Midsummer’s Night Magic: Poland’s
Noc Kupały

The longer days of summer bring forth reason to celebrate – it’s a time to enjoy the longer, warmer days before the start of the harvest season. Summer crops are fully mature and the preparation for the autumn and winter officially begins. In cities across Poland, the summer season brings the Swietojański festival, which in its modern iteration acts like any other market festival you might see. Local sellers sell their wares and foods; live music and events take place; booths with grilled food line the streets. It marks the celebration of St. John’s Eve, “noc swietojańska”, which also goes by its pagan name of Noc Kupały, or Sobótki.

Many pagan festivals that still hold prominence in the Polish calendar are pagan festivals that have fallen out of favor in the English calendar; for example, Noc Kupały is known by its English name of Midsummer, probably most famously depicted by Shakespeare in his work, “A Midsummer Night’s Eve”. This long-celebrated festival was popular in Poland and was one of the countless pagan festivals, like Andrzejki, that the Catholic Church, unable to convince the population to give up, turned into a Catholic saint’s day.

Taking place during the shortest night of the year, Noc Kupały involves rituals of fire and water, both sources of cleaning. Most likely the name “kupały” comes from the Polish word “kąpac się”: to bathe oneself. The other term for this night “Sobótki” is more widely known in Poland and stems from the word for “Saturday”, the day this festival was traditionally celebrated. On this night, the fields were ablaze as people lit bonfires atop hills and near rivers.

the night of kupala, fire, dance-3860599.jpg

Rituals of Fire

The role of fire in the rituals during Noc Kupały was meant to symbolize the sun and with it, the cleansing of evil influences and romantic love. The festival fire, therefore, fulfilled two functions: one was ensuring a bountiful harvest and protection of the crops; the other was stoking the flames of love and encouraging fertility. The fires were especially useful at keeping away the water demons, like rusałki, wodniki, and utopce, who pagans believed would drag them into the water and drown them.

Noc Kupały celebrations in the late 1930s

Noc Kupały was a night of flirtations. Young men and women danced around the bonfires; couples jumped over them holding hands, which was a symbolic act: a successful jump meant that their love would endure for eternity, steadily stoked as the flames of the fire. Later, they jumped into the rivers and lakes, believing themselves to be cleansed, youthful, beautiful, and full of vitality and virility. A bath in the water on this night would be good omen for a couple and their union. When eventually Christianity mixed in with the pagan beliefs, it was said that St. John the Baptist was responsible for symbolically purifying the water of its demons; early Polish Christians believed it was not safe to bathe in the waters of a lake or river “until St. John had blessed it” – so until the night of St. John’s Eve.

Rituals of Water

Water played an important role during St. John’s Eve. In earlier traditions, it was believed that water on this night had magical healing powers, and so pagan women would place flowers and herbs into the lakes and rivers, allowing the water’s magical properties to seep in and mix with their healing properties. It was believed that herbs, already having medicinal strength, would take on a more potent form on midsummer night. The most powerful was the mythical fern flower (kwiat paproci), which was said to bloom only on this night and guarantee its finder wealth and abundance. On midsummer night, young couples would go to the woods to “look for this flower” together, as only on this night were unarranged marriages allowed. If they came out of the woods together, it was taken to be a sign of betrothal.

In a more modern iteration of the ritual of mixing the magical properties of herbs and water, one that is still widely practiced today, unmarried women place candle-lit floral wreaths in the river. These wreaths were different than the ones they wore on their heads; they were comprised of a series of three branches of flowers and plants as three was a symbolic number in kabbalah and Judaism, and represented harmony. The wreath and candle were then placed onto the water, upstream. It was then downstream where men would fish out the wreaths from the water. It was believed that the wreath they chose was cast onto the water by their future bride. A wreath that sunk or a candle that burned out would be a bad omen; it was believed that the woman would either have failed relationship, become an old maid, or have a child out of wedlock.

A print from the 1910s depicting women placing wreaths into the water during Noc Kupały

Today's Celebrations

Noc Kupały or Sobótki was one of the largest pagan celebrations before Christianity. Even with the Christianization of Poland, Noc Kupały was still celebrated in the pagan way, despite receiving a Catholic makeover and the addition of a saint. Today, the strong traditions and symbolism of the past have long been forgotten. Besides a few bonfires, grilled food, and alcoholic beverages, not much remains of the pagan holiday in Poland. Still popular is the wreath-making and floating of the wreaths in water, but the magical might of the sun, moon, and herbs coming together on this one night is no more. However, the pagan traditions of hundreds of years ago still influence Polish culture and reach into the present and, undoubtedly, the future.

A program announcing the festivities during Noc Kupały in 1928

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