The Golden Bough A study of magic and religion
Page: 455In Slavonic countries, also, the midsummer festival is celebrated with similar rites. We have already seen that in Russia on the Eve of St. John young men and maidens jump over a bonfire in couples carrying a straw effigy of Kupalo in their arms. In some parts of Russia an image of Kupalo is burnt or thrown into a stream on St. John’s Night. Again, in some districts of Russia the young folk wear garlands of flowers and girdles of holy herbs when they spring through the smoke or flames; and sometimes they drive the cattle also through the fire in order to protect the animals against wizards and witches, who are then ravenous after milk. In Little Russia a stake is driven into the ground on St. John’s Night, wrapt in straw, and set on fire. As the flames rise the peasant women throw birchen boughs into them, saying, “May my flax be as tall as this bough!” In Ruthenia the bonfires are lighted by a flame procured by the friction of wood. While the elders of the party are engaged in thus “churning” the fire, the rest maintain a respectful silence; but when the flame bursts from the wood, they break forth into joyous songs. As soon as the bonfires are kindled, the young people take hands and leap in pairs through the smoke, if not through the flames; and after that the cattle in their turn are driven through the fire.
In many parts of Prussia and Lithuania great fires are kindled on Midsummer Eve. All the heights are ablaze with them, as far as the eye can see. The fires are supposed to be a protection against witchcraft, thunder, hail, and cattle disease, especially if next morning the cattle are driven over the places where the fires burned. Above all, the bonfires ensure the farmer against the arts of witches, who try to steal the milk from his cows by charms and spells. That is why next morning you may see the young fellows who lit the bonfire going from house to house and receiving jugfuls of milk. And for the same reason they stick burs and mugwort on the gate or the hedge through which the cows go to pasture, because that is supposed to be a preservative against witchcraft. In Masuren, a district of Eastern Prussia inhabited by a branch of the Polish family, it is the custom on the evening of Midsummer Day to put out all the fires in the village. Then an oaken stake is driven into the ground and a wheel is fixed on it as on an axle. This wheel the villagers, working by relays, cause to revolve with great rapidity till fire is produced by friction. Every one takes home a lighted brand from the new fire and with it rekindles the fire on the domestic hearth. In Serbia on Midsummer Eve herdsmen light torches of birch bark and march round the sheepfolds and cattle-stalls; then they climb the hills and there allow the torches to burn out.