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.

“…How Lovely Are Thy Branches!”

Our Christmas Tree at home this season (2016).

This season’s Christmas Tree in Washington Square Park (2016).

Christmas trees are among the most popular holiday customs of the modern world. Of all sizes and of many shapes, trees are set up in homes and shopping malls and store aisles to be decked with lights, tinsel, and ornaments. Children look forward to the arrival of the tree and share in its decoration. The decorated tree is the surest sign that the “holiday season” has arrived. But some disparage Christmas trees and call them little more than pagan intrusions into the Christian celebration. They cite the sacred trees of the Germanic tribes and assert that the decorated trees in modern houses are an ongoing homage to Thor, Odin, and the other gods of Valhalla. Although certain trees were considered sacred and might be decorated to celebrate certain days, no Germanic pagan would ever dream of cutting down the sacred trees or bringing them indoors. Cutting down the trees was the work of the Christian missionaries, especially St. Boniface of Mainz.

Depiction of St. Boniface cutting down Thor's Oak.

Depiction of St. Boniface cutting down Thor’s Oak.

Cutting down the holy trees was an act of desecration against the gods of Valhalla and an assertion that they were powerless to stop such a violation of their memory. When St. Boniface began to cut down Thor’s Oak, it is said that  “suddenly a great wind, as if by miracle, blew the ancient oak over. When the god did not strike him down, the people were amazed and converted to Christianity. He built a chapel dedicated to Saint Peter from its wood…”

Although the pagan Germanic celebration of the midwinter feast of Yule describes great feasting, there are no mentions of decorated trees. The “Yule logs” were ordinary trees that were cut down and brought in to be burnt, not the sacred trees. To cut down and bring the tree indoors, decorate it, and then burn it is an act specific to the newly-converted Germanic peoples to celebrate the end of the old gods and the birthday of the new.