From the Left



The Summer Solstice, the Slavic Goddess Kupala, and St. John the Baptist (Part 2)

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

Ancient and pre-Christian medieval solstice celebrations in which fire and water played protagonist roles were intimately tied to fertility rituals across different parts of the world. Because of their critical role in procreation, women figured prominently in solstice rituals of courtship, marriage and childbirth.

Ancient Egyptians celebrated the summer solstice and aligned pyramids and other constructions along the sun's trajectory on the year's longest day. They saw the solstice as signal of the impending reappearance, after around 70 days of invisibility, of the star Sirius that marked the start of a new year and coincided with the annual flooding of the Nile basin and thus a cycle of agricultural abundance. The star, known to Egyptians as the goddess Sopdet (meaning skilled woman), was a deity of fertility and a mother goddess.

On the second week of June, Ancient Romans held festivals and celebrations honoring the virgin goddess Vesta, deity of the hearth, home and family. Once a year. married women entered her temple to give offerings seeking blessings for their families.

Another Roman deity, Juno, was goddess of marriage, human fertility and childbearing. The month of June -- named after her -- was believed to be propitious for weddings and happy, fecund and prosperous marriages. In the United States and elsewhere, June is still a popular month for weddings.

One of the keys to the success of the expanding Roman Empire was its purposeful capacity to merge its power structure and culture, especially its religious pantheon, with peoples it conquered. A salient example of this phenomenon known as religious syncretism is evident in the still-standing Roman-built temple in Bath, England, where Romans paired their goddess of medicine Minerva with Sulis, a local goddess of healing who exerted curative powers through the local thermal waters.

After three centuries of persecution and martyrdom, Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, which in A. D. 380 became the empire's official religion. The spread of Roman Christianity in Europe, Asia Minor and Northern Africa rested largely on syncretic strategies that aligned or overlapped with pagan deities, rituals and religious calendars. The Roman church, for example, adopted December 25 as the day in which Jesus was born, aligning it with existing pagan winter solstice festivals.

In similar fashion, the Roman Church and later the Orthodox Church syncretized St. John the Baptist by assigning him a June 24 birthdate that made it easy to merge him and the sacrament of Baptism with pagan summer solstice festivals such as pre-Christian Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Litha along with deities such as the Slavs' Kupala. When Orthodox Christianity entered the Slavic world, the Kupala festival was renamed Ivan Kupala; Ivan is the Slavic word for the name John.

Christianity, meanwhile, has adopted its fair share of pagan practices, such as the celebration of Easter, originally in honor of the pre-Christian Germanic deity Eostre, a goddess of the spring equinox and nature's rebirth, venerated in the month of April and syncretized with the resurrection of Christ. The symbols of rabbits and eggs and the consumption of hot cross buns in contemporary Easter celebrations are remnants of ancient Germanic and Scandinavian spring rituals.


Other similarities facilitated syncretism. Baptisms, like pagan water purification rituals, were carried out in bodies of water. The cleansing of sins through baptism was conflated with ancient practices in which ritual baths were used to cast evil spirits and bad luck.

Fast Forward and Head Southwest

Spanish conquistadors brought Catholicism to Latin America beginning in the 1490s; It was, to be sure, a syncretic religion that combined influences from a wide array of peoples and cultures that passed through the Iberian Peninsula over many centuries: Phoenicians, Iberians, Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Jews and Muslim Moors.

Over five centuries after the conquest and start of colonization of Puerto Rico (where I spent the most important formative years of my life), residents of San Juan (a city named after John the Baptist) and other parts of the island engage in a variety of syncretic rituals whose origins and meanings are unknown to most.

The custom, which is similarly practiced in many parts of Spain, from Catalonia to the Canary Islands, includes going to the beach on the eve of St. John's Day and at midnight plunging into the ocean three (as in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) or seven times. Although I suspect that few practitioners actually believe that this pagan baptism rids them of bad luck and brings them fortune, they do it anyway; and so do some of their relatives and friends in swimming pools in the Orlando Metropolitan Area of Florida, where an estimated 385,000 Puerto Ricans reside.


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