Anyone who even superficially searched the sites on Slavic mythology had a chance to find a deity named Kupalo in numerous glossaries and dictionaries. Brief explanations and descriptions of this god's roles will induce the reader to conclude that this is simply a god of bathing (kupati se = to bathe) whose main feature became an integral part of his name. The problem of Kupalo's tradition and, in general, his status as a god, is hardly ever the target of such perfunctory research which will withhold many useful and valuable pieces of information from the reader.
Before we proceed to examine the origin of Kupalo in Slavic mythology, we will give a brief explanation why we have enlisted him among the non-traditional Slavic deities. Firstly, none of the traditional sources on Slavic mythology mentions this god, his temples, statues, or the members of his cult. Although the same is true of many Slavic gods, and even more of goddesses, authors like Vasiljev, Srejovic and Legé do not even mention Kupalo and think that he was not worshipped by the Slavs before conversion to Christianity. If we however turn to the Christian sources, that is the authors who describe Slavic customs and myths of the late Middle Ages, we will see that the situation is quite the opposite. The period following the conversion of the Slavs is very important for the research on Slavic mythology, since at that time many new myths were established while some old ones were modified. The period of the so-called religious duality was characterized by interpenetration of the traditional Slavic religion and the new, Christian, ideology. That was the time when the myths about Rod and world creation emerged, as well as many links of kinship between gods unmentioned in the myths related to the pre-Christian period. Regardless of what the customs related to Kupalo were like before Christianization, we cannot find any information on them in the traditional sources dealing with Slavic mythology. The only thing we know is that the customs were connected with the celebration of the summer solstice (21st June), and that this festival was, upon conversion, substituted by St. John's Day, or the day of Russian Ivan Kupala. We will therefore start our analysis with the Christian holiday, and end our article with a final conclusion about Kupalo's nature.
John the Baptist, or Ivan Kupalo, appeared, according to legend, on the Volga River in the fifteenth century AD. After that, the holiday dedicated to this saint was celebrated in Russia, and its main characteristic was ritual bathing. The Christian saint himself was always connected with the act of bathing since St. John was the one who baptised Jesus Christ in the waters of the Jordan River. In the Christian world, ritual bathing was therefore related to spiritual and physical purification and to some sort of initiation. On the other hand, even before St. John's holiday was established in Russia, there was the tradition of ritual bathing already existing among the Old Slavs. What's more, Alexander Asov thinks the introduction of St. John's holiday was just an incentive for the renewal of the Slavic tradition he refers to as "kupalenjska". Consequently, even before the Slavs adopted the customs related to the festival of the so-called Ivan Kupalo, they had evidently followed some similar custom. Some sources inform us that the Slavs used to celebrate the summer solstice, called Kupalo, of which ritual bathing was a compulsory part. We can conclude beyond doubt that in this way a Christian holiday was purposefully established in the Middle Ages Russia in order to render Christianity more acceptable to the Slavs. Insignificant difference between the dates of pagan and Christian holiday supports our claim since, as we know, St. John's day is celebrated on 7th July. Now we can draw a conclusion about Kupalo's nature – he was connected to the period of the summer solstice celebrations the custom of ritual bathing.
What else can we learn from the sources on Slavic customs? During this holiday, ritual cleansing was not preformed only by bathing – holy fires were also used for the same purpose. These holy fires were most frequently jumped over, since the Slavs believed that in that way they could free themselves from the influence of negative, that is demon, forces. They used to lead cattle over the holy fire for the same reason. Apart from that, there was a custom of searching for and cooking magic herbs. There was one more interesting custom, with which we will deal in more detail, since it is related to a myth featuring Kupalo. The myth is connected to the custom of throwing wreaths down the river, the purpose of which was to help young Slavic girls find their future husband. Once upon a time, the myth says, there were twin brother and sister – Kostroma and Kupalo. Separated at birth from each other, they grew until they were at a marrying age. As she was walking by the river one day, Kostroma's wreath fell from her head into the river and was accidentally picked up by her long-lost brother – Kupalo. Ignorant of being relatives, Kostroma and Kupalo got married, since a boy who picked up a girl's wreath was bound by custom to become her husband. Learning however that they were related, Kostroma and Kupalo drowned, and the gods, feeling pity for them, turned them into flowers.
Can we, from everything mentioned above, conclude that the Slavs worshipped a god of male gender named Kupalo? Not at all. Description of a "kupalenjski" ritual (the term used by Asov) supports the theory that Kupalo's holiday was actually dedicated to a goddess. Namely, on the day of the summer solstice the Old Slavs would make a doll from straw, having female genitals, and then ritually destroy it. Most frequently they would "drown" Kupala doll in the water or burn it ritually, and similar practice was common to the former neighbours of the Slavs – the Celts. Kupalo could therefore have been of female gender as well, that is, this deity could have had the name Kupala. Was it really a deity or just the spirit of the solstice is the question we still have no answer to. Slavic custom of ritual bathing is described in The Book of Veles, the authenticity of which is still a matter of dispute. On the plate number 14 of The Book of Veles one of the authors says: "We wash our bodies and our spirit in the pure living water". Text on the plate number 25 says something similar: "And Kupalo sends us the message that we have to be an army of pure bodies and souls. And so we follow the footsteps of he who is our protector in a righteous fight". We can see from all this how much attention the Slavs were devoting to the purity of body and soul, and how much their behaviour was influenced by a strict moral code. This kind of attitude is closely connected with the Slavs' Aryan origin, since the old Vedans had a similar view of the world and performed similar cleansing rituals.
We hope that Kupalo's role in Slavic spiritual world is now somewhat better explained. Slavic system of spiritual values cannot be fully understood if we do not take into consideration the significance the Slavs attached to spiritual and bodily purification. Due to that, we can think of Kupalo primarily as a symbol of the Slavs' striving for spiritual and moral purity, which makes the problem his divine status, his gender or his traditional origin less significant for the research into and analysis of Slavic religious feeling.
by Vesna Kakasevski
translated by Snježana Todorović