8 Ancient Roman Love Hacks

The Roman author Ovid was born a year after the assassination of Julius Caesar. He wrote various works throughout his long career, but none so insightful for the everyday person as his Ars Amatoria (“The Art of Love”).

At first glance, the three books of Ars Amatoria are a collection of short poems playing with the common tropes of love stories – the locked-out lover, the slave go-between, the symptoms of love-sickness, the rich rival, the poor poet, infidelity and occasionally successful erotic encounter. But, they also include advice to the reader on how to be a good lover. Here are some of them:

1. Manage Your Smell

“[address] the odor in your armpit so that it does not go rancid and your legs so they are not rough with hair.” he says.

He also says, “See to it that he is well-composed, and his toga without stain. That the tongue not be unbending, and that your teeth be without tartar, Nor let your foot swim about while walking in a loose shoe(s). Don’t let a hair-cut badly fashion your stiff hair; Let your hair and your beard be trimmed by a familiar hand. And that it doesn’t stick up too much, and that your nails are without dirt. And no hairs stand out in the cavities from the nostril. Nor let the breath of your sad mouth be badly scented, Nor [smelling] as a man or billy-goat annoy nostils.” (I. 514-522)

2. Know Your Limits and Work Your Assets

“With little gesture make, whenever she may speak the woman who will have fat fingers and dirty nails. And to the woman whose breath of her mouth is burdensome, never speak hungry and always keep some distance away from your lover’s mouth. If your teeth are blackened, large, or not in line from birth, you will carry the greatest error by laughing.” (III. 280-286)

3. Make Your Choice and Own it

Ovid tells us, “you must act the part of a lover” in order to really become one. But, first of all, “choose someone to whom you can say “you alone please me”’ – that is, choose someone to be the recipient of your loving discourse. With this opening, Ovid goes right in to the heart of the conflict between love as a conscious, rational choice and as an irrational, overwhelming emotion. In the art of love, emotion and logic need to be balanced.

4. Go Out and Find Love

In any case, this section advises the reader to not sit complacently waiting for love, and instead to make an effort to go out and find it. “This woman will not come having fallen to you through thin airs: You must look with your eyes for a suitable girl” (I. 43-44)

Ovid’s favorite local hotspots for singles mingling included the circus, the arena, and even the open-air public market. But the go-to place for a veritable “galaxy” of beauties was the theatre. There, a Roman could find “crowds of lovely women, gaily dressed,” in search of art and culture.

4. Beware of Alcohol and Bad Lighting

Ovid explicitly advises his audience to beware of the combination of alcohol and low lighting in finding a lover, describing them as ignis in igne fuit (“a fire within a fire”) adding that “Nighttime darkness and wine harm your decision making and standards” (I.247) If you really want to know what she [or he] is like, look at her by daylight, and when you’re sober.”

5. Be Friends

Another possibility of finding love is, of course, through friendship. “Let love appear disguised by the name of friendship. With this entrance, I have seen the surrendering words of fierce women. This which has been the cultivator, a lover was made”. (I. 720-722)

6. Pay Attention to the Red Flags

Ovid also recognizes that there are always undesirable men, and warns women to be cautious. “Avoid those men who swears by looks and culture, who keeps their hair carefully in place. The things they tell to you they’ve told a thousand girls: their love wanders and lingers in no one place”. (III. 433-442)

7. Do not Brag about Your “Conquests”

Those notches on the proverbial bedpost might be a pleasure to brag about, Ovid suggests, but they won’t help your or your paramour’s reputation. If you really must spill the juicy details to a friend, at least refrain from painting yourself as the gods’ gift to women or men: “Let us… speak sparingly of our real amours, and hide our secret pleasures beneath an impenetrable veil.”

8. Pick Up a Book

Seagoing hero Ulysses was eloquent and so fluent in ancient tongues and storytelling that he had two goddesses after him. A good brain and sense of refinement matters in love. Ovid says, “Youths of Rome, learn, I recommend you, the liberal arts; and not only that you may defend the trembling accused. Both the public, and the grave judge, and the silent Senate, as well as the fair, conquered by your eloquence, shall extend their hands.”

Cupid and Psyche: Love Cannot Live where There is No Faith

A beautiful girl, Psyche, is born after two older sisters. People throughout the land worship her beauty so deeply that they forget about Venus, who is supposed to be the most beautiful being ever. Jealous, Venus plots to ruin Psyche. She instructs her son, Cupid, to pierce the girl with an arrow and make her fall in love with the most hideous man alive. But when Cupid sees Psyche, he shoots himself with the arrow instead.

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“Cupid and Psyche” by François Gérard  (1770 – 1837)

Meanwhile, Psyche’s family become worried that she will never find a husband, for although men admire her beauty, they always seem content to marry someone else. Psyche’s father prays to Apollo for help, and Apollo instructs her to go to the top of a hill, where she will marry not a man but a serpent. Although this is not the most appealing offer in the world, Psychefaithfully follows the instructions. She waits until she falls asleep on the hill. When she wakes up, she discovers a stunning mansion. Going inside, she relaxes and enjoys fine food and luxurious treatment. At night, in the dark, she meets and falls in love with her husband.

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” Le ravissement de Psyché ” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825 -1905)

After that, she never sees him in the light. But she lives happily with him, until one day he tells her that her sisters have been crying for her. She begs to see them, but her husband replies that it would not be wise to do so. Psyche insists that they visit, and when they do, they become extremely jealous of Psyche’s beautiful mansion and lush quarters. They deduce that Psyche has never seen her husband, and they convince her that she must sneak a look. Confused and conflicted, Psyche turns on a lamp one night as her husband lies next to her.

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“Cupid and Psyche”, by Jean-Baptiste Regnault (1754 – 1829)

When she sees Cupid asleep on her bed, she immediately realizes what she has done.  Cupid awakens and leaves her because Love cannot live where there is no faith.

Celebrating Ancient Valentine: She-Wolf, Politics and Whippings

Valentine’s Day is celebrated annually on February 14. It is recognized as a celebration of romance in many regions around the world.

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This holiday that evolved to what we know as Valentine’s Day today was a very ancient pre-Roman pastoral festival to avert evil spirits and purify the city. According to Plutarch, from February 13th to 15th romantic Roman fellows stripped naked, grabbed some goat-skin whips and whipped consenting young maidens in hopes of increasing their fertility.

This festival was Lupercalia, said to be connected to the ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia and the worship of Lycaean Pan, the Greek equivalent to the Roman god Faunus. The Greek word λύκος (lukos) means “wolf”, so does the Latin word lupus. Luperci, Lupercalia, and Lupercal all relate to the Latin word lupus (“wolf”), as do various Latin words connected with brothels. The Latin for she-wolf was also slang for prostitute.

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Conrad Dressler (1856-1940) – Lupercalia (1907)

However, Lupercus was only a part of the celebration. The Lupercalia festival was best known as a celebration in honor of Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, which explains the name of the festival, Lupercalia (“Wolf Festival”). According to tradition, the legendary twin brothers Romulus and Remus established the Lupercalia with two gentes, one for each brother. Each gens then contributed members to the priestly college that performed the ceremonies, with Jupiter’s priest in charge from at least the time of Emperor Augustus. The priestly college was called the Sodales Luperci and the priests were known as Luperci (“brothers of the wolf”).

The Luperci were divided into two collegia, called Quinctiliani (or Quinctiales) and Fabiani, from the gens Quinctilii, representing Romulus and gens Fabii, representing Remus. The Fabii were almost annihilated in 479 CE at Cremera and the most famous member of the Quinctilii has the distinction of being the Roman leader at the disastrous battle at Teutoberg Forest. In 44 BCE, a third college, the Julii, was instituted in honor of Julius Caesar, the first magister of which was Mark Antony. Antony offered Caesar a crown during the festival – an act that was widely interpreted as a sign that Caesar aspired to make himself king and was gauging the reaction of the crowd.

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The sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs from the skins of the animals, which were called februa, dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats and ran round the walls of the old Palatine city, the line of which was marked with stones, with the thongs in their hands in two bands, striking the people who crowded near. Girls and young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from these whips to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ease the pains of childbirth.

Although striking women is thought to have been a fertility measure,  there was also a decidedly sexual component.  Symbolically, if the act was to ensure fertility, it could be that the striking of the women was also to represent penetration. Of course, the husbands would not have wanted the Luperci actually copulating with their wives, but symbolic penetration, broken skin, made by a piece of a fertility symbol (goat), could be effective. The women may have bared their backs to the thongs from the festival’s inception. After 276 BCE, young married women (matronae) were encouraged to bare their bodies. In his time, Augustus ruled out beardless young men from serving as Luperci because of their irresistibility, even though they were probably no longer naked.

The cavorting Sodales Luperci performed an annual purification of the city in the month for purification – February. Since early in Roman history March was the start of the New Year, the period of February was a time to get rid of the old and prepare for the new.

It’s this blend of fun, fertility, and erotic elements, as well as the date, that ties Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day, but Lupercalia is not the direct, legitimate ancestor of the Valentine’s Day holiday. However, the ancient Romans may also be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on February 14 of different years in the 3rd century CE. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day. Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. But that didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love. Coincidentally, around the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatin’s Day. Galatin meant “lover of women.” This was likely confused with St. Valentine’s Day at some point, in part because they sound similar.

Valentine'S Day, Chocolates, Candy

No Such Thing as “True Love”: The Tragedy of Venus and Adonis

Adonis is a young man renowned for his beauty. But he is not interested in love and only wants to go hunting. When Venus sees Adonis, she falls in love with him and comes down to earth where she encounters him setting out on a hunt. She asks him to get off his horse, and speak to her,but Adonis does not want to talk to any woman, not even a goddess. So she forces him to listen. She lies down beside him, gazes at him, and talks of love. He manages to get away and goes to get his horse.

At that moment, Adonis’ horse becomes enamored of another horse and soon the two animals gallop off together, which keeps Adonis from going hunting. Venus approaches him, and continues to speak to him of love. He listens for a bit, then turns away scornfully. This pains her and she faints. Afraid that he might have killed her, Adonis kneels to stroke and kiss her. Venus recovers and requests one last kiss. He reluctantly gives in.

Unsatisfied, Venus wants to see him again. But, Adonis tells her that he is going to hunt the wild boar. Venus desperately warns him that if he does so, he will be killed by a boar. She then flings herself on him, tackling him to the ground. Adonis pries himself loose and, after lecturing her (the goddess of love) on the topic of lust versus love, he leaves, leaving the heartbroken Venus behind.

The next morning Venus roams the woods searching for Adonis. Hearing dogs and hunters in the distance, she thinks back on her vision that her beloved will be killed by a boar. Afraid, she hurries to catch up with the hunt. Soon, she finds Adonis, killed by a wild boar.

Devastated, Venus decrees that love will henceforth be mixed with suspicion, fear, and sadness. 

Artwork by ROOSDY.
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The Sisters of Fire and Water

When the Hawaiian sea goddess Namakaokahai met the mighty sorcerer, Aukelenuiaiku, she was impressed by his warrior spirit. Soon, she married him, showed him all her forms and taught him her magical powers.

Unfortunately, after their marriage, Aukelenuiaiku was seduced by another woman. To add insult to injury, that woman was none other than Namakaokahai’s own younger sister, Pele. It is one of the odd mysteries of life that when a man was unfaithful to his wife, the wife would first blame the other woman. Such was the case with Namakaokahai and Pele. Overcomed with rage, Namakaokahai sent high tides and floods to destroy Pele’s home. Pele fled but could not escape her sister’s wrath.


Pele’s help came in the form of her oldest brother Kamohoali’i, the god of the sharks. He gave her a great canoe to escape. Accompanied by her brother and her favorite sister Hi’iaka, she traveled far from home, over the wide expanse of the seas, sailing on this great canoe eventually to find Hawaii. 

Pursued by Namakaokahai, Pele landed first on Kauai. However, every time she thrust her o’o (digging stick) to dig a put for her home, Namakaokahai would flood the pits. Pele moved down the chain of islands until eventually landing on Mauna Loa – the tallest mountain on earth. As even the sea goddess herself could not send the ocean’s waves high enough on Mauna Loa to drown Pele, Pele established her home on its slopes. She pronounced the cliff on nearby Kilauea Mountain as sacred to her eldest brother Kamohoali’i, who saved her life. Kamohoali’i became the keeper of the gourd that held the water of life which gave him the power to revive the dead. Out of respect for Kamohoali’i, to this day Pele never allows clouds of volcanic steam to touch his cliff. Her other brothers who accompanied her on her journey also still appear on the Big Island mountain. Kanehekili appears as thunder, Kapohoikahiola as explosions, Keua’akepo in showers of fire, and Keoahikamakaua in spears of lava that escape from fissures during eruptions.

Pele may not have been on the best of terms with her older sister, but perhaps sometimes it is better to argue with your family instead of being a complete stranger to them. From her new home, Pele engaged in battles with Namakaokahai. To this day, Pele’s eruptions from Hawaii Island’s volcanoes flow thick and hot till they reach the sea — symbolizing the match in strength between the sisters of fire and water.

Image by Adrian Malec from Pixabay

Naupaka: The Legend of the Torn Flower

The beautiful Naupaka flower is one of Hawaii’s most common plants found both along the beach and in the mountains. Its appearance is unique as it looks like a flower that has been torn in half.

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There are different legends about this flower, and they all relate to the story of forbidden love. One of the more famous legends tells us about the princess Naupaka who lived in the mountains. One day while walking along the beach, she met encountered a handsome fisherman named Kaui. When their eyes met, they both smiled – it was love at first sight.

Realizing that she would never be allowed to marry a common fisherman, Princess Naupaka knew that she was prohibited from marrying him. She rushed to one of the Kupunas (elders) in the village. Hearing her story, the Kupuna shook her head sadly as the princess’ marriage is prohibited by Hawaiian custom. However, “all is not lost”, she said, “perhaps you can see the high priest and ask for his permission.”

Thus Naupaka and Kaui travelled for days to search for the high priest. Once they finally found him they told him about their love and asked his permission to marry. The priest was sympathetic, but even he could not turn his back on their custom. “That blessing” , he said “only comes from the gods.” He then suggested that the lovers pray earnestly to them until they have their answer.

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So Naupaka and Kaui prayed. Soon, dark clouds came overhead and a heavy rain fell upon them. A lightning struck near them and Naupaka screamed in shock. She stopped her prayer and the rain soon stopped. Heartbroken, the princess realized that the thunder and lightning was a sign from the gods that she and Kaui were not allowed to be together. She tore the flower from her hair and ripped it in half. She then gave half to Kaui and the two lovers said their goodbyes. Kaui would return to the seas and Naupaka would spend the rest of her life in the mountains.

As Naupaka and Kaui went their separate ways, the flowers around them saw their sadness and mourned to see the heartbroken young lovers. To this day, the flowers near the sea and in the mountains only bloom in halves. The ones growing near the sea are called Naupaka Kahakai, while the ones growing in the mountain is called Naupaka Kauihiwa. Each flowers look like half of a blossom, but when they are placed together, they form a perfect flower. When the flower of the Naupaka Kauihiwi and the Naupaka Kahakai are joined together after they have been picked, the lovers can be reunited, even if it was only for a brief moment.

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Hero Born in Sorrow: the Birth, Love and Death of Tristan

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A fragment of Tristrant, by Eilhart von Oberg. Parchment manuscript written in East Alemannian with Middle German-Lower German Elements in the early 13th century

In an expedition to the court of Mark, king of Cornwall and England, Riwalin, king in the land of the Parmenians, had become acquainted and subsequently passionately in love with Mark’s beautiful sister, Blancheflure. Later, as he was assisting Mark in a campaign, Riwalin became mortally wounded and was carried to Tintajole. Blancheflure, disguised as a beggar maid, hastened to his sickbed and saved Mark’s life through her devoted love. The lovers then fled together to his native land and Blancheflure was proclaimed as his consort. However, Morgan attacked Riwalin’s country and, the king entrusted the pregnant Blancheflure to his faithful retainer Rual. Rual placed the queen for safekeeping in the castle of Kaneel. Here she gave birth to a son and died as her husband fell in the battle against Morgan.

In order to protect the king’s son from Morgan’s pursuits, Rual spread the rumor that the infant had been born dead. The boy was named Tristan because he had been conceived and born in sorrow. Under the care of Rual and his wife, Tristan grew up strong in body and mind until his fourteenth year, when he was kidnapped by Norwegian merchants, who then put him ashore in Cornwall because they feared the wrath of the gods. Here the boy was found by the soldiers of King Mark, who was so pleased with the brave and handsome youth that he made him his master of the chase.

Meanwhile, the faithful Rual set forth to look for his abducted foster son. Disguising himself as a beggar, Rual found Tristan in found at last in Cornwall. Rual revealed the story of Tristan’s birth to the king who was delighted to see in him the son of his beloved sister and raised him to the rank of knight. To avenge his father, Tristan proceeded with Rual to Parmenia, vanquished Morgan the usurper, and gave the country to Rual as the liege while he himself returned to his uncle Mark. 

In the service of Mark, Tristan killed Morald, the bridegroom of Isolde. Being severly wounded, Tristan was saved by Isolde herself. Tristan then asked her hand in marriage on behalf of his uncle Mark. When he fulfilled the condition of killing a dragon, Isolde reluctantly accompanied Tristan to Cornwall. On the journey they unwittingly drank a disastrous love potion which bound them together in frenzied passion. 

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“Sir Tristram and La Belle Yseult Drinking the Love Potion”,
Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882)

On Isolde’s wedding night with Mark, Isolde had her faithful maid Brangäne represent her and sacrifices her virginity to the king. Next followed the banishment of Tristan, Tristan’s attempts to regain his beloved, although he had meanwhile married another Isolde (“Isolde the White Hand,” of Brittany) who resembled his beloved “Isolde the Fair.” At last Tristan was again severely wounded. Only this time his beloved Isolde arrived too late to save him. 

A plainer version of the Tristan saga is found in the fairy tale “The True Bride,” quoted by Riklin from Rittershaus. In this story, the childless royal pair were much less affectionate. The king threatened to kill his wife unless she bears a child by the time of his return from his sea voyage. Seeing that sea voyages are long and the king was, apparently, rather stupid. The queen was secretly brought to him during his journey, by his zealous maid-servant, as the fairest of three promenading ladies, and the king took her into his tent without recognizing her. After sleeping with the king, the queen returned home without having been discovered. She then gave birth to a daughter, Isol, and died.

When she was older, Isol found a most beautiful little boy in a box by the seaside. The name of the boy was Tristram. Isol raised him and became engaged to him. The subsequent story, which contains the motif of the true bride, is noteworthy for present purposes only in so far as here again occurs the drink of oblivion, and two Isoldes. The king’s second wife gave a potion to Tristram which caused him to completely forget his Isol, leading him to marry Isota. However, he ultimately discovered the deception and became united with his Isol.

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Overall view of the so-called Tristante carpet, wall hanging, circa 1300, wool. Kloster Wienhausen at Celle, Germany.

Ancient Halloween Stories of Love and Lost

The evil powers that came out at Samhain lived the rest of the time in the cave of Cruachan in Connaught. This cave was called the “hell-gate of Ireland,” and was unlocked on November Eve to let out spirits and copper-colored birds which killed the farm animals. They also stole babies, leaving in their place changelings, goblins who were already old while still in the cradle, possessing superhuman cunning and skill in music. One way of getting rid of these demon children was to ill-treat them so badly that their people would come for them bringing the right children back. Another alternative was to boil egg-shells in the sight of the changeling, who would declare his demon nature by saying that in his centuries of life he had never seen such a thing before.

Brides were also stolen.

“You shall go with me, newly married bride,

And gaze upon a merrier multitude;

White-armed Nuala and Aengus of the birds,

And Feacra of the hurtling foam, and him

Who is the ruler of the western host,

Finvarra, and the Land of Heart’s Desire,

Where beauty has no ebb, decay no flood,

But joy is wisdom, time an endless song.”

“Land of Heart’s Desire” – W. B. Yeats (1865 – 1939)

Ailill and his queen Medb lived in the first century BC. As they were celebrating their Samhain feast in the palace, they offered a reward to the man who should tie a bundle of twigs about the feet of a criminal who had been hanged by the gates. It was dangerous to go near dead bodies on November Eve, but a bold young man named Nera dared to do it and tied the twigs successfully. As he turned to go he saw

“the whole of the palace as if on fire before

him, and the heads of the people of it lying on

the ground, and then he thought he saw an

army going into the hill of Cruachan, and he

followed after the army.”

“Cuchulain of Muirthemne”, Augusta, Lady Gregory (1852 – 1932)

Nera was married to a fairy woman, who betrayed her kindred by sending Nera to warn King Ailill of the intended attack upon his palace the next November Eve. Nera went to see Ailill bringing summer fruits with him to prove that he had been in the fairy sid. His purpose was to warn the king so that he could defend his people. However, the next November Eve, when the gates were opened Ailill entered and discovered the crown, took it away and plundered the treasury. Nera never returned again to the homes of men.

Nera was not the only one who married a fairy woman. In her previous life, queen Medb, the wife of Ailill himself, was Princess Etain of the race of the Tuatha and wife of Midir. She only remembered little of the land from which she came, and was never quite happy in her new existence.

“But sometimes–sometimes–tell me; have you heard,

By dusk or moonset have you ever heard

Sweet voices, delicate music? Never seen

The passage of the lordly beautiful ones

Men call the Shee?”

“Immortal Hour”, – William Sharp (1855 – 1905)

swan-10410__340Another story of about the same time was that of Angus, the son of a Tuatha god. He dreamed of a beautiful maiden. He wasted away with love for her, and searched the country for a girl who should look like her. At last, he saw in a meadow among a hundred and fifty maidens, each with a chain of silver about her neck, one who looked like the beauty of his dream. She wore a golden chain around her neck. She was Princess Caer, the daughter of King Ethal Anbual. King Ethal’s palace was stormed by Ailill, and he was forced to give up his daughter. On Samhain, Caer changed from a maiden to a swan, and back again the next year.

When the time came Angus went to the loch, and he saw hundreds of white birds there. Angus stood at the edge of the loch and he called to the girl, “Come and speak with me, O Caer!”

“Who is calling me?” Caer replied.

 “Angus calls you,” he said, “and if you do come, I swear by my word I will not hinder you from going into the loch again.”

She came to him. Angus changed to a swan and they flew away to King Dagda’s palace, where every one who heard their sweet singing was charmed into a sleep of three days and three nights.

In Derbyshire, England, torches of straw were carried about the stacks on All Souls’ Eve, not to drive away evil spirits, as in Scotland, but to light souls through Purgatory. Sometimes, one may briefly see the image of their lost loved ones.

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“‘Why do you wait at your door, woman,

Alone in the night?’

‘I am waiting for one who will come, stranger,

To show him a light.

He will see me afar on the road,

And be glad at the sight.’

“‘Have you no fear in your heart, woman,

To stand there alone?

There is comfort for you and kindly content

Beside the hearthstone.’

But she answered, ‘No rest can I have

Till I welcome my own.’

“‘Is it far he must travel to-night,

This man of your heart?’

‘Strange lands that I know not, and pitiless seas

Have kept us apart,

And he travels this night to his home

Without guide, without chart.’

“‘And has he companions to cheer him?’

‘Aye, many,’ she said.

‘The candles are lighted, the hearthstones are swept,

The fires glow red.

We shall welcome them out of the night–

Our home-coming dead.'”

“Hallowe’en”, Winifred M. Letts (1882–1972)