Ah, Valentine’s Day: A day of flowers, chocolates, cards, hearts, expensive jewelry “sales” that rob you blind, and everything pink. Yet if you think this tradition is just another corporate gimmick to boost post-holiday season profits (we won’t say it isn’t), its less expensive origins actually date back to antiquity.
The Latin word cupido means desire, a word which stems from Cupid–the Roman god of desire and attraction. Actually the son of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, Cupid is often portrayed as a chubby winged boy armed with a bow and arrows. It was these and other gods who were worshiped that sparked the initial celebration of love.
Back in ancient Rome, the Festival of Lupercalia celebrated Faunus, the god of forest, plains and fields, which fell on February 15th. This purification rite was actually a very intricate pagan festival.
First, the high priests would sacrifice a ram atop Palatine Hill, where, according to legend, the female wolf nursed the future founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus.
Next, the bishops would cover the sons of noble families with sacrificial blood to insure the purification of the shepherds.
Lastly a race was held during which the priests and the young men, covered with the skin of the dead animals ran through the streets below, hitting onlookers with whips made of hide from the animal skins.
Sounds barbaric, but here’s where love comes in.
Women in particular tried to get hit by the leather ribbons in the hope of having a successful pregnancy and an easy delivery. A large banquet was also held, during which the young men randomly chose a female partner for the evening. Some couples would stay together after the fiesta, leading to blessed marriages and happy endings.
Legend has it that Valentine’s Day was only created to offset the other pagan celebrations, and by the end of the 5th century, the Lupercalia was the only pagan rites still celebrated in a Rome which was then primarily Christian.
Pope Gelasius criticized the festival’s lack of responsibility for its young citizens, the futile beliefs outside of the Christian religion, and the inappropriate way in which the couples were formed. Yet in the end, the Pope gave in to the festivities’ charm and marked the occasion on February 14th–the day of lovers.
But who was Valentine?
As one account states, he was a Roman priest during the reign of Claudius II in 268 C.E.
Claudius, in order to save his warriors’ strength and vigor, prohibited marriage and love-making. But the young soldiers found a way to have Valentine wed them in secret, eventually leading to the priest’s arrest.
While in prison, Valentine met Augustine–the daughter of his jailer–who was born blind. He apparently cured her, and from thereon out she took care of him while he was in jail. Before his death sentence, he sent a message thanking her for her care, and signed it “Your Valentine.”
During the Middle-Ages, lovers pinned the name of a chosen maiden to the sleeve of a gentleman’s coat. Since the ladies didn’t know the name of their suitor, the name “Valentine” was chosen to represent them all, eventually becoming a word synonymous with the word “boyfriend.”
As history progressed, boys continued to send sweet words and messages to girls, and later small tokens were added to these messages. Then cards were made with poems and decorations such as hearts and bows.
Nowadays the cherubs, hearts and messages are still here, yet modern society has added a bit more flair to the occasion. And despite all the history and all the boxes of chocolate and all the bouquets of roses, all we’re really hoping for and all we really need is, well, love.