The Feast of St. Agnes: Turning a Virgin’s Sacrifice into the Art of Divination
Despite the background information given to the reader by Keats about the rituals performed upon the eve of the Feast day of St. Agnes (January 21st) the history behind these rituals and the history behind the namesake of this feast day is much deeper story than the one portrayed in Keats’ poem The Eve of St. Agnes.
In reality (and in the distant past, think 300 AD,) Agnes was a young Roman girl, the daughter of Christians, who devoted herself to God from youth and dedicated herself to a life of virginity, refusing any and all offers of marriage (an unfortunate decision seeing that her beauty and her family’s wealth made her quite the catch). Despite offers of wealth, jewels and power, Agnes turned down every suitor come across until one of them, the son of a Roman Prefect, turned her in accusing her of Christianity. When faced with the decision to offer her virginity to the goddess Minerva as a sacrifice or to be stripped and sent to a brothel she opted for the brothel.
In the brothel, the story diverges slightly but what all accounts agree upon is that the virgin’s virtue was preserved. The most popular recounting retells that the second the naked Agnes was shoved into the cathouse’s chambers, long thick hair grew from her head completely covering her body, and an angel was sent down from heaven and appointed to protect her, blinding any man who came near her. Only one man dared to defile her, the son of the Roman Prefect, and he died before he could even touch her. It was only through the fervent prayers of St. Agnes that he came back to life, in front of his own father and many other people; despite this miracle St. Agnes was tried to death under the charges of both being a witch and for practicing Catholicism. They tried to burn her at the stake, but Agnes remained unharmed in the flames by praying to God. After this, she was beheaded and killed at the age of thirteen.
Being the patron saint of virgins and young girls, the night before her feast day was culturally considered to be one of the best nights to practice rituals that would divine the identity of a young girl’s future husband; these “love divinations” were actually very popular and various rituals were performed not only on this night, but on other auspicious nights such as Halloween, Midsummer Night’s Eve, and the eve of St. Valentine. If anything, while the eve of St. Agnes was considered an ideal time for these “love divinations”, it actually was only an English and Scottish folk custom until the concept was immortalized and popularized through Keats’ poem The Eve of St. Agnes. It wasn’t until the publication of Keats’ poem that the eve of St. Agnes became a uniformly popular date for husband-predicting, a cultural tradition that really had nothing to do with St. Agnes herself. Despite this, rituals and festivals surrounding St. Agnes and her feast day are still celebrated to this day.
picture derived from: http://sdchp.org/wordpress_update/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/stagnes-stanneswpb3.jpg