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All you ever wanted to know about St Agnes’ Eve…and St Agnes!

6 min read

Girls, if you wish to dream of your future partner, seek out a recipe for dumb cake and get ready for St Agnes Eve!

They told her how, upon St. Agnes’ Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey’d middle of the night,
If ceremonies due they did aright.

John Keats

Single ladies, you might want to pay special attention to your dreams tonight. Legend has it that after midnight on the Eve of Saint Agnes Day (January 21st) young women are likely to dream of their future husband.
Of course, you will have to perform a few rituals in order to make this happen.
Rituals that included transferring pins one by one from a pincushion to a sleeve whilst reciting the Lord’s Prayer, walking backwards upstairs to bed or fasting all day…and more.

An old poem said:
St Agnes’ Eve—Ah, bitter chill it was!
The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold;
The hare limp’d trembling through the frozen grass,
And silent was the flock in woolly fold

Cold apart, there is an old folklore tradition that St Agnes Eve is one of the traditional times of the year for love divination rituals, when young women would try to discover if they were going to get married over the next 12 months, and who their husbands might be.
Not by chance, young women in the 19th century didn’t get out much and didn’t have access to FaceBook or to our modern social media!
Other popular dates for conducting love divination were St Valentine’s Day, May Eve, Midsummer’s Eve, St Anne’s Eve – 26 July in case you were wondering – Halloween and New Year’s Eve.
And not forgetting weddings, which had their own rituals including catching the bride’s bouquet, popular still today, but also sleeping with a piece of wedding cake beneath your pillow. But these are other stories!

To get back to our story.
There were two main forms of divination.
In the first one, the young woman fasts all through St Agnes’ Eve eating only a little stale bread and drinking parsley tea.
Then goes to bed, pausing only to remake the bed with clean sheets and pillow cases, and, when she finally climbs into bed, repeats some verses.
But there is another, rather more yucky version from as long ago as 1711. It goes like this: take a sprig of Rosemary and another of thyme. Sprinkle them with urine thrice. Put one into one shoe and the other into another shoe. Then place the shoes at each side of the bed. Then, when you go to bed, and you will dream of your lover.
Let’s just hope you lover is not a cobbler as he’ll be grossed out by your shoes!

Anyway, I said there were two main forms of St Agnes’ Eve rituals, and so what’s the other one?
It involves a cake, called Dumb Cake and apparently it was still being practiced in rural Lincolnshire and East Anglia until the Second World War when, presumably, the influx of unattached, young American airman and regular dances in the airfield hangers removed the need to resort to magic to find a husband.
Yes, a dumb cake, and the earliest recorded recipes for this go back to 1685.
You make a cake, actually it sounds more like a savoury pancake or what the Scottish would call a bannock, made of flour, salt, water and egg, and cooked on a griddle, which you place beneath of your pillow, and then you’ll dream of your future beloved.
Unlike the other St Agnes rituals, Dumb Cakes will supposedly work for men and women.
And, interestingly, you can do it collectively with four people all taking part in the preparation process: you’d divide the ingredients into four equal parts, and then each one takes a quarter of the cooked cake to place under their pillow.
However there is a problem (which is why it is called Dumb Cake) in that the whole preparation and cooking process must be carried out in absolute silence! No talking, no smiles, no laughing and no sniggering otherwise the magical spell will be broken. Oh, and you’ll like this, according to some versions of the ritual, once you’ve placed your slice of Dumb Cake beneath your pillow, you should walk backwards into your bed!
Well, probably if all these young maidens didn’t have shoes that smelled of wee and hair full of crumbs from the cakes they’d been sleeping on, they might have had more success with the boys…maybe.

Another tradition was to eat a portion of dumb cake before retiring to bed, hoping to dream of a future love: “St Agnes, that’s to lovers kind / Come ease the trouble of my mind”.

In Scotland, girls would meet in a field of crops at midnight, throw grain on to the soil and pray:
Agnes sweet and Agnes fair,
Hither, hither, now repair;
Bonny Agnes, let me see
The lad who is to marry me

It sounds good…but who was Saint Agnes?
She was a beautiful young Christian girl of good family who lived in Rome in the early 4th century, who had many suitors from other wealthy patrician families.
She was born in 291 AD and raised in one of the few early Catholic families, long before Constantine decided to convert the entire Roman empire to Christianity.
By the time she was twelve years old, she was considered to be of marrying age ( I know, terrible by our standards, but quite normal for the 3rd century.)
Many young men of noble status came calling but she chose not to wed and was determined to keep her virginity.
Also the son of a Roman prefect wanted to marry her but she refused him, as she had decided to devote herself to religious purity. Angered by her refusal, the snubbed suitor denounced her to the authorities as a Christian.
According to the legend, she was sentenced by the Prefect Sempronius to be dragged naked through the streets to a brothel, however she prayed to Heaven, whereupon her hair grew to cover her entire body and any men who tried to molest her were immediately struck blind.
Now condemned as a witch, the Roman authorities then reverted to a Plan B of having her burned alive at a stake, but the bundles of wood and kindling would not catch fire.
And so, finally, a Roman soldier hacked off her head. Incidentally you can still see her head – well at least her skull – in a shrine at the church of Sant’ Agnese in the Piazza Navona in Rome.
Agnes was only 12 or 13 years old when she died on 21st January 304.
When her parents visited her tomb eight days later, they were met by a chorus of angels, including Agnes with a white lamb by her side.
The lamb, a symbol of purity, is one of the symbols associated with the Saint.

Today St Agnes is the patron saint of chastity, girls, engaged couples, rape survivors, virgins, Girl Guides and also gardeners.

If you decide to do an Agnes ritual and find a future husband on your horizon, please let us know!
Meanwhile, here are some further folkloric interpretations of Saint Agnes Dreams:

– If you dream of a man, that’s your future husband!
– If you dream of lots of men you are going to get married many times.
– If you don’t dream of any men it means you will live alone.
– If you dream of thistles or thorny plants it means your husband will rarely shave.
– If you dream of a puddle it means your husband will sweat profusely.
– If you dream of poultry it means your husband’s breath will smell.
– If you dream of a mouse it means your husband will be obedient.
– If you dream of white clouds it means your husband will be old.
– If you dream of eggs it means your husband will be young.

Happy dreaming and happy Saint Agnes Day!

Images from web – Google Research

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