Is it not somewhat ironic that Valentine’s Day was originally a Christian holiday named for a saint? Especially when you consider the fact that Christianity has never been strongly associated with promoting romance or even love, for that matter. All the more ironic when you learn that the true origins of Valentine's Day has nothing to do with a Christian saint, but everything to do with kinky Pagan sex rituals!
There remains much debate and disagreement among scholars on the origins of Valentine’s Day. They may never be able to disentangle all of the cultural and religious threads in order to reconstruct a complete and coherent story, but it is clear that the Pagan connections to the date are much stronger than the Christian ones.
Lupercalia – A Pagan Festival in February
While some believe that Valentine's Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of said Saint’s death or burial, (which likely occurred A.D. 269) others claim that the Christian church may have intentionally placed St. Valentine's feast day in the middle of February in an effort to Christianize the Pagan celebration of Lupercalia – a practice which of course has been known to be common with most other Christian holidays.
In ancient Rome, Lupercalia was a Roman fertility and purification festival that occurred each year in mid-February. It was dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as a celebration of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus – two brothers who were said to have been raised by wolves – and of the she-wolf, or lupa, who raised them.
No one knows for certain exactly when the festival of Lupercalia first began, but most believe it was named after the God Lupercus, who was the protector of flocks against wolves. Records indicate that the festival was held each year on February 15th where members of the Luperci – an order of Roman priests – priests would gather in a cave near the fig tree where the lupa had suckled Romulus and Remus. Vestal Virgins brought sacred cakes made from the first ears of last year's grain harvest to the fig tree.
It was there that two naked young men of noble birth would assist the Vestal Virgins, in sacrificing a dog and a goat – which represented strength, purification, and fertility. The blood was smeared on the foreheads of the young men and then wiped away with wool dipped in milk. Feasting with meat and wine then followed.
The young men donned loincloths made from the skin of the slain goat and led groups of priests around the sacred boundary of the ancient city and around the base of the hills of Rome. Considered a happy and festive occasion, the young men would run about the city, lightly striking women they passed along the way with strips of the goat hide, called februa. (And it is from these implements of purification that the month of February gets its name!) This act supposedly provided purification from curses and bad luck, and more importantly, promoted fertility.
The 14th of February – a holiday devoted to Juno, Queen of the Gods, and patroness of marriage – was the day specially set aside for love lotteries in Pagan Rome. According to legend, after those festivities, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The eligible bachelors would each choose a name of the woman for the year who was to be his lover for the year. These arbitrary pairings often ended in lasting relationships and marriage. Later, in an effort to subvert the lusty Pagan practice, the Catholic Church substituted the names of dead saints for the young men to draw in place of flesh-and-blood females.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Lupercalia, far from being restricted to Rome, was practiced in other cities in Italy and Gaul. When the Roman armies invaded France and Britain, they brought the festival of Lupercalia and all its customs along with them.
Though Lupercalia survived the initial rise of Christianity, it was outlawed – as it was deemed “un-Christian” – at the end of the 5th century, when Pope Gelasius declared February 14th St. Valentine's Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became once again definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14th was the beginning of birds' mating season, encouraging the idea that day should be deemed a day for romance.
So then, who was Saint Valentine?
Dating from remotest antiquity, Lupercalia was celebrated until as late as the reign of Anastasius I in 491-518 CE. It was towards the end of the 5th century in 498 CE that Pope Gelasius decided to dedicate the Eve of Lupercalia to the long-dead priest. The lottery system was banned as being un-Christian and the Pope did his best to make people forget about other un-Christian ideas such as fertility.
According to one story, Roman emperor Claudius II imposed a ban on marriages because too many young men were dodging the draft by getting married. A Christian priest named Valentinus was caught performing secret marriages and sentenced to death. While awaiting execution, young lovers visited him with notes about how much better love is than war — the first “valentines.” His execution occurred in 269 CE on February 14th.
There was another Valentinus who was a priest jailed for helping Christians. During his stay he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and sent her notes signed “from your Valentine.” He too, was eventually beheaded and buried on the Via Flaminia. Reportedly Pope Julius I built a basilica over his grave.
And then, there was yet a third, and final Valentinius! He was the bishop of Terni and he was also martyred, with his relics being taken back to Terni.
Pope Gregory the 1st said, "Converting heathens is easier if they are allowed to retain the outward forms of their traditional Pagan practices and traditions, while recasting those traditions spiritually towards the one true God instead of to their Pagan devils." Thus, like the Church would do with Yule, Ostara, and other Pagan celebrations, it changed Lupercalia to St. Valentine's Day.
In 469 AD, emperor Gelasius declared February 14th a holy day in honor of Valentinus instead of the pagan god Lupercus. This allowed Christianity to take over some of the celebrations of love and fertility which had previously occurred in the context of paganism. Pagan celebrations were reworked to fit the martyr theme – Christianity did not approve of rituals that encouraged sexuality.
In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius did away with the festival of Lupercalia, citing that it was Pagan and immoral.
As with so many other holidays that have pagan roots, divination came to play an important role in the development of modern Valentine’s Day. People looked to all sorts of things, primarily in nature, in order to find some sign about who might become their One True Love. There were also, of course, things which later came to be used to induce love or lust.
During the medieval period, the Valentine lottery returned as a means of coupling singles and was extremely popular. The names of maidens and bachelors were put into a box and drawn out in pairs on February 14th. But, this time, the lottery had a more chivalrous and romantic twist. The couple exchanged gifts, and the girl became the man's Valentine for a year; thus, the beginning of the symbolic gestures still seen today. The man wore his maiden’s name on his sleeve, and it was his duty to attend to and protect her.
Still, it was not until the Renaissance of 14th century that customs returned to celebrations of love and life rather than faith and death. People began to break free of some of the bonds imposed upon them by the Church and move towards a humanistic view of nature, society, and the individual. Moving towards more sensual art and literature, there was no shortage of poets and authors connecting the dawning of Spring with love, sexuality, and procreation.
After having been dropped from the Catholic calendar in 1969, Valentine’s Day now is no longer part of the official liturgical calendar of any Christian church. Millions of people all over the world celebrate Valentine’s Day in one fashion or another, but it’s unlikely that even one of them celebrates it in an even remotely religious manner. Sadly, as with Christmas and Halloween, the past century has seen an intense commercialization of yet another Pagan holiday in Valentine’s Day, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent by those obligated to express their love.
So as an estimated one billion cards* are exchanged this Valentine's Day, spare a thought for the ancient Pagan custom that the Catholic Church has tried to hide from you: for Saint Valentine's Day is the Eve of Lupercalia, the Pagan Roman festival of fertility.
Happy Lupercalia! Happy Valentine's Day!
The following sources provided information:
* Figures according to the Greetings Card Association
Austin Cline, About.com Guide
Dr Leo Ruickbie, Director of WICA.
© 2013 Rosalind Scarlett