Valentine’s Day has its roots in the rites of the Roman mother goddess Juno and the Lupercalia festival (15 February), an archaic pastoral rite which persevered into classical times and which commemorated the passage of young men into manhood to the god Lupercus. He was a fertility deity, often identified with Faunus or the Greek god Pan, especially worshiped by shepherds who invoked powers to promote fertility among sheep and protection from wolves. A special group of priests called Luperci were responsible for conducting the rituals.
The celebration began in the Lupercal cave on the Palatine Hill in Rome where Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome, were said to have been nursed by a she-wolf. Two naked young priests, assisted by Vestal Virgins, made offerings of a sacred grain mixture called mola salsa and sacrificed a dog and a goat. Blood from the animals was spread on the two priests’ foreheads and wiped off with some wool dipped in milk. The priests then ran about the city, scourging women with strips of skin taken from the sacrificed goatcalled februa (‘purification’). The Romans believed that this flogging would purify them and assure their future fertility and easy childbirth. Being struck by these whips was considered especially lucky for women who wanted to become fertile. The rituals of February echo the interconnected themes of purity and fertility, with one being reliant on the other – in order to obtain fertility, abundance, blessing, or moreover, to be worthy of the mysteries, one must be purified, within and without.
The Lupercalia 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 lot with the single man’s name on it. In an attempt to stamp out Lupercalia rites, the Church replaced them with the feast of St Valentine. 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.
St Valentine is an amalgamated figure with several conflicting and confused biographies. During the reformations of the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church, embarrassed by the nebulous nature of the saint and finding no evidence of his existence, dropped St Valentine’s Day from the official calendar.
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 14 February. Chaucer, in Parlement of Foules wrote “For this was Seynt Valentine’s Day when every foul cometh ther to choose his mate“. In February, activity amongst birds increases, and they begin to nest this month. Perhaps stemming from this belief, a later superstition was that the type of bird a woman first saw on this 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, The Hearth Witch’s Compendium, Llewellyn, 2018
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