In the years before science reared its industrial head, superstition ruled supreme. Love charms, spells and potions were concocted, chanted and brewed to quicken the pulse or capture a favored heart. Sleeping on a pillow to which five bay leaves were pinned was a sure fire way to dream the identity of one’s true love. And if love’s flame had faded, a woman could always serve a loaf of bread that had been kneaded on her naked derriere to the gentle man she fancied.
As exploration opened up trade to new and exotic lands, other cultures’ aphrodisiacs filtered into Europe. Crusaders returned from the Holy Lands with coin-shaped sweets made from crushed almonds and sugar. For centuries Occidental potentates had nibbled these marchpanes (Marzipans) in the silken confines of their harems. From China came peaches, succulent fruit of the Immortals who sipped its divine nectar to live forever young and virile. The Americas yielded xtomatls. Shockingly scarlet and softly rotund, wicked “love apples” acquired such a sexy reputation that provocative women yet today are called “hot tomatoes”.
And it was the New World that gave us what just might be Love Potion #9. Chocolate. The Aztecs believed it was given to the first man by the gods to console him for having to exist on the mortal plane. Chocolate nectar was part of all ceremonies honoring the love goddess Xochiquetzal, and three cocoa beans bought a night’s pleasure in Mayan brothels.
Montezuma drank fifty glasses of chocolate a day with an extra tipple or two before amorous encounters. When he served tiny gold goblets of the elixir to the invading Spaniards, Cortez was convinced it was the ambrosia of the gods. From Spain’s court, a chocolate craze spread through Europe like wildfire. Nearly every gourmet experimented with it and famous lovers, from Madame Pompadour to Casanova, testified to its potent effects.
In the early 1800’s with low rates established for posted mail, sending written sentiments to loved ones on St. Valentine’s Day became vogue. Probably with direct guidance from the goddesses of love themselves, the inventor of modern Valentine cards was a woman. Esther Howland, a New England born direct descendant of the Puritan Pilgrims, received her first Valentine message in 1847 at the age of nineteen.
Inspired, she designed a few lacy greetings of her own, embellished them with the traditional symbols of love and sent her brother out to get orders. Expecting perhaps a handful of responses, Esther was astounded to receive five thousand dollars worth of requests. Business was so brisk that bevies of young girls were hired to assemble the cards. For thirty years, Esther Howland’s Valentine cards charmed the public while her unchaperoned business trips scandalized proper society.
Poised as we now are within the 21st century, one foot in outer space and the other in the fast lane, Valentine’s Day has shed its saintly overtones and superstitious habits. But the Goddess has not forsaken us. As long as there are red roses, chocolates and candlelit dinners for two, she will bless us with the gift of love.