Feb. 14, 2005 —
In days of yore, before singles bars and online dating, women anxious
to meet a husband didn't have a lot of options. If things didn't work
out with the shepherd next door, you could turn to traditional folklore
in hopes of finding a man. And pray.
Becoming a permanent "spinster of this parish" was almost
a fate worse than death, because marriage was really the only career
available to most women. Widows had a few options, but an unmarried
woman had no way of supporting herself and no social standing.
When photojournalist Paola Gianturco set out to document festivals around
the globe that celebrate women, she found a number were focused on love
In many indigenous cultures, "heterosexual marriage is the only
acceptable life for a woman," she said. "So there are many
sorts of traditions that had to do with looking for love."
The local festival was usually a good place to find out if fate had
a mate in store for you.
"The summer solstice is a time when magic and love are celebrated
in Western Europe," said Gianturco, whose book "Celebrating
Women" (powerHouse Books) documents festivals in 15 countries.
Wianki: Herbs & Flower Gardens
In a small village in Poland, she found that young girls still take
part in a festival called "Wianki," or "Flower Garlands."
What's practiced now is a much tamer version of the original celebration,
which began in the ninth century, said Gianturco.
"During pagan times, virgins went naked into the forest at midnight
to pick up a powerful herb that only bloomed the first Thursday after
the new moon," she said. "They backed up to the plant so that
the devil who protected it wouldn't suspect that she was about to steal
his precious herb."
Once she had the plant, the maiden would boil it in water and drink
the brew. The next man she met would fall madly in love with her.
In today's Wianki, girls around 10 or 11 adorn their hair with flower
garlands, which they later float on the lake. Traditionally, what happened
to that garland could predict future romance. For instance, if a man
picked up a certain garland, he was destined for the young woman who
had made it.
The girls who take part today are more interested in having fun at the
festival than in finding future mates, but the role of flowers and plants
hearkens back to the past.
"There was a strong belief in magic herbs," said Turco. "There
were legends that many kinds of herbs would inspire love. Some of them
even today are considered aphrodisiacs."
The Tongkat Ali Craze
It seems that just about every culture has some plant or food believed
to inspire passion. Chris Kilham, author of "Hot Plants: Nature's
Proven Sex Boosters" (St. Martin's Press), said he spent about
10 years traveling the world and seeking out the most effective herbal
The plant that is "the closest to natural Viagra" is native
to Southeast Asia, said Kilham, who holds the dashing title of explorer
in residence in the medicinal plant program at the University of Massachusetts
"Tongkat ali, the root of a tree that grows in the rain forest
of Southeast Asia, is a very powerful sex enhancer for both men and
women," he said.
Not surprisingly, it's popular. "In Malaysia it is a national craze,"
he said. "It is in beverages and products of all kinds. You get
it at little restaurants and cafés."
Herbs and flowers aren't the only ingredients for love. Dancing can
also add a little spice to life, as Gianturco saw in Vienna, Austria.
At the Rudolfina Redoute, single women don masks to conceal their identities,
then whirl out on the dance floor. At this special ball, it's the women
who choose the partners. The men who don't end up as wallflowers find
their partners to be very flirtatious. At midnight, everyone dances
a special quadrille, and the masks come off.
Women also have license to be bold at the Moroccan festival of Moussem
of Imilchil, said Gaintruco. Once a year, Berber shepherds bring their
herds down from the Atlas Mountains to a huge market, where they stock
up on provisions for the winter, she said. A tent community of 20,000
or 30,000 people springs up.
"After they've sold their animals and bought their provisions,
the divorced and widowed women among them can wander through the tents
and flirt," said Gianturco. "You have to wander around and
flirt with any man that looks nice to you and ultimately invite him
to marry you."
Apparently a lot of men are quite flattered to be asked, because a lot
of wedding ceremonies are held at the close of the festival. But only
widows and divorcées are allowed to take the initiative. Unmarried
girls and young women must wait for their families to arrange a match.
Praying to the Saints
Having so little say in their own future, it's not surprising that young
women or girls would start seeking some divine intervention. In the
Catholic tradition, Sts. Nicholas, Andrew and Catherine of Alexandria
are the patrons of unmarried women.
St. Nicholas, the jolly fellow who became known as Santa Claus, was
said to have been a bishop in what is now Turkey, although the Catholic
Church says it has no proof that he actually existed. According to legend,
Nicholas threw three bags of gold through a poor man's window so that
his three daughters would have dowries.
St. Andrew the Apostle, who was martyred on an X-shaped cross, is venerated
on Nov. 30. The Catholic Community Forum notes some "peculiar superstitions"
have grown up around Andrew's feast day. According to an old German
tradition, single women can pray to St. Andrew on that day for help
in finding a husband, then go to sleep naked. They will see their future
husbands in their dreams.
According to another story, young women should take note of the location
of any dogs heard barking on St. Andrew's Eve — their future husbands
will come from the same direction as the hounds' howls.
Young women have been known to pray to St. Catherine of Alexandria,
virgin and martyr — asking not to end up like her. In France,
single women over 25 used to be called "Catherinettes," and
on Nov. 25, her feast day, they would parade through the streets wearing
little paper caps. To "don St. Catherine's bonnet" or "wear
St. Catherine's coif" meant one was considered a hopeless old maid.
Single women would beg her to help them find a spouse with prayers like
St. Catherine, St. Catherine, O lend me thine aid
And grant that I never may die an old maid
Versions vary, but another prayer runs:
A husband, St. Catherine
Handsome, St. Catherine
Rich, St. Catherine
Soon, St. Catherine!
And if St. Catherine
didn't help out? Well, then there was always St. Jude — patron
saint of lost causes.