Praying to Saints and Folk Magic: San Valentino

San Valentino, also known as St. Valentine or Valentinus, is the patron saint of epileptics, travelers, bee keepers, engaged couples, happy Christian marriages, young people, sweethearts, greeting card manufacturers, greetings/messages, and love. His patronage of "love" specfically meant agape and philio, but eventually also included "married love" and "romanic love between those intending to marry."

San Valentino is the patron of Bussolengo, Italy, San Valentino Troio, Italy, San Valentino in Abruzzo Citeriore, Italy, Terni, Italy, and Sadali, Sardinia. The Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend) provides a brief life account of St. Valentine in which he was imprisoned during a period of perscution of Christians. He refused to deny Christ before the Roman Emperor and was eventually executed. Most assume this martyrdom took place in the 3rd century, possibly under either Claudius II or Aurelius. Many assume he was also a priest, possibly later a bishop.

There are at least two St. Valentines who have been conflated: Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. They both share the feast date of February 14. There may be a third St. Valentine who may have also been martyred on the same date. (There are three different dates of years 269, 270, or 273 for St. Valentine's execution.) As their areas of patronage overlapped and their stories are similar, some scholars still assert that San Valentino di Roma and San Valentino di Terni are really the same person. This assertion is now disputed. The Latin name "Valentinus," derived from valens (worthy, strong, powerful), seems to have been popular in late antiquity. The Catholic feast of St. Valentine on February 14 was first established in the 5th century.

Most agree Valentinus was beheaded.

As a celibate saint, San Valentino was concerned with the type of love known as agape, the selfless love of others and the love of God. There are also stories that show him encouraging brotherly love, philio.

Originally, San Valentino was venerated as a healing saint. One of the miracles he was credited with was to have cured an epileptic child. Hence, his patronage of epileptics. Another legend claims that while in prison, San Valentino converted the jailer to Christianity by restoring sight to the daughter of his jailer as an act of Christian love, or agape.

St. Valentine was frequently invoked against plague, headaches, fainting, and epilepsy. In Italy, one of the common names for epilepsy was il male di San Valentino (St. Valentine's sickness).

Sabina Magliocco mentioned that San Valentino and San Donato were both associated with charms against epilepsy in Italy.

Many cures demonstrate the syncretism between pre-Christian and Christian content, but perhaps none so clearly as the charms against epilepsy. Epilepsy, known as il mal caduco (the falling sickness) il male di San Donato (St. Donato's sickness) in the south, or il male di San Valentino (St. Valentine's sickness) in the north, was greatly feared and misunderstood in rural Italy, where it had long been considered of supernatural or divine provenance (Di Nola, 1993:114). Iron was considered a protective amulet against attacks, and epileptics often carried iron keys or nails to ward off the illness; but since epilepsy was believed to have a supernatural cause, only the saints could cure it. Bellucci (1983:113-117) presents a series of amulets to heal epilepsy associated with San Donato, many of which show clearly pagan roots. Among the most common are lunar crescents and frogs, originally symbols of cyclicity and fecundity sacred to the goddess Diana. These were thought to cure epilepsy because the illness was believed to be cyclical in nature, following the phases of the moon. Eventually, in much of the Italian south, these symbols came to be associated with San Donato. As this took place, the amulets began to change: pagan symbols were combined with figures of the saint, who is shown holding or standing on the crescent moon (Bellucci, 1983:116).

Sabina Magliocco, Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy Part 10 of 13: Witchcraft as Folk Healing,, acessed March 2, 2011. This article first appeared in The Pomegranate 13 (2000), pp. 2-22.

Nowdays, one of the most well known legends involved San Valentino restoring sight to the daughter of the jailer, Asterius. Interestingly, there seems to be no tradition of St. Valentino being invoked against blindness, as there is for Santa Lucia.

Originally this tale involving the jailer's daughter was apparently attached to San Valentino di Roma (St. Valentine of Rome).

Later retellings of his arrest added that he had been secretly performing Christian marriages for couples at a time when Christianity was persecuted. These later retellings also often embellish the story with the detail that the jailer's daughter, Julia, fell in love with San Valentino after he restored her eyesight. Another embellishment was that the jailer's daughter sent the saint a love note before his execution. These additions to retellings of the story of San Valentino relate to the modern concept that his feast day is a celebration for lovers.

Yet, the connection of Valentine's Day with romantic love can be traced to Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century. Chaucer's poem "Parlement of Foules" is the first written reference to the idea that the feast of St. Valentine was a special day for lovers. Chaucer referred to the English 14th century belief that birds choose their mates on February 14 in anticipation of summer.

In Middle English:

For this was on seynt Velantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
. . . .

Saynt Valentyn, that art ful hy on-lofte; --
Thus singen smale foules for thy sake --
Now welcom somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres weders over-shake.

In Modern English:

For this was Saint Valentine's Day,
When every bird come there to choose his mate.
. . . .

Saint Valentine, throned aloft,
Thus small fowls sing for your sake:
Now welcome, summer, with sunshine soft,
The winter's winds you will shake!

In the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome, the flower crowned skull of San Valentino is displayed as a holy relic. Other relics are preserved at various churches, including the Cathedral of the Assumption of Savona, the Basilica of St. Praxedes, Zeno chapel, and in the medieval church of San Valentino Sadali in Sardinia. In Sadali, the parish church is dedicated to San Valentino. The Italian city of Terni also houses the relics of San Valentino. In Terni, the Basilica of San Valentino holds the body of San Valentino di Terni (St. Valentine of Terni). San Valentino di Terni died in 273 during the persecutions ordered by the Emperor Aurelius. This San Valentino di Terni, who was Terni's first bishop, is also venerated as "San Valentino Patrona Dell' amore." As noted above, Valentine of Terni and Valentine of Rome are now assumed to be separate individuals who lived around the same time period, around the same geographic area. Yet, San Valentino di Roma died under Claudius II and San Valentino di Terni died under Aurelius. At other periods of history, these two were conflated with each other and their attributes and legends have become tightly intertwined.

In Rhodes, San Valentino is revered as a protector of the citrus groves.

In Sardinia, San Valentino is associated with marriage, and San Valentino Sadali is invoked for the grace to find a good match.

For purposes of petitioning San Valentino, it would seem appropriate to simply address San Valentino. Alternatively, address either or both San Valentino di Roma or San Valention di Terni. It would also seem appropriate in the case of finding a good marriage partner to address San Valentino Sadali.

The symbols and attributes of San Valentino include a sword, the color red, a crosier, martyr's palm, priest healing a blind girl's eyes, bishop with epileptic child or crippled child, saint being beheaded, flowers (especially roses), and birds.

In modern art, St. Valentine is frequently depicted with birds and roses.

There is a romantic story that San Valentino sent pairs of white pigeons, cooing affectionately, to fly around an arguing young couple in order to reconcile the sweethearts. This tale is believed to be related to the expression piccioncini (lovebirds).

Another legend, supposedly orginating in the USA, recounted that San Valentino spied two young friends who were arguing. He interupted them, holding out a rose. He asked the youths to hold it together in their hands. In this case, the rose symbolized that brotherly love, philo, between all humanity. According to another legend, it was common for San Valentino to gift young visitors with a flower from his garden.

Modern folklore stated that birds chose their mates on February 14. By observing birds on February 14, a young woman may divine what kind of man she will marry. Spying a robin indicated a sailor for a husband. A gold finch indicated a wealthy husband. A little sparrow indicated a poor man, but a very happy union.

One custom on the Eve of Valentine's Day (February 13), was for ladies to place "eringoes" in a pillow in order to dream of whom they were destined to marry. Before going to sleep, she would recite the following little prayer.

Good Valentine, be kind to me;
In dreams, let me my true love see.
If this charm worked, then the lady would see her future husband in her dreams.

Eringoes are the leaves of sea holly (Eryngium maritimum) which is endangered. However a girl may sleep with a rosemary sachet or a sprig of rosemary pinned inside the pillow on the Eve of Valentine's Day to encourage dreams of a future sweetheart's face. An ounce of dried yarrow may likewise be tied into a stocking or sewn up in a piece of flannel and then placed beneath one’s pillow just before going to bed.

Another method is to sprinkle two bay laurel leaves with rose-water; then place them crossing each other under the pillow. When getting ready for bed, she puts on a clean shift but turns it wrong side outwards After she lies down, she says:

Saint Valentine be kind to me,
In dreams let me my True Love see.
Either a man or a woman can experience a prophetic dream, in identifying a future spouse, by taking five bay-leaves. S/he will put one leaf under every corner of the pillow, and the fifth in the middle. When lying down to sleep, s/he will repeat these lines seven times:
Sweet guardian angel, let me have,
What I most earnestly do crave,
A valentine endowed with love,
That will both kind and constant prove.
Beneath the Valentine's moon, crack an egg and separate the egg white from the yolk, letting the egg white drip into a bowl of water. The shape the white takes will hint at the name or occupation of the person one is destined to wed.

A more complex divination involved visting a churchyard on Saint Valentine’s Eve. A young woman would travel to the churchyard on February 13, wait until the clock struck twelve. Then she would run twelve laps clockwise around the church, repeating:

Hempseed I sow, hempseed I mow,
He that will my true love be,
Come rake this hempseed after me. *
After the twelfth circle she would turn and look over her left shoulder to see some indication of her future husband. A vision of her lover is supposed to appear and follow her in the cold night air. An augury might also be found in the patturn of spilled seed on the frosty ground.

If an unmarried man places a bachelor's buttons in his pocket on Valentine's day and it continues to bloom, he will be lucky in love all the year through.

A lad may seek his future sweetheart early Valentine's morning who is the first marriageable girl that chance throws in his way. The lad's love is the first lass he sees in the morning, who is not an inmate of his household.

In Rome, girls customarily placed five bay leaves under their pillows on San Valentino's feast day to dream of their future husbands or lovers.

Some unmarried Italian women get up before the dawn on San Valentino's day and stand at the window to look for a man to pass. The man ought to resember her future husband.

*Other versions of the hemp seed rhyme are as follows:

Hempseed I sow,
Hempseed will grow,
Let him that loves me
Come after me and mow.

Hempseed I sow,
And hempseed I hoe,
And he to be my one true love,
Come follow me, I trow.

I sow hempseed, hempseed I sow,
He that loves me best
Come and after me mow.

I sow hemp seed,
Hemp seed I sow,
He that is to be my husband,
Come after me and mow,
Not in his best or Sunday array,
But in the clothes he wears every day.

Incidentally the "hempseed" should from "industrial hemp," Cannabis sativa sativa. Industrial hemp is an annual herbaceous plant, has been grown agriculturally for its strong fiber for centuries . Hemp fiber was traditionally used in making hemp rope. Likely the hemp rope was supposed to symbolize linking the two lovers together. I've heard it suggested that folks use grass seed.

Hempseed is a favorite bird seed because of its nourishing oily content. Both hempseed and sunflower seed have a high fat content. Hempseed is winter feed for the European greenfinch, the chaffinch, the brambling, the house sparrow, the tree sparrow, the great tit, the blue tit, the marsh tit, the willow tit and the bullfinch. Is it possible that hempseed was used in connection with Saint Valentine's day, because of his connection with birds?

copyright 2011 Myth Woodling

Useful Prayers: Prayer for the Feast Day of St. Valentine
Useful Prayers: Prayer to St. Valentine
Useful Prayers: St. Valentine Prayer
Useful Prayers: Short Prayer to St. Valentine
Useful Prayers: Prayer for St. Valentine's Day
Useful Prayers: Another Prayer to St. Valentine
Useful Prayers: Prayer for the Intercession of San Valentino

Relic of Saint Valentine, photographed by Teresa Stanton 10/9/07

Illustration of San Valentino from the Nurember Chronicle, 1493

Icons of St. Valentine, martyr

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