Belarusians since pre-Christian times. This holiday was once called Kupava, Kupalka, Kupolochka, Kupaila, Kupaleika. The national holiday of Ivan Kupala coincides with the church holiday: Orthodox believers celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist on July 7th.
Belarusian ancestors believed that, on this day, the mighty sun-husband Kupala (Kupaila) comes to replace the sun-boy Yarila, and summer finally comes into its own. Many researchers consider that Kupala (Kupalka, Kupalinka) is the ancient Slavic goddess of harvest. In Kupala songs, she appears both in the guise of a girl and a mother.
The Sun was one of the most important cults of this holiday. It was associated with the future rich harvest, herbs and plants, the offspring of livestock, and a happy life. In the past, there was a custom to roll a burning wheel around the village and to lead round dances. The Sun, the circle and the round dance are of a round shape, and it was believed that – thanks to the circle and round dances – the Sun was giving life-giving power (warmth, food) and was favourable to a person all year round. A young guy leaded each group, he was carrying a burning wheel mounted on a pole, thickly smeared with tar. That wheel was burned down at the beginning of the Kupala rite.
The bonfire also personified the Sun and performed a number of different functions: it was birth-giving, protective, cleansing, and healing. Belarusian ancestors believed that Kupala bonfires had the power to make harvests rich and drive the death away.
Most of the Kupala rites took place at night, and they were associated with water, fire and grass. On the eve of the holiday, it was mandatory to swim in rivers and lakes before sunset. As a rule, that bathing gathered many people. If there were no lakes or rivers nearby, people washed in banyas. It was believed that water – especially spring water – was life-giving and healing on that day.
Bonfires were usually arranged on hills – called ‘bald mountains’. There were a large number of such ‘mountains’ on the territory of Belarus. Sometimes bonfires were laid out along the banks of rivers, lakes, near villages and rye fields. In addition, they were large – as a sign that the rye would grow tall and the harvest would be plentiful. Round dances and Kupala songs were performed, and it was believed that those jumping higher would be the happiest.
The rite of burning the ‘Trinity May’ – dried greenery which decorated houses for Trinity – was also common. The produced smoke was believed to be healing and could contribute to fertility of farm livestock.
On Kupala morning, Belarusians used to meet the sunrise, watched it ‘walking’ and ‘jumping’ with rainbow colours.