Each year on February 14, lovers across the world shower their significant other with flowers, cards, gifts, special meals, and unbridled passion. It’s been known for centuries as the definitive peak of the year for romantics and a close second for chocolate lovers. But, history shows us that this holiday wasn’t always wrapped in stuffed animals and jewelry, in fact its roots date back to ancient Rome. The day most people call Saint Valentine’s Day or simply Valentine’s Day has nothing to do with hearts or flowers, and definitely nothing to do with the Christianity or the Saint that the church tried to connect it to. Just like the scores of other pagan celebrations which were hijacked, renamed, and altered, Valentine’s Day is a product of a growing religion hell-bent on absolute control of the population. Yet as Samhain held firm to its honorarium of the dead, the ancient Roman feast known as Lupercalia, somehow managed to maintain its original identity, at least in part, as a fertility rite.
Lupercalia occurred in the ancient world over a three day period; February 13th through the 15th. Scholars have traced it back as far at the 6th Century BC, but have been unable to pinpoint its exact origination point. As Rome fell under the spell of Christianity, the holiday was deemed too inappropriate and by the third Century was fading into history. However, in the year 469, Pope Gelasius decided it was his divine right to Christianize Lupercalia by declaring that it was now a date to honor St. Valentine. The story gets somewhat muddied at this point, since the Catholic Church recognizes at least three different Saints with similar names; all of whom were martyred. The most common story was that Valentine was a young Roman priest who was earlier martyred in the year 270 by Emperor Claudius II for refusing to give up Christianity. History also tells us that this young man was put to death on February 14th. Another version has Valentine as a man who spent his time trying to help people escape Roman prisons and when finally captured he sent correspondence to a young lady while imprisoned that he signed, “From your Valentine.” It’s not too difficult to see where the whole card-exchange idea was born. Regardless of the history, it’s obvious that the church placed their holiday right in the center of the Lupercalia festival in an effort to Christianize it.
The ancient festival was filled with nudity, sexuality, ritual sacrifices, feasting, games, and history, all wrapped up in a healthy dose of naughtiness. From what we know today, the festival was centered on honoring the Wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of the Roman Empire. At the start of the celebration period, the high priests would ritually sacrifice dogs and goats in a cave called Lupercal on the Palatine Hill. Immediately after the killing, two young male priests were led to the alter with their foreheads touching. The blood from the sacrificial knife was smeared upon their joined foreheads and then wiped clean with a piece of wool dipped in milk, at which time both were required to laugh. No one is certain why the laughter part was needed, but it was included.
The slaughtered goats were skinned and the skins divided into long thongs, similar to whips. After a period of feasting, the young men would strip naked and parade through the streets striking people with the goat-skin thongs. Since a male goat represented sexuality in ancient Rome, this practice was heavily laden in eroticism. It was believed that anyone who was struck with the thong would be granted fertility and would be free from evil. Of course, you can imagine many Roman women “accidentally” getting in the way of the light whip, some several times. The sight of naked men running through the streets whipped willing maidens and the revelry and feasting over the days must have been viewed by the church as an excessive indulgence in debaucherous behavior. The Romans on the other hand loved it.
There are some scholars who connect the symbolism of Lupercalia with the symbolism of Valentine’s Day. The red blood of the sacrifice and the female menses associated with fertility seemed to dictate the coloration of all things associated with Valentine’s Day including the primary color of cards, roses, and most decorations. The white milk was associated with semen, thus completing the circle of fertility – one cannot succeed without the other. Others focus on the goat skin as a focus point. At the time, a goat thong when used as a whip, was called a Febura, which closely ties to the month the celebration occurred. At the time, there was a strong belief that whipping ones-self would drive out evil; an evil which was believed to diminish a woman’s chance of getting pregnant. Since the goat was the symbol of lust and a never-ending need for sexual gratification, it made perfect sense as the whip of choice. They were basically whipping out the evil and replacing it with lust and desire; and since the administers of these whippings were naked youthful males, that sweetened the exchange.
What’s not explained by this ancient celebration is the practice of exchanging cards, buying expensive gifts, giving flowers, or even romance itself. Those all came into being due to a written work by Chaucer in 1381, who penned a poem for the engagement of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia entitled the Parlement of Foules. In this piece, Chaucer makes the very first connection between romance and the holiday itself. It still took several hundred years before all the elements we know today came into being. Valentine’s Day cards and gift giving grew in popularity in Europe and finally into America in the 1850’s. Rising commercialism continues to redefine the day as one of excess, overindulgence, and stress, as partners struggle to find that perfect gift or moment in the moonlight. We should look to Chaucer and his wisdom for advice; focus on romance, perhaps with a sprinkle of poetry and a glass of wine. Everything will be just fine.