In case you haven't noticed the masses of heart-shaped balloons and overpriced single roses for sale in the supermarket, today is Valentine's Day, our annual celebration of love, romance, and not being able to get a dinner reservation to save your life. But no matter where you fall on actually enjoying the holiday, don't you have to admit that some of the gifts and rituals feel, well, sort of tired? The same roses, red glitter, lacy love hearts, and chocolate each year: the tropes of romance in modern America are well-trodden, so much so that you'd think they were age-old.
But they aren't. And history offers some stranger, and vastly more entertaining, alternatives for your February 14th celebrations (though some of these traditions existed long before people actually began observing Valentine's Day, a holiday that has only been celebrated in a form anywhere near what we now do since the Middle Ages).
Courtship behavior in various cultures throughout human history has come in many different forms — some of which we are better for having lost, but some of which we should regret having misplaced in the mists of time. While the practice of "bundling" — where courting couples would be tied tightly in sheets so that they could lie beside one another all night talking without the potential loss of virginity — has been deservedly replaced by living together before marriage, others deserve to be resurrected. Because, after all, there's no better way to impress your lover than by shooting a glass of wine from the back of a horse.
Casting Love Spells That Involve Wax Goats & Dogs
If your Valentine isn't necessarily aware that you exist, sending a totally-not-at-all-creepy random text or sliding into their DMs may seem like a good way to connect with them — but the ancient Egyptians provide other ideas. Papyri from various periods in Egypt, particularly when it was under Greek control, indicate that people who couldn't get their lovers attention would seek to impress them with various spells. And some of 'em could get a bit gruesome.
One, from the Leyden Papyrus dating from around 250 AD, requires you to burn the hair of your lover in a lamp, as well as a handful of wax or clay sacred animals (scarabs, goats, and hawks); you would recite a spell in front of the lamp and the figures, to lure the lover to you "full of love and craving." Easy enough.
If that doesn't work, you can progress to the Papyri Graecae Magicae from the 2nd century BC onwards, which takes a slightly more serious perspective on the whole idea. It advises that you remove a bat's eyes, mold a dog out of wax, put the bat's eyes into it, stick the eyes with a needle, put the dog in a cup, and bury it at a crossroads with a strip of papyrus on it spelling out that your loved one should "lie awake for you for all eternity." Three-course meals and oysters suddenly seem a little tame by comparison. (Also, I shouldn't have to say this, but I will: please, DO NOT REMOVE A LIVE BAT'S EYES. No on Valentine's Day, no on other days, not even on a dare from your Valentine, who happens to adore ancient Egyptian love spells.)
Singing Obscene Songs To Your Pals
Getting married in ancient rural Rome? You'd likely have a bunch of friends around you singing what was called Fescennine verse — hugely obscene and satirical songs about marriage, sex, and everything else they could think of. Originally, these songs were meant to be fertility and luck charms, and were sung by people with masks made out of tree bark, according to Cicero. They were designed to shock and embarrass, but at some point they apparently went too far; Horace reports that they eventually evolved into such abusive ditties (particularly insulting the Roman gods) that laws were laid against singing a malum carmen, an evil or hurtful charm. The core idea, though, still seems like a pretty good way to revive a stagnating V-Day date.
Giving Your Love Belts With Sexy Scenes Drawn On Them
The Italian Renaissance was all about symbolism and high art among the nobility, and one of the most amorous gifts you could give to a woman you were courting was a girdle, or belt. This may sound very 50 Shades Of Grey, but actually, the ones preserved by museums are more about showing off erotic scenes in embroidery and, in some cases, attached charms: the Victoria & Albert Museum has a tiny inlaid case meant to be hung from a lady's belt covered in scenes depicting courtly love poetry.
The Metropolitan Museum points out that the idea of a girdle as a love-gift to a woman likely originated with Christian ritual, because " the touch of a particular relic of the Virgin‘s girdle was said to aid women in childbirth;" however, a lot of the ones we've got show scenes of men and women doing provocative, romantic stuff, not going through a pregnancy. Your lady-love would wear this belt with the ends dangling delicately in the breeze. (This is also potentially where the idea of the "chastity belt" came from, as it was first called a "Florentine girdle," though a lot of that appears to be myth created by the Victorians.)
Pulling Valentines Out Of A Hat
Samuel Pepys, great diarist of 1600s England, is one of our prime sources for a pretty charming Valentine tradition that's since died out. All the children and adults in a house or community would gather together and put their names in a hat, and the name each person drew out would be their Valentine for the day.
We can see, Pepys scholar Samuel Latham notes in his companion to the diaries, how this tradition changed from year to year: initially the papers were just plain and would be worn on the person's clothing as a "favor," or the process would be further simplified by choosing the first person of the opposite sex you saw on February 14. (Eurgh.)
It gradually evolved so that the papers were decorated with gold and "little mottoes," and that every Valentine had to get a present (Pepys often complained of the money involved), usually gloves or a ring. Latham also mentions that the Valentine game in court became shockingly expensive, with one noblewoman receiving an £800 jewel in 1668, an amount worth perhaps $300,000 today.
Shooting Glasses Off Horses Before Proposing
18th century Polish culture apparently expected pretty grand things of its male suitors when they came courting in noble families. Edward Muir, in Rituals In Early Modern Europe, calls it "a certain extravagance in manners," and provides a pretty illuminating anecdote from a young woman of the Szamowska family:
Considering our modern concerns about cruelty to animals (that horse can't have been happy with the situation), you could try knocking a crystal glass off the top of your car as a more acceptable update.
Putting Mutton Under Your Pillow To Dream Of Love
William Wirt Sykes wrote a guide to Welsh folklore in the 19th century that remains a very entertaining read, not least because some of the included customs surrounding how to "see" your future husband or wife are pretty adorable. A lot of European folklore has this component: putting wedding cake under your pillow in order to dream of your future betrothed, for instance, is a tradition that dates from 17th century England. The Welsh ones have died out, though, and I for one vote that they be revived, if only because they'll entertain everybody.
Sykes noted that the Welsh were gender-equal in how they did their love-charms, though the men were, perhaps, a bit more lewd. Women had a few choices: they could put a shoulder of mutton with nine holes in it under their pillows to entice romantic dreams, or go into the garden at midnight and sow seeds while singing a charm to entice their future husbands to "sow with me." The best one, though, was making a complicated cake:
Apparently the man of her dreams would appear in the night to offer her a drink to slake her thirst. Men's charms were a little more, er, direct: they would take a girl's garters, weave them into a love-knot, put them under their clothes and hope to dream of the girl's face. As they'd managed to get the garters in the first place, the wooing was probably already half-done.
Using A Courting Tube
Courting tubes, or courting sticks, are an interesting part of American folk history; we're not entirely sure that the Puritans used them, but were at the very least definitely used in the 18th century in Connecticut. The basic function was this: if you were in a crowded room and wanted to whisper saucy things to your beau, but were impeded by the presence of many prominent members of his or her family looking disapproving, you were given a "courting tube" or "courting stick," a long, hollow tube through which you could communicate softly without actually touching. It was a pretty good way to circumvent the whole chaperoning issue without endangering chastity.
(If you were living in Sussex in England before the turn of the century, a "courting stick" was something else entirely: a long stick of hazel marked by clinging honeysuckle vines, meant to give gentlemen luck when they went courting. If nothing else, it's more romantic than mentioning your "courting stick" on Tinder.)