People seem to be very interested in sleuthing out the ancient origins of modern customs, and Valentine’s Day is no different. I had a general idea of what I’d find when I started looking more closely…and as it turns out, the origins of the romantic-y lovey dovey side of Valentine’s Day are rather murky. The holiday itself is a Christian feast day in honor of St. Valentine (or Saints Valentine…there seem to have been several martyred by the still pagan Romans), but how it came to be a festival of love and lovers and it’s possible connection to any ancient pagan rite is much less clear.
It is not uncommon to find Christian festival days coinciding with ancient ones…in fact, I came across entries from several rather irate atheists who are really put out that the Christian church has routinely glommed on to pagan festival days for it’s own nefarious purpose of shoving Christianity down the throats of perfectly happy pagans. That is just a bit of an overstatement. It is true that many later Christian holidays coincide with ancient pagan festivals, and sometimes this is deliberate. Christmas, for instance, was a relative late comer to the holiday schedule. By the time it was decided to celebrate an official birth holiday, any records of the actual date of Christ’s birth had long disappeared, so a decision was made to overlay the new Christian holiday with the existing Roman festivals associated with the winter solstice – sacred to virtually every culture. It worked well for a number of purposes…religious syncretism being only one. Truthfully, the Christian Church would have been left precious few days to choose from if it had been required to avoid all Roman festival days…the Roman Religious Calendar was packed!
Now, back to Valentine’s Day…the closest Roman festival day, which is often linked as an ancient origin, is Lupercalia. This linkage is pretty flimsy. Lupercalia was one of the oldest Roman religious festivals and was connected to their remote origins as shepherds. By the first century BC, even the Romans had either forgotten, or taken great pains to protect the identity of the actual deity and the meanings of many of the rituals. Without getting too complicated, Lupercalia was clearly associated with purification and fertility. Every year on February 15, the Romans celebrated the Lupercalia which included the ritual sacrifice of young goats and young dogs by two young men of noble birth (evidently, all notably sex driven creatures). They then cut the skins of the sacrificed goats into pieces, using some of it to cover parts of their bodies. The rest of the skins were cut into strips. The two young men then ran through the streets of Rome striking people, especially women, with the strips of skin. Women would actually line up along the streets to get closer since being struck with the goat skin was believed to enhance fertility and ensure them an easy delivery. Rather a far cry from conversation hearts and assorted chocolates, but, depending on who’s wielding the skins, I might be persuaded to reevaluate my traditional Valentine’s Day celebration….
Felicia Lupercalia Armitageworld!!