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The Origin and Invention of St. Valentine’s Day

The apostle Paul once wrote, “If they have not continence–let them marry, for it is better to marry than to burn.” (1 Cor 7:9). Paul was obviously never married.

This sentiment sums up most of the Christian attitude towards sexual or romantic love. Christian theology (pioneered by a guy named Augustine in the forth century) basically maintains that it is impossible to love a sexual partner and your god at the same time. These two forms of love, agape (love for your god) and eros (sexual love), constantly vie for your attention. What this means is that no matter how devout you are, your god will always take a backseat to your lover (or vice versa), and Christians don’t want that.

Given this interpretation, the existence of a holiday like Valentine’s Day that is devoted to romantic love seems a tad contradictory for Christian souls trying to make it to heaven. Discovering how a bunch of celibate nuns and priests ever allowed such a holiday is not so much a matter of figuring out if the concept was a stolen one, but of establishing where it was stolen from.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia there were three different Saint Valentines who spoke about love and peace and joy. Not surprisingly, they were all martyred. The first was a priest in Rome, the second, a bishop in Terni, Italy, and the third Saint Valentine was from Africa. The first two are buried in Porta del Popolo, also called the Gate of St. Valentine in Rome. As Africa was of no interest to Rome, they didn’t bother to keep any record of the last guy except to say that he was indeed a saint and that he had died in some horrible, nondescript fashion. The guy supposedly responsible for Valentine’s Day was the priest, Valentine of Rome.

According to the Christian story, this young priest defied the Roman edict banning Christian marriages set down by Claudius. The story goes that Valentine cherished the Christian marriage vows and defied Rome so he could unite young Christians in love. When the Romans found out, they imprisoned him, beat him with clubs–then chopped off his head. Valentine stopped performing marriages after that. This all supposedly happened on February 14th, which is why Christians allege the day is set aside to celebrate love and warmth in remembrance of the brave saint who gave his life to marry people.

The story is almost entirely nonsense. Granted, there was a guy named Valentine who was killed for marrying people. The date of his execution, February 14th, is unsubstantiated. It was tacked on later to give credence to a holiday which, like so many of the Christian celebrations, was stolen from the Roman festivals.

In early Rome, the evening of February 14th was the beginning of the fertility celebration of Lupercus and Faunus. (It was also the feast of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, but this is irrelevant to the Valentine story.)

Faunus was a Roman pastoral god that came to be identified by the Romans with the Greek god Pan, the horned satyr. (“Faunus” is derived from the Latin favere meaning “favors,” as he was supposed to grant favors to the participants in the festival.) Lupercus was the son of the Diana who lived with wolves (possibly a tie-in to Romulus and Remus, who also lived with and were raised by wolves.) Lupercus is easily identifiable in Roman art as he usually wears a wolf pelt. Each day Lupercus would wake up and journey across the heavens. Gathering the souls of those who had died, he would deliver them to Luna, the moon goddess.

During the festival, teenagers and young adult males would meet at a cave called the Lupercal below the Palentine where they would sacrifice goats or dogs to Faunus. The skins of the animals were then peeled and cut into wet strips called Februa (from which we derive the name February for the month). The males would take these strips into the heart of the city and use them to randomly beat people (particularly women).

On the second day of the festival, each man would draw the name of one of the women who had been hit with the Februa, and she would be coupled with him until the next festival. (This was a voluntary coupling; the woman was under no legal or social obligation to stay with the man.) It was basically just an excuse to sleep with someone for a year without commitment or obligation. Think of it as an L.A. marriage vow.

This festival survived in Rome for hundreds of years, and was still practiced in the year 325, when Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity. Rather than attempt to quash the tradition, Christianity adopted it but changed some of the players. Rather than honoring the Greco-Roman gods, the Christians adopted the idea of a saint, Saint Valentine, to be the messenger of love. Instead of having the ritual designed for a one-year tryst, the meaning at the heart of the celebration became one of marriage and monogamy, exemplified by Valentine’s willingness to die on behalf of the Christian marriage sacrament.

A much later addition to this celebration was Cupid. He was not originally part of the celebration as the festival of Lupercus and Faunus was not as concerned with love as it was with animalistic lust. However, with medieval Christian influence, the fun, bawdy aspects had to be eradicated and were replaced with love and commitment over debauchery.

In Greco-Roman culture, the character of Cupid had always been associated with celebrations of love. In Greek mythology Cupid was known as Eros, the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. To the Romans he was Cupid, son of Venus. The story goes that Venus/Aphrodite was jealous of the beauty of Psyche, a mere mortal, and ordered Cupid to punish her for being so beautiful. Instead, Cupid fell deeply in love and took her as his wife.

As a mortal, Psyche was forbidden to look at Cupid but her sisters convinced her to do so. As punishment, Venus demanded that she perform three difficult tasks, the last of which killed her. Cupid found her body and brought her back to life, though she was still mortal. The gods, moved by their love for each other, granted Psyche immortality.

This original character of Cupid was an adult male. Unfortunately this did not bode well with the Christians who wanted an image of a love devoid of sexuality. To this end they rewrote the character of Cupid, adding him to the ranks of the cherubim, the second of nine orders of angels in medieval mythology who were eternally infants. This character has absolutely nothing to do with the Cupid of Roman lore. It was a fictionalization on the part of medieval Christians, designed to keep the Roman name associated with love, but to portray the characters involved as sexless and innocent.

The practice of celebrating Valentine’s Day has gone in and out of fashion over the years. It became really popular during the Victorian era, where the stodgy control of sexuality and romance fit well with the Victorian ethic. The original wet-skins used to whip your intended mate were duly replaced with greeting cards (a step up I have to admit.) Chocolate and other gifts were added to the tradition during that era as proof of a man’s worthiness to provide for the woman should she choose to marry her suitor.

While there were some sales of Valentine’s Day cards in England in the mid-1800s, full commercialization of the holiday began in the United States in the late 1800s, with greeting card and chocolate companies propelling the message of love and romance to stunning new profit margins. Today the holiday is known mainly for its chocolates and pretty gifts, forsaking entirely its heritage of Pan, Lupercus, and wet strips of bloody dog flesh.

Copyright 2003, William Hopper.