The celebrations of midsummer are among the most interesting and oldest annual festivities in Poland. Nowadays it known mostly as Noc Świętojańska (St. John’s Night) due to the influence of Christianity, but in the Polish folk culture few other much older names survived over time, such as Kupalnocka or Noc Kupały (Kupala Night), Sobótki ([Feast of] Bonfires) or Wianki ([Feast of] Wreaths). Their roots go back to ancient Slavic festivals of the summer solstice, of love and fertility, combined with rites and magical practices where the main focus was put on the cleansing forces of fire and water. It was believed that the night of summer solstice is when the nature’s strenght is at its fullest, when all the land is penetrated by a powerful boost of fresh energy influencing the upcoming harvest and also people’s fertility and love life, when the fern blooms with elusive flowers, when certain herbs gain magical powers of healing or of boosting the fertility, and so on. There are plenty of intriguing elements in the Polish celebrations of midsummer that can be traced back to ancient Slavic practices and beliefs.
Below you’ll read about the major elements and mythological forces important in the Polish celebrations of midsummer:
- Floating wreaths
- Fern flower
- Witches and evil spirits
- Protective herbs
The night of midsummer was a time of courtship, with fire representing the passionate love in many of the rites. During that special night Polish people ignite bonfires, which in many regions are called by an ancient term ‘sobótki’. The name of ‘sobótki’ appears for the first time in written sources in a 13th-century manuscript that describes also dances in circles around the bonfires performed by women. Polish women sang songs and asked for passionate love and imminent marriage while dancing around the sobótki. A lot of the songs and dances survived in a continuity as long as until the early 20th century, but nowadays are performed rather by reconstructionist groups.
Bonfires prepared for the Slavic Kupala Night should be big – but not too big. Boys show off their courage and skills jumping over the bonfire. A successful jump over the fire was treated not only as a proof of bravery but also as a process of cleansing from insecurities and from demons remaining in one’s body after the long winter. Another rite including the jump is a test of compatibility for couples – they are holding hands tightly and jumping over the bonfire together. A successful attempt, without splitting the hands, is a proof of compatibility granting them a passionate love and faithfulness until their late age. Jumping over the fire is still a popular element of the midsummer celebrations throughout Poland.
The night of summer solstice was important for rites performed with the use of water. The midsummer celebrations in Poland are always performed over natural streams or basins in the open nature, with throwing wreaths on water being one of the most important of the still-celebrated rites (described in a next section below).
On that special night water was gaining particularly strong cleansing properties. Young people were bathing in rivers or lakes – according to old beliefs it was making their body and soul healthy, clean, beautiful and alluring during that night. The bath was ensuring reciprocal love, good marriage, happy motherhood and healthy relationships. In some regions, for example those areas that didn’t have any deep rivers or lakes nearby, people were lying on dewy grass instead to allow their clothes and hair soak with water.
It’s widely believed that this night is the very first after the winter when people could finally bathe safely in the natural rivers and lakes – that the water demons are calming down with the nights becoming shorter. It was however still necessary to bathe with a great caution. Water spirits were known to wish for victims and pull people down below the water surface. Many of the Slavic water spirits were in fact lost souls of drowned people, for example those who jumped into deep waters out of unfulfilled love, and they were known for being extremely malicious especially when confronted with living people who were happily in love.
The important rites of bathing is where one of the old names for the midsummer celebrations comes from – the Kupala Night. The name is particularly known among the Eastern Slavic territories (Belarus, Ukraine, Russia) but commonly in use in Poland as well (called Noc Kupały or Kupalnocka in Polish). It’s said to come from the name of Ivan Kupala – Christian Orthodox equivalent of St. John – whose name is believed to be a Christianized figure of a pagan Slavic god reinterpreted as the St. Ivan (St. John) baptizing people through full immersion in water. Surname of Kupala is in fact derived from the Slavic word meaning to bathe (‘kąpać’ in Polish). Nowadays in Poland the name of Noc Kupały or Kupalnocka is also commonly used by the Rodnovers (believers of the Slavic Native Faith) for the reconstructionist pagan midsummer festival.
3. FLOATING WREATHS
One of the most important rites that are still commonly practiced in Poland is throwing wreaths on water. In many regions of Poland the midsummer festivals are called straightforwardly ‘Wianki‘ (literally: wreaths) – it shows their great importance on that night. Nowadays in Poland many places organize various contests for the most beautiful wreath during the midsummer festivals, and most of artistic groups include the rite of throwing wreaths into their performances.
Wreaths are an important symbol in the Slavic culture in general (I wrote a short article about them here: wianki (wreaths) in Polish folk beliefs), representing purity of the soul and a clear mind, often interpreted as a symbol of virginity. The wreaths of the greatest magical power should be self-made, and the girls who want to use them in the magical rites should pay a great attention to the symbolism of herbs and flowers they weave in.
The wreaths can be worn by people of all genders and of all age during that special night, but the most important rite is concerning unmarried girls. They prepare wreaths during the day – sometimes it’s a ‘regular’ wreath worn on the head during the festival, sometimes it’s a special construction that can float on water with a candle fastened in the middle. Each wreath is unique, and each person can recognize their creation.
When the Sun goes down, a procession going to the riverbank or to the lake shore is organized. Girls throw their wreaths on the water (or put them gently onto the water surface if it’s concerning the wreaths with candles) and watch carefully how they float: whether their wreath floats quickly off the shore, whether the river stream is even and carries the wreath without turbulences, whether the wreath spins around, whether it becomes entangled in plants and stops floating, and so on. The ‘style’ of floating was telling a lot about the future love life, indicating for example a great love without fights and a long and happy life, or unrequited love, illegitimate child, sadness, grief or even premature death. Many girls ‘dedicate’ the rite to a particular boy they like – and for example if the wreath stops floating on some kind of obstacles, it means that their relationship would be full of problems as well and they should give up. Finally, in many of the regions the boys jump into the water (showing also their courage) and pick up a wreath made by a girl they like. In the past it was commonly treated as a bold confession of love, and the girl could’ve agreed to spend a night with the boy without being judged. The Slavic midsummer festival is known as a feast of love – also sex between unmarried couples that wasn’t criticized harshly within the communities on that one special night.
The meaning of the rite is however slowly fading away, and most of the festivals, especially in bigger towns and cities, do not treat the floating of wreaths seriously anymore though they are always treated as an important traditional decoration of the head.
4. FERN FLOWER
The energy of incredible strenght that was penetrating the nature during the night of summer solstice was resulting in many unexpected and magical phenomenons. One of them was the fern flower. Polish people believe that the fern could bloom with a magical flower precisely on midnight of the summer solstice. Many people were taking long walks into the woods to look for it.
According to old Polish legends the fern flower could lead to a treasure hidden in the ground, shining with a beam of light. The treasure could reveal all the wisdom of the world, provide great wealth and happiness. Mythical fern flower was thus an important object of desire, often mentioned among the confessions of love and tender hugs during that night. Looking for the fern flower was sometimes just an excuse for couples to get some intimate time in the woods far away from the crowded festival.
5. WITCHES AND EVIL SPIRITS
Night of the summer solstice was also when the evil witches are the most active. It was important to protect oneself from them and from other servants of the dark side of the nature – the vampires, devils and various mischievous demons active in the wild. They were drawn to the world of the living particularly strongly on that night because of the general intermingling of elemental forces, darkness and chaos with light and order, that were all gaining a great strenght that night.
To keep them in a safe distance from human settlements and from the places where the festivals were taking place, the large bonfires were ignited and protective herbs were thrown to the fire. The bright and tall fires of sobótki that had protective herbs burnt in them were believed to scare off the witches and the evil spirits.
Those people who didn’t arrive to the festivals organized by these bonfires were commonly suspected of practicing damaging witchcraft, and could’ve been even excluded from the rural community.
6. PROTECTIVE HERBS
Women who dance around the bonfire are often still wearing protetive belts made from a special composition of herbs hanging down from the waistline. One of the most important herb woven into these belts is mugwort (Polish: bylica). It protected women from spells and charms that could damage their body or mind. Mugwort was also hung on doors or above windows in cottages, barns and stables, sewn into clothes, thrown into the bonfires, not only for the celebrations of midsummer but also during other important festivals and protective rites throughout the year.
Another important herb was the so-called adder’s-tongue fern (Polish: nasieźrzał) that grows mostly in forest glades. It was used in magical rites by unmarried girls who wished for love and marriage. During the day of summer solstice, they ran to the forests to look for glades where these herbs were growing this season. Then, they came back to a chosen place at midnight, took of their clothes and ‘bathed’ in dews that appeared on the adder’s-tongue ferns. They recited love spells, such as:
Nasięźrzele, rwę cię śmiele
pięcią palcy, szóstą dłonią,
niech się chłopcy za mną gonią
What could be translated as:
Adder’s-tongue fern, I pluck you boldly,
With five fingers, with sixth hand,
Make the boys go after me [literally: chase me]
Polish celebrations of the summer solstice, with their many elements surviving from the old Slavic beliefs, is a festival uniting many complementary and contradicting elements: connecting a woman with a man, using forces of water and fire, bringing together earth (sacred herbs growing from fertile soil) with the air (fumigation with the herbs), celebrating the connection of light and darkness. This festival was one of the most important celebrations for the old Slavs, whose beliefs were based on the cycles of time, the changing seasons and the phases of the Moon. Midsummer was one of the axis points in the Slavic calendar, between the season of nature’s rebirth (spring festivals) and the season celebrating earth’s full fertility (earth ‘giving birth’ to the crops, fruits and vegetables – the harvest festivals). The major focus is put on the connection of the fire and water elements, with rites trying to ‘combine the impossible’, like the wreaths with candles floating on lakes or rivers (‘fire burning on water’).
The festival is still celebrated in Poland in many various forms, most of them sadly detached from their original meaning. Many cities, towns and villages organize various forms of festivals in late June, usually during a weekend around the day of sumer solstice, celebrating the beginning of summer and incorporating only some elements of the old Slavic rites (Kupala Night, Sobótki, Wianki, etc.). Many rites are revived in new theatrical forms of purely artistic undertones, such as night cruises on ships, fireworks, concerts, performances of artistic groups, staged Slavic rites. It’s a result of hundreds of years of growing influence of Christianity in Poland, interpreting the old elements as pagan. Polish church still commonly criticize the old rites’ huge popularity within the Polish people, calling out to stop weaving wreaths or igniting bonfires. Most of Poland use the term of Noc Świętojańska (St. John’s Night) to entitle and advertise the midsummer festivals. In the form closest to its original meaning it could be observed mostly among the Rodnovers and in some rural parts of Poland that still cherish their local folklore customs.
Make also sure to check the gallery where I collect Midsummer celebrations depicted in Polish art :)
Please leave a proper credit and a link to this article in case of quoting. With regards, author: Lamus Dworski.