Looking for Love Through Traditional Lore

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 or marriage.

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 and Flower Garlands

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 aphrodisiacs.

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 at Amherst.

"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."

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