Like many modern festivals Saint Valentine’s Day was adopted by Christians from an ancient Pagan tradition. A fertility ritual called Lupercalia was once celebrated each year in Rome on February 15th. It was a violent and sexually orientated celebration which involved matchmaking and animal sacrifice in order to repel infertility and evil spirits.
The origin of Lupercalia
Lupercalia has been traced back to around the 6th century B.C.E. It’s origins began with a legend involving Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome). After their mother had broken a vow of celibacy, their uncle, King Amulius ordered their drowning in the Tiber river as retribution for her broken promise. However a servant felt sorry for them and placed the two brothers in a basket before casting them to the river. They became caught in the branches of a fig tree after being carried downriver by the river-god where they were rescued and cared for by a she-wolf.
The twins were later adopted by a shepherd who taught them his trade. They later killed Amulius and found the cave den of the she-wolf who nurtured them as children and named the cave Lupercal.
It is thought that Lupercalia took place every year to honour the Roman fertility god Lupercus and the she-wolf.
Rome itself was built at Lupercal cave on Palatine Hill and it was here where rituals first took place. Male goats representing sexuality and a dog were sacrificed by a group of Roman priests called Luperci. The blood of the animals was then smeared on the foreheads of two naked Luperci and then removed with a piece of wool soaked in milk while the Luperci laughed.
Afterwards there was a great feast and strips of hide called thongs or februa were cut from the sacrificed goats. The Luperci then ran naked around Palantine whipping with the thongs, any women they could find. Many women willingly bared their skin to receive these lashes that are believed to have represented fertility.
During the festival men would pick a woman’s name randomly from a jar and be coupled with them throughout the festival. Sometimes the couples would stay together until the following year and many were eventually married.
How Saint Valentine’s Day began
There are a few stories involving the origin of Saint Valentine’s Day. The most common myth is that a man named Valentine was executed on February 14th during the 3rd century C.E. by the Romans for helping and secretly marrying Christian couples.
Valentine alledgedly tried to convert the Roman Emperor Claudius II to Christianity. He was beheaded by Claudius after refusing to reject his beliefs
Another story is that of a blind girl named Julia that was tutored by Valentine during his imprisonment. She was the daughter of Valentine’s jailer. Alledgedly, God restored the girl’s sight after she had been praying with Valentine. Before his execution, Valentine sent a note to Julia and signed it “From your Valentine”
Although there was probably several men of the same name executed by the Romans, the Catholic Church declared Valentine a saint and listed him as being martyred on February 14th.
In the late 5th century C.E. Pope Galasius banned Lupercalia and made February 14th a day to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine in it’s place.
Since then the old rituals have largely been forgotten. However Lupercalia is still privately celebrated on February 14th by some non-Christians but perhaps in not such a bloodthirsty fashion as in ancient times.
Saint Valentine’s Day in modern times
Whatever you might believe, Valentine’s Day is well and truly here to stay and Saint Valentine is now refered to as “The patron of lovers” It is a festival of romance for people to send gifts and tokens to potential lovers and is now recognized in many countries. Like it or not, some of the old beliefs still survive and are symbolized by the red colour of blood and the white of milk to signify new life and re-creation.
Greetings cards are commonly exchanged along with gifts of flowers, chocolate, jewelry and a romantic evening in town.
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