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."

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 this:

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.