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…
Tomorrow is St. Agnes’s Day
Which makes today the Eve of St. Agnes…
It is one of those occasions of the year steeped in old traditions. In St Agnes’s case, it is one of a number which focuses on glimpsing the future, specifically, of young women glimpsing in a dream the face of the man they will marry:
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;
As, supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties, lily white;
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of Heaven with upwards eyes for all that they desire…
We know from the antiquarian John Aubrey that this tradition dates to at least the seventeenth century.
It proved an enticing one for Keats in the early nineteenth century, who immortalized it in his poem The Eve of St Agnes.
In it, the wonderfully-named Porphyro takes advantage of the tradition — and the over-romantic sensibilities of the object of his love (Madeline) — to ensure that his was the face she dreamed about.
He didn’t actually need to, because she was in love with him too… but the attempted ruse did result in their eloping together the following morning.
Whether it was to a happy-ever-after or not has been a matter of debate ever since.
Another distinctly un-biblical custom takes place on her feast day in Rome itself.
Two lambs from one of the abbeys in Rome are taken to the pope to be blessed. They are shorn on Maundy Thursday and their wool used to weave the pallia (ecclesiastical cloaks) of certain bishops.
This has all the hallmarks of more than one tradition in the Pagan classical world of the ritual annual weaving of new robes for a God or Goddess.
It is quite likely that the date of the St Agnes’s Day is due to this Catholic custom.
Well, very early on, the similarity of the name Agnes and the Latin agnus “lamb” was observed, which lead to her association with lambs, and she is invariably depicted with one.
And it is around this time that the first lambs are born.
Originally, she had another feast on the 28th too.
As for St Agnes herself, legend has it she was a virgin martyr, who died in 304 CE.
The earliest account of her life was written by St Ambrose in the late fourth century, though it contained none of the sensationalized stuff of later hagiographies.
And, as with so many of the saints, it’s quite likely that a deity really lies behind her.
St. Agnes is certainly well-known to have taken the place of Gabija, the Lithuanian Goddess of fire, when Lithuania was Christianized in the medieval period.
It has been suggested that the Celtic Goddess Anu to lie at her roots, who is also thought to lie behind the English folk-figure of Black Annis.
It is certainly the case that Annis is a medieval variant of Agnes.
Agnes itself is usually derived from the Greek hagnos “pure,” although the form “Agnes” is curious.
If it was truly from hagnos, it ought to have been Hagne or Hagno in Greek (there was a nymph called Hagno in Greek mythology — she was one of Zeus’s wet-nurses)
This would be Latinized as Hagna.
Although the loss of the “h” could be forgiven, the ending -es, is, quite frankly, a serious anomaly.
Such an anomaly, that it almost certainly isn’t really Greek at all.
It rather strengthens the case that Agnes’s true origins lie elsewhere. And if she does come from the same source as Anu, one option for the etymology is that it comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root which gives the Latin ignis and Sanskrit agni — “fire.”
Unsurprisingly, Agnes does have more than one link with fire, and in the past was invoked for protection against fire.
Presumably, the similarity between Agnes and ignis was also at least noted by the Middle Ages too, accounting for the well-known blatant usurpation of Gabija, Goddess of fire, by Agnes when Lithuania adopted Christianity in the fifteenth century.
St. Agnes was one of the most popular saints in medieval times, and her veneration made Agnes likewise one of the most popular girls’ names in medieval Britain. It was often use in vernacular forms such as the already mentioned Annis, Anis, Annise, Anise and Annot, with the traditional nick-names of Aggie, Taggy and, in Scotland, Nessie.
After the Reformation, it fell out of favor, but continued in steady use until the Victorians with their obsession for all things medieval fell in love with her again.
For some decades, she has been regarded as painfully old-fashioned and shunned accordingly, but the tide may be turning; Jennifer Connelly called her little girl Agnes last year. Will it, and the growing interest in “great-granny” names be enough to see Agnes finally return?
Time will tell!