Valentine’s Day has its roots in the rites of the Roman mother goddess Juno, celebrated throughout February, and in an attempt to stamp them out, the Church replaced them with a festival of an entirely fictional saint, St Valentine.
The Parentalia and Feralia, celebrations of purification in early spring to honour of the goddess of women, marriage and relationships, celebrated between February 13 and 18. The opening day of the Parentalia itself was February 13, dedicated to peace, love and the household gods. February 14 was the second day of Parentalia called the Lupercalia. The day was dedicated to Juno-Lupa, the she-wolf. February 15 was the second day of Lupercal and the third day of Parentalia. The day is dedicated to Juno Februata (giving its name to February) meaning ‘Juno the Fructifier’. Februata was an aspect of the Juno, mother of Mars, god of fire, war and fertility, and there are two possible derivations of the name: from februare meaning ‘to expiate, to purify’ or from febris meaning ‘fever’, in the sense of the fever of love which strikes the human and animal kingdom in spring, with the warming of the land. It seems to have been a very ancient pastoral rite which persevered into classical times commemorating the passage of young men into manhood, and dedicating it to the god Lupercus, worshipped for his ability to keep the wolves away from Rome.
The celebration was held in the Lupercal cave on the Palatine Hill in Rome where Romulus and Remus were said to have been sheltered and fed by a she-wolf before founding the city of Rome. Two naked young priests, assisted by Vestal Virgins, would sacrifice a dog and a goat. The dog may have been a substitute for a wolf, or the traditional sacrifice to the underworld powers. Blood from the animals was spread on the two priests’ foreheads and wiped off with some wool dipped in milk. The priests then clothed themselves with loincloths made from the skin of the goat. They ran about the city, scourging women with februa (‘means of purification’) which were strips of skin taken from the sacrificed goat. The Romans believed that this flogging would purify them and assure their future fertility and easy childbirth. The goat is reputed a lusty animal, and therefore associated with fertility.
The celebration featured a lottery in which young men would draw the names of young girls from a box. What happened afterwards varied from place to place; in some areas a girl was assigned to each young man and would be his sweetheart during the remaining year. In others it was the single women who drew the billet with the single man’s name on it. The couple would then form a temporary liaison for the erotic games to follow. Unless one or the other of them was unhappy with the selection they would remain partners for the following twelve months. Sometimes marriages resulted from this practice.
With the coming of Christianity, the church tried to stamp out the customs associated with the Lupercalia. In 494 CE, Pope Gelasius I tried to overwrite the feast of Juno Sospita (‘Juno the Saviour) in early February by designating it the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, directly replacing the mother goddess Juno with the mother of Jesus, and said to mark the time she was purified in the temple after giving birth to Christ. Counting forty days after the artificially imposed birth of Jesus on 25 December, this now fell on February 2. The Lupercalia on February 14 became St Valentine’s Day.
St Valentine was an amalgamated figure with several conflicting and confused biographies. There are two main contenders for the role who both supposedly lived in third century Rome. The first was a bishop from Terni, a province in Umbria, who was said to be captured by the Romans while attempting to free his fellow Christians from prison. During his trial, he refused to acknowledge the dominance of the Pagan gods and was thrown into a dungeon. There he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and cured her blindness. On the morning of his execution on February 14 he sent her a message signed “from your Valentine”, a detail obviously tacked onto the story to explain Valentine’s strange association with lovers. The second candidate lived under the rule of Claudius II, known as Claudius the Goth, who found that married men were loath to leave their families to fight in his wars, so forbade matrimony for soldiers. A Christian priest named Valentine performed secret weddings for them and so earned himself the title ‘friend of lovers’. He was captured and died in prison on February 14 in 269 CE. The legends of the two Valentines seem to have been deliberately confused by the Church to make one saint. During the reformations of the 1960s, the Church, somewhat embarrassed by the nebulous nature of the saint and finding no evidence of his existence, dropped St Valentine’s Day from the official calendar.
Valentine may have been an entirely mythical figure, or a figure on which the church pasted the already existing associations of the day. There are linguistic speculations as to the origin of the term ‘valentine’. It was usual for French peasants of the Middle Ages to pronounce a ‘g’ as a ‘v’, and accordingly, the original term may have been the French ‘galantine’, which gives us the English word ‘gallant’. The word originally refers to a dashing young man known for his love affairs.
Under the Church, instead of drawing out lovers’ names from the box as at the Lupercalia, young people could draw out saints’ names and sermons. They were then expected to meditate on their saints and emulate their qualities during the year. However (not surprisingly) this didn’t prove very popular. The practice of sending love letters on Valentine’s Day appeared in France and England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The seventeenth century saw the introduction of handmade cards, and commercial cards were introduced in the eighteenth century. The Pagan nature of this festival is reflected in the depiction of Cupid (the cherubic son of Venus, Roman goddess of love) on cards to this day. He was the mischievous archer who shot golden arrows of love into some people, and lead arrows of indifference into others.
The custom of choosing a lover on this day may relate to the commonly held European belief that birds select their mates for the year on February 14. Chaucer, in Parlement of Foules wrote “For this was Seynt Valentine’s Day when every foul cometh ther to choose his mate” and Drayton declared:
“Each little bird this tide
Doth choose her beloved peer,
Which constantly abide
In wedlock all the year.”
One later Valentine superstition was that the type of bird a woman first saw on the day was an omen of the type of man she would marry:
Bluebird- a happy man
Crossbill- argumentative man
Dove- good hearted man
Goldfinch- rich man
Hawk- soldier or brave man
Owl- a man who would not live long
Woodpecker- the girl would remain single
© Anna Franklin