February 14th, 2002

rubbah and horns

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day; Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.

I once wrote a long entry on the origins of St. Valentine... but it never saw the light of day. I was going to go on a search for it today, but mentalguy did such an awesome job of providing a composite legend, that I decided not to bother ;)

So instead, I thought I'd explore a bit of history and legend of a celebration that predates ours by millenia.

FLAVIUS
See whether their basest metal be not moved;
They vanish tongue-tied in their guiltiness.
Go you down that way towards the Capitol;
This way will I disrobe the images,
If you do find them deck'd with ceremonies.


MARULLUS
May we do so?
You know it is the feast of Lupercal.

Julius Caesar Act 1, Scene 1.

Lupercalia was one of the most ancient Roman festivals, and celebrated Lupercus and Luperca (god and goddess of herds and fruitfulness), Mars, and Romulus and Remus (twins, born of Mars and the Vestal daughter of the king, and the founders of Rome) on the 15th of February. (Greek writers called it Faunus, the festival of Pan, and attributed its introduction to the Arcadian Evander). According to Ovid and other scholars, it predates the Roman Empire and probably began as a shepherd festival.

It was celebrated in the Lupercal, a cave at the foot of the Palatine, the place where Romans believed Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf, Lupa.

The Luperci (priests) sacrified a goat for fertility, and a dog for protection. Two youths (possibly representing Romulus and Remus?) were annointed on their foreheads with the sacrificial blood, which was then wiped off with wool dipped in milk by the Luperci. The youths would break into laughter, and a feast was begun.

After the meal, the youths and the Luperci made their way around the boundries of the area, naked save for pieces of goatskin, striking bystanders with strips of goatskin. Both men and women were struck (on their oustretched hands, most likely), but for the women this action promised fertility and easy childbirth.

The goat-skin itself was called februum, the festive day dies februata, and the month in which it occurred Februarius. But whether our "February" comes from this festival, or from the root word for the festival which means "purification," is uncertain.

Ovid (267-302) says the Lupercalia is a rite of the Pelasgians (a people "older than the Moon"), dating from the Golden Age before the ascendancy of Jove; the naked ritual honors Pan:

The God Himself is wont to scamper high
in mountains; He Himself takes swift to flight;
the God Himself is nude, and bids His ministers
go nude, for clothes suit not a rapid race.

(Ovid, Fasti II.285-288)

Many Valentine's Day sites claim that Lupercalia involved a lottery of women, who were paired off with men, and that Bishop Gelasius replaced the names of the women with the names of saints, and made February 14th Saint Valentine's Day or Candlemas or whatever. I've yet to see any documentation on this (no two of these sites have the same information in common, though most do share cheesy graphics and bad midi music). There is, however, documentation in the British Museum of Bishop Gelasius having opposed Lupercalia against one Senator Andromachus, and documentation here (that seems more reasonable and trustworthy) that indicates that Bishop Gelasius did not replace Lupercalia with Candlemas at all.

Christian assimilations of older holidays are not uncommon; Christmas trees and Ishtar Ester Easter eggs are but two physical manisfestations that betray the roots of Christian holidays. Though there are those who would like to draw a direct connection between Valentine's Day and the ancient celebration of Lupercalia (and do so, on more sites that I could possibly count), I've found no documentable connection. There is a piece missing here, and Gelasius does not seem to be it.

There are also those who claim that this holiday actually celebrates Nimrod the Hunter, but because of changes in the Roman calendar that they simply do not take into account, I do not see the connection. The Easter and Christmas connections are stronger, and even those are very weak in places.

Lupercalia, like most of the more widely-celebrated pagan holidays may, indeed have been assimilated by the Christians. But exactly when and by whom is still a mystery to me.

In any case, the secular Valentine's Day as we know it probably didn't begin to take shape until the Middle Ages, when popular belief held that birds began to pair off halfway through February.

For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne's day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.

Chaucer; Parliament of Foules


Happy Valentine's Day, my friends... May your Love have wings.
  • Current Music
    Arianne - Everything You've Ever Dreamed (yes, still)