One of the wonderful things about the develop of technology is that facts can be checked in an instant. Today, February 14, which is known throughout the Westernised world as Valentines Day has presented such an opportunity.
While casually scrolling through Facebook, I came across a post about the Ancient Roman Festival of Lupercalia and it’s links to Christianity and Saint Valentine. The story was extraordinary, so I decided to check out the facts, and as bizarre as some of the antidotes are, the story rings true, well kind of.
Lupercalia was a she-wolf Roman goddess who nurtured the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus.
Capitoline Wolf (Capitoline She-Wolf), c.1200s, Louve, Paris
(Source: Public Domain)
Each year on February 15, the Romans partook in a festival that involved animal sacrifice (goat and dog to be precise), dancing, and encouragement of sensual pleasures. Part of the tradition involved two priests running around with sections of the sacrificed animals and slapping the bloody flesh on women. To be hit was an omen of fertility. You could say this was authentic Roman(ce) behaviour.
As the years progressed, and Christianity became the formal religion of Rome (313 CE), the pagan festival lost popularity. In 494 CE it was completely forbidden by Pope Gelasius I. The celebration of St Valentine on February 14 is generally considered to be a Christianised Holy Day designed to take the attention away from the pagan Lupercalia festival. Moreover, the aim was to encourage a more measured, spiritualised version of love. In other words, traditions like poetry and note writing were considered more tasteful than slapping a single women with a hunk of raw flesh. It is times like these I completely agree with Christian values.
How does St Valentine fit into the picture?
Legends says Emperor Claudius II Gothicus (reigned c.268-70) cancelled marriages so as to encourage more men to fight in battle. Apparently, males were hesitant to go out and get killed while trying to kill other men in order for the Emperor to take control of more men, lands, possessions, and everything. Why would men be hesitant? The Emperor decided it was the usual cause of all men’s problems, women. Clearly, it was the wives and girlfriends stopping men from obeying their Emperor. If the men couldn’t get engaged or married then that would surely encourage them to go to war.
If the scenario sounds a bit doggy, then you’re not alone. Concise records (if they ever existed) to confirm these events have not survived. But since when has truth got in the way of a good story?
Popular opinion declares that the Christian priest, Valentine, married couples in secret, thus spoiling Emperor Claudius’ scheme. Subsequently, Valentine was hunted down, put in prison, and killed on February 14. If true, I’m not really sure how to rate it as a romantic gesture, but is it a good example of Christians being martyred for their oppositional behaviour, not their beliefs per se.
Saint Valentine Blessing an Epileptic
(Source: Public Domain)
Several other stories are also in circulation, such as Valentine falling in love with his prison guard’s daughter and sending her a love note signed “Your Valentine”. Christian priests weren’t forbidden to marry back in those days, so it’s not impossible. Still, not to sure where it ranks on the romance score board. Personally I’d be a bit creeped out if I were that prison guard’s daughter. I mean, the guy was on dead row, was it true love or just opportunity?
There are also reports of Valentine miraculously curing a judge’s daughter of blindness. This swayed the law official into converting to Christianity, and resulted in the release of several Christians from prison. (Saints in those days seemed to be much better at performing miracles than more recent eras.)
The Catholic Online website presents a few more theories about Valentine without giving absolute credence to any of them. It does, however, concede that there is a real St Valentine whose feast day is February 14, despite the Church not really knowing who he really is or why they are honouring him.
Somewhere in the mix of Valentines Day traditions are rumours that Juno Fructifier celebrations took place on February 14. Juno, the chief Goddess of Rome, was celebrated with references to childbirth, and husbands giving wives presents. While this may be accurate, other sources indicate Juno was celebrated on March 1. The dates are close enough to speculate that Juno worship influenced St Valentine’s Day celebrations, albeit, it isn’t a perfect match.
Final Word: Uncertainty
Love is a great thing to celebrate and February 14 is as good a day as any; however, as for the reasons why it has become a tradition, I have a great level of uncertainty about the justifications. Then again, word romance itself refers to imitating the strategies Roman soldiers used to woo women, so maybe the all the legends, stories, and antidotes are appropriate?