Last time we talked about the customs and rituals of Mermaid Week. But perhaps the most unusual folk holiday, that is still celebrated today, is St. John’s Day (Birthday of St. John the Baptist, Yarilin Day, Yaril), which is celebrated on June 24 / July 7 (summer solstice). In the Christian tradition, this is a feast in honor of the birth of St. John the Baptist, the Baptist. Dolls created by the national crafts master Irina Agaeva, presented at the exhibition in the Museum of Samovars and Kettles “Circle of Life”, will aid us in our story.
According to the gospel legend, on this day, the long-awaited son was born to the elderly couple of the priest Zechariah and Elizabeth, who they named John. He was destined to become the forerunner of the Jesus Christ and announce his coming. Proclaiming the approach of the kingdom of heaven, the Kingdom of God, John called people to repent heir sins, instructed always to share with others and do not harm. The followers underwent a rite of purification in the waters of the Jordan River, which was called “baptism by water.” John was the one who performed these baptisms, for which he received another name – the Baptist.
In the Russian tradition, John the Baptist is better known as Ivan Kupala, since the feast in honor of St. John coincided to the pagan holiday of Kupala.
Within the folk calendar, Ivan Kupala formed a single festive cycle, along with the celebrations of Agrafena, the Bather and the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul (Peter’s Day). At this time, there was a period of the highest prosperity of nature: the sun was at its zenith, vegetation reached the peak of flowering, the ripening of fruits began; day was considered the longest of the year, and night was the shortest. In the minds of the peasants, the magical power of fire, water, earth and vegetation was so great during this period that they were considered protective, purifying and healing properties. Celebrating this power provided good luck for a year.
At the same time, the period of the Kupala holidays was considered the most “dangerous”, with the forces of dark side at their strongest. The Kupala night was especially terrible in the eyes of the peasants, as it was also the climax of the holiday and the time of the main festivities and rituals.
The holiday of Ivan Kupala was universally considered a holiday of youth and young couples. They are characterized by a special form of behavior at this time, indicated in ethnography by the concept of “ritual mischief.” During the Kupala night, young men would unite into groups and walked around the village, brawled, blocked gates and doors with household equipment and firewood stored in the yard and stuffed chimneys. Groups of young people went to the forests and fields where they arranged festivities, made bonfires and jumped over them, “jumped” over “strekava” (nettles), rolled in hay and guys fought in the rye. In the Kupala tradition, the theme of fire was expressed in the rituals of making the Kupala bonfires and in the widespread belief that the sun “plays” on this day, “bathes.”
The celebration of Ivan Kupala was always accompanied by bathing in water, which was a mass bathing of people in various water sources, washing or bathing with water or dew, washing in baths, dousing with water or mud. Rituals with water could be performed at night, at dawn or during a break between church services – morning and noon.
In many places, representatives of all population groups took part in bathing. A person who refused to swim was suspected of witchcraft. There was a widespread notion of the healing effect of bathing during Kupala. Kaluga peasants also said that on this day it is necessary to plunge into the water at least once in order to feel safe in it during the summer.
In places where there was a ban on swimming in rivers and lakes, mass ablutions were performed at holy springs. In other cases, instead of mass bathing, and sometimes not excluding them, it was customary to wash and steam in the saunas (banyas), which, as a rule, were prepared from morning. At the same time, they used Ivanov branches and waters infused with Ivanov herbs. It was widely believed that the bath on the day of Ivan Kupala helped to strengthen and restore vital energy and health.
Girls, and sometimes even women, performed a ritual bath with dew at dawn. To collect dew, a tablecloth was dragged across the wet grass and then squeezed into a bowl. It was believed that washing the face and hands with dew, thereby driving away diseases and cleansing the skin of acne and blackheads. “Ivanova” dew was also used in case of eye disease: the eye were washed with dew in the morning of Ivanov’s day and collected it in a container for further treatment.
Another widespread custom in Russia was to pour water or mud on the people you meet on Ivan’s Day. It was a form traditional celebratory mischief. Young men would stock up with water, which they often collected with mud, and doused the smartly dressed girls. Anyone hiding was forcibly dragged out of the house.
Girls reciprocated with similar behaviour. Together, the girls and boys poured water on all the villagers they met, excluding only the smallest and oldest. After pouring water, the youth went to the river, where the girls and boys had a joint bath; they usually didn’t undress. It was believed that pouring water is necessary so that it rains.
An integral part of the rituals of the Kupala holiday was beliefs and rituals associated with the plant world. The idea that herbs on St. John’s day have a special power that has a beneficial effect on people’s health is reflected in the custom of harvesting bath branches from Ivan Kupala (Agrafeny, the Bather).
The peasants paid special attention to their crops, where grain crops had already ripened and gained strength; harvest time was nearing. The main actions of this period were aimed at preserving the already ripened wheat ears from the effects of otherworldly forces and human abuse (there was a ban on picking the fruits of a new crop), physical and spiritual purification before starting field work, the universal remedy for which was water and fire, as well as to from nature and land of strength and health. To this end, girls and young women, and often all young people, rolled around on rye.
The main role in magical rites was given to girls and young women, who were usually led by adult women. In addition, the date of the girl’s Semik-Trinity holiday was constantly moving on the calendar, sometimes coming close to the day of Ivan Kupala.
On the day of Ivan Kupala, the girls, gathered together, walked into a rye field, taking with them some porridge. They went around the crops 8-10 times, periodically stopping to make a ritual meal on the field.
The idea of the danger emanating from the evil spirits on St. John’s day was reflected in the beliefs about the presence of demonological creatures, sorcerers, witches, healers, occurring during the time of the celenrations, and in rituals that help prevent their harmful actions (Kupalskaya night). There was a ban in a number of places on swimming in rivers and lakes so the residents of the Yaroslavl Bay. explained as follows: on this day the watertroll was supposedly celebrating his name day. He “can not stand when people climb into his kingdom, and takes revenge on them by not only drowning anyone so careless, but also dragging them into the very depths of the river whirlpools.” At this time, danger was also represented by snakes and animals classified by folk culture as “unclean”; they were often called “reptiles,” “evil spirits.” It was believed that the blind snake, the copperfish, on the day of Ivan Kupala, receives eyesight for a whole day, during which it can attack a person and pierce his body like an arrow.
The appearance of evil spirits, during the holiday freely walking in the human realm, was also represented by the mummers. In the Pskov region, they dressed up as “witches”: wearing inside out fur coat or torn clothes and roding on brooms; and as animals by dressing in fur coat with inverted fur and horns.
The permeability of the borders between the human and other worlds allowed people to come into contact with forces of a different nature: a person could receive magical knowledge, objects, herbs, and also look into the future.
On the eve of St. John’s day, there was a celebration dedicated to Agrafena, the Bather.
According to legend, the Roman woman Agrippina, who lived in the 3rd century BC, became popular among the people as a true Christian, who accepted martyrdom for her faith. Her relics gather a large number of believers, a lot of whom are sick, miraculously recover after bowing to her grave.
In the Russian tradition, Agrafen (the Russian version of the name Agrippina) is known by the name of the Bather, because the day of her memory preceded the feast of Ivan Kupala. The night from Agrafena to Ivan (Ivan Kupala) was considered magical (Kupala night), and was also the peak of festive fun and revelry.
In most cases, Agrafena’s Day was interpreted as preparation for the Kupala holiday (Ivan Kupala), or as its initial stage.
So, the ritual start of the holiday began with the gathering of all the women of the settlement. At sunset, after the bath, one of the women went outside and shouted: “Today is the Bathhouse, tomorrow is Ivan!” and sang. Other women approached her, usually girls and young women, less often teenagers and old women. Together, they went out in the village, where they sometimes met with residents of neighboring villages, and along with them walked along the fields and the roads or climbed hills.
Girls and women also participated in the collection of Ivanovo herbs used to decorate settlements, for making bath branches, and for fortune telling. As the first day of the festive bathing cycle, which marked the beginning of a new period, Agrafena Kupalnitsy Day opened the season of swimming in ponds, collecting herbs and haymaking, from this day bath branches and brooms were prepared.
The famous Tula ethnographer and folklore collector, Ivan Petrovich Sakharov, in his book “Tales of the Russian people”, noted, that until the second half of the 19th century, in the Shcheglovskaya settlement (now part of Tula), the local population followed the tradition of Kupala night. People gathered in a place determined by tradition, and the old people performed a solemn ceremony of getting a “holy” or “living” fire. This fire was obtained in the oldest known way: friction of one log on another. A small fire was lit from it, giving life to all the other bonfires around which the main Kupala action took place.
The author of the article is senior researcher at the “Tula’s Samovars” Museum L.V. Britenkova.