St. Hyacinth = St. Valentine

Hyacinth and bluebells are traditionally associated with love and fidelity, telling the truth — and rabbits!

“Saint Hyacinth!” Who’d athunk it?!

Last week, a reader of Romanian background remarked that the post about St. Valentine and love magic made no reference to Eastern European legends or practice. She asked, “Who is the Orthodox version of St. Valentine?” I decided to look into that question and discovered that St. Hyacinth is the Orthodox answer to St. Valentine!

It seems that there are several men named Hyacinth in the Orthodox calendar of saints. The one most consistently associated with love, like Valentine, was a martyr who was put to death for his faith with his brother Protus during the reign of the emperor Trajan (AD 257-9). They were baptized as adults, spent time living with the hermits in Egypt, were beheaded for their faith, and buried together in one tomb. Their brotherly devotion to each other is one source of their association with matchmaking and love.

But that’s not the end of the story. Hyacinth and Protus are said to have been “brothers,” a frequent euphemism for male partners. Such male partnerships first developed among monks as a way to support their mutual prayer, Bible study, and ascetic effort. Among laymen, this “brotherhood” might or might not have included a sexual aspect. (I highly recommend Claudia Rapp’s excellent study of brother-making if you are interested in learning more about this.)

But that is still not all of the story. St. Hyacinth is also associated with love and devotion because the original Hyacinth, a male character from Greek mythology, was a beautiful young mortal man who was beloved by both Apollo (the sun god) and Zephyrus (the god of the west wind). According to the myth, Zephyrus became jealous of Apollo and angry at sharing the attentions of Hyacinth — Hyacinth was evidently more fond of Apollo. So one day as the three were throwing a discus (not unlike three friends tossing a Frisbee), Zephyrus caused the wind to blow the discus into Hyacinth’s head. Hyacinth died of the gash to his head and the first bluebells (also called “hyacinth”) bloomed where his blood spattered the ground. The small blossoms of the flowers are marked by dark spots that resemble the Greek letters AI, which spell the word “Alas!” in Greek.

Hyacinths and bluebells are said to prevent someone from telling a lie just as Hyacinth was honest about his feelings for Apollo. The flowers are also used to promote love and fidelity. They were used in folk medicine but the bulbs contain toxic drugs and are not usually used any more. They are sometimes called “harebells” because rabbits are frequently seen where the flowers bloom and are said by some to be used by witches as they transform into were-rabbits.

There is a wonderful series about bluebell and hyacinth folklore here.

And what about Eastern European love magic? I found a great article about contemporary folk magic in an area where Serbia and Romania meet.

St. Valentine’s Day 2017

The skull and other relics of St. Valentine, a priest martyred in Rome during the early centuries of Christianity, now kept on a side altar in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome.

The skull and other relics of St. Valentine, a priest martyred in Rome during the early centuries of Christianity, now kept on a side altar in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome.

With the modern celebration of Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, can thoughts of love magic be far behind? A number of traditional ways to win another’s heart have been used over the years. One way a woman could win a man’s heart was by feeding him food into which she had mixed some of her own blood (menstrual blood was especially effective). Catching the reflection of mating birds in a mirror on Thursday was the first step in a more complicated love spell. After catching the reflection, a person would give the mirror to his or her chosen and once the receiver looked into the mirror, they would be irresistibly infatuated with the mirror-giver. (Both of these methods are employed by different women in Come Hell or High Water.) Or a woman might resort to the much more simple use of caraway seeds, cloves, or coriander to win the affection of the man she had chosen. One English love potion included the kidney of a rabbit, the womb of a swallow, and the heart of a dove while an ancient Greek love potion used a stallion’s semen or a mare’s vaginal discharge.

Garlic, saffron, ginger, or even vanilla(!) were more likely to be used in erotic magic, which was less concerned with affection, and more likely to be aimed by men at women. Wax images could be pierced by pins to incite lust. Striking the intended with hazel or willow branches was also thought to inspire lust. Or you could obtain a few hairs from your intended’s head, tie them in a knot with twine, and then keep the amulet on your thigh or around your genitals to draw your intended’s attentions.

Of course, there were ways to deflect this sort of magic as well. Lily or lettuce could break love spells or decrease lust and thwart unwanted attentions. Just be sure not to confuse which herbs you feed to which guest at your table!

There is also an interesting article about the development and history of Valentine’s Day by NPR.

It was a Norse custom to give a newlywed couple enough mead (i.e. honey wine) to last for a month. Hence, our term “honeymoon” ti describe the first weeks of marriage.

Rowan and Other Celtic Trees

A rowan tree, which the Norse said the first woman was made from and the Celts said protects against witchcraft.

I have been doing research recently for a new novel, Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes which will involve the dearg-due again. (Readers first met this character in the Come Hell or High Water trilogy; she is featured on the cover of Part 2: Rising.) I have discovered some fascinating tales about pigs and acorns as well as cauldrons of salmon stew–a perennial favorite!

I have also discovered a lot about trees in European folklore or mythology in general and in Celtic folklore in particular. Greek mythology tells of how Hebe the goddess of youth, dispensed rejuvenating ambrosia to the gods from her magical chalice. When, through carelessness, she lost this cup to demons, the gods sent an eagle to recover the cup. The feathers and drops of blood which the eagle shed in the ensuing fight with the demons fell to earth, where each of them turned into a rowan tree. Hence the rowan derived the shape of its leaves from the eagle’s feathers and the appearance of its berries from the droplets of blood. The Norse said that the first woman was carved from the trunk of a rowan tree just as the first man was carved from the trunk of an ash tree. The Celts had many, MANY stories about rowan trees but I will keep the details of those to myself–so as not to spoil the plot twists that might develop in Earth to Earth.

Oak trees were also important. The Druids frequently worshipped and practised their rites in oak groves (the word Druid was probably a Gaelic derivation of their word for oak, Duir, and meant “men of the oaks”). Mistletoe, probably the Druids’ most potent and magical plant, frequently grew on oak trees and its presence was believed to indicate the hand of God having placed it there in a lightning strike.

Yew trees were also held sacred in pre-Christian times. Folk no doubt observed the tree’s qualities of longevity and regeneration (drooping branches of old yew trees can root and form new trunks where they touch the ground) and the yew came to symbolise death and resurrection in Celtic culture. The Celts were also familiar with the toxicity of the tree’s needles, which can prove fatal, and which may have further contributed to its connections with death. Shakespeare too was familiar with these qualities when he had Macbeth concoct a poisonous brew which included “slips of yew, silvered in the moon’s eclipse”.