Today is St Valentine’s Day. In some parts of the world, this day is celebrated with hearts and red roses. In others, it passes by relatively unmarked.
So who was this St Valentine? A man suffering from unrequited love who somehow made it onto the thin and narrow path that led to sainthood? Nope. St Valentine was a Christian proselytizer and clergyman in the third century. His mission was to spread hope among the persecuted Christians, but his conversion efforts were not viewed positively by the powers that were, which is how Valentine found himself transported to Rome and thrown to kneel at the Emperor’s feet.
Hmm. I am not that sure a busy emperor would have invested his precious time on talking to a seditious, dangerous Christian, but there you are: Claudius Gothicus was curious enough to want to meet this Valentine, and some sort of friendship between them arose. Until the day when Valentine suggested the emperor convert. “No way!” Claudius yelled, before going on to tell Valentine that either he renounced his faith or Claudius would have him beaten to death.
No plus points to those among you, dear readers, who conclude that Valentine chose the second option. And so, on February 14 of an imprecise year (things lean towards the year 269) Valentine bravely met his death outside the Flaminian Gate.
So how did this brave martyr become the patron saint of love, young couples and happy marriages? (At some point, he was also the patron saint of epileptics and lepers) Well, it seems that when Valentine was ministering to his persecuted flock, he conducted many weddings. So as to remind the newly wed of their vows and God’s love, he purportedly presented them with a heart he’d cut out as a keepsake of their happy day.
In medieval times, St Valentine saw a major upsurge in popularity, this due to the romanticised concept of courtly love. Personally, I Think St Valentine would not mind being associated with love—in any of its multiple forms—but he’d roll his eyes at the commercial aspect of this holiday. Love does not need flowers and chocolate and heart-shaped cards. Love needs touch and whispered words, promises of an ever after. Having said that, chocolate is never a bad idea, IMO.
So, after that VERY brief introduction to Valentine—whose life was probably much more complicated and full than the above indicates—how about some love stories to set the mood for today?
There is something strange in our relationship with love stories. While most of us hope for that happy ending, the stories we remember are the ones that end in tears and loss, such as that of Juliet and her Romeo.
Personally, just the thought of leaving one of my characters eviscerated by the loss of the other has me in convulsions, so I’ve compromised: no matter the tribulations they go through, there is some sort of reunion at the end, not necessarily all song and dance, but still, I leave them together, with the promise of future tomorrows. I know, I know; not at all realistic, but there you are. I’m a person with a huge romantic streak in me, okay?
Anyway; everyone has heard of Romeo and Juliet, most of us have a passing acquaintance with Tristan and Isolde, or Lancelot and Guinevere. But how many of you have heard of Juan and Isabel, commonly known as Los Amantes de Teruel (The lovers from Teruel) or of Salim and Anarkali, a most tragic story from the ancient Mogul empire? No? Well, dear people, allow me to do the introductions.
The Lovers from Teruel is an ancient legend, harking back to 13th century Spain. It has classical ingredients for a complicated love story. The rich girl of good family (Isabel) falls in love with young man (Juan – for some reason renamed Diego in re-tellings from the 16th century an onwards) without a dime to his name. Naturally, Isabel’s father was less than inclined to wed his pretty, rich daughter to a pauper, no matter how upright. Juan wholeheartedly agreed; this pearl amongst women deserved only the best. Oh dear; things could have ended already there, but fortunately, Juan had a plan. He succeeded in convincing Isabel (or rather her father) to give him five years in which to make his fortune, and so he set off with nothing but a beating heart full of love and commitment.
Isabel sighed. Isabel pined. Isabel dreamed. Isabel counted days, weeks, months. Months became years, and Isabel took to anxiously scanning the road for her returning lover, but as the fifth year progressed there was no sign of him. And finally, the deadline came and went, and as she had promised to do, Isabel married the man her father had chosen for her the day after Juan should have returned home. (I do find this rather callous behaviour from the father, but maybe he was seriously worried his radiant girl was well on her way to be an old, unwanted maid – or maybe they’d done all the wedding preparations, and he didn’t feel like letting all that money go to waste)
On the evening of her wedding day, Isabel woke to the sound of footsteps in her wedding chamber. It was Juan, shocked to find her married when he had, in fact, returned before the deadline expired. You see, Juan counted the day after his agreement with Isabel’s father as day nr 1, while Isabel and her father considered the day of the agreement as day nr 1. Juan approached the bed and stood gazing down at her, heartbreak etching fissures of pain on his face.
“Kiss me, before I die,” he told her.
“No way,” she hissed, pointing at her sleeping husband. “I can’t, I’m a married woman now.” “Please,” he whispered, “kiss me, lest I die.”
“Juan,” she said, close to tears, “you know I can’t honey, it’s too late for us.” Upon which Juan sighed deeply and died at her feet.
Talk about a wedding night to remember. Poor Isabel went into a fit. She woke her husband, who was just as shocked as she was, and they decided to arrange for a discreet burial of Juan on the morrow, the husband very worried that they might be accused of killing this young man.
Next day, when she saw her beloved Juan lying on his bier, Isabel just couldn’t help herself, hastening forward to give him the kiss he had begged her for the night before. She kissed him and died, collapsing on top of his inert body.
This story so touched the hearts of the inhabitants of Teruel that they buried the lovers side by side. Their effigies (created much, much later) seem to strain towards each other, hands almost touching – but not quite, as Isabel was married elsewhere. Hey, proprieties must be maintained even after death! A true tale of woe, IMO, and I can’t help but feel very sorry for Isabel’s groom who must have emerged from all this somewhat traumatised.
It would have been somewhat cruel to end a Valentine’s blog on such a sad note—no matter that the love stories with unhappy endings seem to be just as many as those with the loving couple prancing off into the sunset. After all, Juan’s and Isabel’s story might have the reader coming away with the impression that love hurts far too much for it to be worthwhile. This is anathema to my pounding romantic heart, and so to round things off, I will give you a story of perseverance and steadfastness, of a woman who wove and wove and wove while she waited for her man to return home. Took him twenty years to do so, and by now those more classically versed among you will have gathered that I am talking about Penelope and Odysseus.
Let me be frank. Odysseus is NOT my favourite guy. I hold him personally responsible for the destruction of Troy, the death of Andromache and the exile of Aeneas – although this last thing was maybe a good thing as without Aeneas no Rome (according to Virgil). He is also a devious sort, one of those people who will extend their hand to seal a deal while keeping the other hand behind their back, fingers crossed.
Ask the Cyclops what he thinks of Odysseus, and you won’t get a panegyric, rather he’ll spit and rage, cursing this particular sheep-thief to hell and back.
The Siren will pout prettily and tell you it ain’t fair when men she tries to entrance tie themselves to a mast so as to hear her lovely song but be incapable of going to her.
But Penelope will smile and stroke the fabric on her loom, telling us that “nowhere lives a man so true and fair”.
Huh: I guess he didn’t tell her about Circe and Calypso – although to be fair, one was a powerful witch, the other a nymph, and what was a poor mortal man to do but succumb?
While Odysseus was out doing his man thing (besiege and conquer a city; check, steal away important treasure; check, see the world at large; check) Penelope was stuck at home on Ithaca. Their son she raised on stories of his fantastic father, and her days she spent industriously at her loom, always weaving.
After some years, Penelope began to experience man problems – well, apart from the constant man problem of being without her husband. Classic myths clearly have no concept of female physical needs and so it is taken as self-evident that Penelope would stoically bear her imposed celibacy, nurturing instead the pink little glow of love the mere name of her hubby inspired. Huh. Anyway: we are told that 108 men came to beg for Penelope’s hand, and to stave them off she told them that only once she’d finished the burial shroud for her father-in-law would she make a choice. Every night Penelope snuck out to tear apart what she’d woven the day before, every morning she sat down to weave some more. Poor woman; how utterly boring! Anyway, one day her ruse was revealed, and Penelope’s rather odious suitors became even more insistent. As an aside, none of these suitors were there because they were head-over-heels for Penelope. No, they wanted her for her lands (and potentially her weaving skills, which by now had to be excellent) rather than for herself.
Fortuitously (which is how we know this is a story rather than the truth), Odysseus came hobbling in, disguised as a beggar, just on the day that Penelope had promised to make some sort of choice. Tired of her insistent suitors, of greedy men in general, she told the assembled men that he amongst them who could string Odysseus’ bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe-heads would be her chosen spouse. Now, had I been one of the suitors I would have protested loudly at this impossible test, and maybe they did, but lo and behold, the beggar stepped forth, stringed the bow and shot an arrow through the twelve axe-heads (which, one must presume, were made of something soft and penetrable. Odd axe-heads…)
After something of a slaying spree – Odysseus was mightily irritated by these pesky suitors – Odysseus and Penelope settled down to live for ever more in uxorious bliss. And while Odysseus is not my favourite man, I do have something of a soft spot for patient Penelope, sitting there day after day while never giving up hope that someday her man would return. Awwww…..
Today, we celebrate love. Love comes in many forms and guises. Yes, we see a heart and we thing of the romantic love between a couple, but there’s also the love between a parent and a child, between siblings and friends. There’s the quiet kind of love that never lends itself to grand gestures or chocolate in heart-shaped boxes but instead flows like a strong warm current through your life. There’s the love that leaves you breathless and bothered, the love that heals when all you’re doing is hurting.
Sometimes, love hurts. Sometimes, it is a thorny thing that leaves you all scratched up. Mostly, love is a welcoming embrace, a promise that someone cares for you. No matter what kind of love, I do believe Paulus got it right when he stated that “the greatest of these is love”. With that, I leave you to celebrate today as it best suits you. Me, I am going to cross my arms and look expectantly at hubby—very expectantly—until he gets that I am waiting. Impatiently. After all, who doesn’t need chocolates in a heart-shaped box on a cold February day?