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Folklore Behind the Ivana Kupala Stamp

The following text is an edited version of a posting to a Ukrainian discussion list by Mr. Lubomyr S. Onyshkevych, a frequent contributor about matters related to early Ukrainian beliefs and customs. Mr. Onyshkevych originally hails from Lviv, Ukraine. He's also a stamp collector and editor of the monthly Trident newsletter of the UPNS -- Roman Olynyk

Ivana Kupala stamp with UV light 

Last year (1997) Ukraine printed a rather eerie, greenish stamp with the traditional fire (vatra) and a boy and girl standing next to it. If you illuminate the stamp with ultraviolet light, it shows luminescence, which transforms the fire into the magic flower (tsvit paporoti - flower of fern) and the boy and girl into two ghost figures -- a rather clever transformation, which sort of combines various magic customs and traditions into one striking tableau. This stamp is unique and very beautiful.

For those of you who do not know about the St. John's - Ivana Kupala festival, this is the original pagan midsummer night. In pre-Christian Ukraine, the festival was really a fertility rite that was supposed to assure a good harvest. (Kupalo was believed to be the god of Love and of Harvest. He was personified as the earth's fertility -- RJO). From the descriptions in ancient chronicles it was rather wild, featuring all kinds of sexual excesses... in other words, a lot of fun.

"It was rather wild, featuring all kinds of sexual excesses... in other words, a lot of fun."
-- Lubomyr S. Onyshkevych

With the coming of Christianity, the Church tried to suppress the festival, but it was unsuccessful. So they did what they normally did: they combined the festival of the pagan god Kupalo with the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (July 6th, Julian Calendar) and called it "Ivana Kupala." The customs were cleaned up a bit, but it's still a feast for young unmarried people, with plenty of opportunities for "making whoopie."

They gathered together outside the village in the forest or near a stream or pond, where they built bonfires. The fires were not allowed to go out. They were also used to burn herbs and various items that were blessed.

Ivana Kupala stamp with UV light 

The girls sing special songs ("kupalni"), with a lot of references to love and marriage. They also float flower garlands on the water and tell their fortunes from the behavior of them. Both boys and girls jump over the bonfire, again to tell fortunes.

Left: Yet another stamp shows Ivana Kupala motifs. This 20 December 2001 issue is part of a series on traditional costumes. These girls, dressed in the style of the Poltava oblast, are shown dropping their flower garlands into a stream.

The most adventurous go into the forest in search of the tsvit paporoti - the magic flower, which blooms only on that night. If found, the finder gets untold riches and happiness. But beware! On that magic night the forest is of full of demons and other scary beings (nechysta syla), which are out to get the unwary. In particular, there are Rusalky, the water nymphs, who are the souls of those drowned. They try to entice you into the water, so that you would join them in death. But around the bonfire all is merriment and joy. Songs are sung (many of them survive to the present day), music is played, and everybody dances and makes merry.

The old village witch is around, of course, telling fortunes, selling love potions, making magic to assure a large crop of marriages. Magic is done also to assure the good harvest, but that part is subdued. Nothing assures fertility of the fields, after all, as well as fertility of people. This is the "sympathetic magic" - the strongest type of magic there is.

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