Yeah. It’s not all hearts and flowers and Fanny Mae. But you already knew that. The origins and subsequent ‘celebrations’ of St. Valentine’s Day have lent themselves to some pretty gory stuff.
Take for instance the feast of Lupercalia, the original Pagan feast upon which St. Valentine’s Day is based. You remember the Bard’s famous play ‘Julius Caesar’? It begins on Lupercalia. Soldiers Flavius and Marullus ran into some trouble, due to it being a feast day.
FLAVIUS: Hence! home, you idle creatures get you home:
Is this a holiday?…
MARULLUS: You know it is the feast of Lupercal.
The real trouble, of course, will come a month later, at the Ides of March with the murder of Caesar, but Lupercal serves as foreshadowing. Trouble in the streets, the natives getting restless. What exactly was the feast of Lupercal? There are, reportedly, a few different origins and a few different celebrations.
On February 14, in ancient Rome, tribute was given to the goddess Juno, the patron of marriage and fertility.
Activities involved a lottery in which young girls’ names were written on slips of paper and thrown into jars to be picked out by the boys. Chooser and chosen would then be partnered for the duration of the Lupercalia festival. If you liked your partner, great. But if not, you were stuck.
On February 15 the celebrations continued in honor of Faunus or Pan, the god of shepherds, which honored fertility and the beginnings of spring. It was also a dedication to Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. Yeah them!
They are pretty popular. Even had some bronze dedicated to them. Hence the name of the festival, Lupercalia, or ‘Wolf Festival’.
What exactly went on during this feast? Oh plenty!
The festival rites were conducted by the Luperci — the ‘brothers of the wolf’ (lupus) or high priests of Pan. These priests dressed only in a goatskin as a tribute to Romulus and Remus.
The festival began with the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog. Next, two young Luperci were led to the altar, to be anointed on their foreheads with the sacrificial blood, which was wiped off the bloody knife with wool soaked in milk. (Interestingly, sheep and milk play an important role in the feast of Imbolc. See my previous blog for more information.)
Next – oh this is the fun part – the Luperci guys cut throngs from the skins of the animals and ran around in the streets chasing women.
Interestingly, the goat throngs were called ‘februa’. Girls and young women would line up to be touched by the februa. This was thought to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ease the pains of childbirth.
Shakespeare’s play has a reference to this belief as well: Caesar instructs Marc Antony to touch his wife Calpurnia with the throng in order to help her conceive:
CAESAR (to Calpurnia): Stand you directly in Antonius’ way,
When he doth run his course. Antonius!
ANTONY: Caesar, my lord?
CAESAR: Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,
To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,
The barren touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.
All righty then.
Enter Saint Valentine. Who was he and how does he fit in this scenario?
Valentinus was apparently a very romantic bishop who performed secret illegal marriages in opposition to reigning emperor Claudius II. Claudius’ empire was on a decline due to oppression from the Gauls, Slavs, and other opposing forces attempting to overthrow Rome. He needed all the power he could get and felt that married men could not possibly be good warriors, affections being mainly on their wives. So he banned marriage. Valentinus, a champion for true love, would have none of this! Valentinus was eventually arrested and sentenced to death.
But it wasn’t that simple. As fate would have it – Valentinus fell in love with the jailer’s daughter during his confinement. Before his death, Valentinus is said to have asked for a quill and paper. He wrote a farewell letter to his sweetheart from the jail and signed ‘From Your Valentine’. The expression stuck! 😛
Saint Valentine is believed to have been executed on February 14, 270 AD.
Later, when Christianity spread through Rome, the priests moved Lupercalia from February 15 to February 14. Around 498 AD, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day to honor the martyr Valentinus and to end the pagan celebration.
In Chicago we have our own version of Valentine’s Day, commemorated by the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. On this day in 1929, famous gangster Al ‘Scarface’ Capone staged a shoot out against his rival Bugs Moran. Posing as police officers, Capone’s men infiltrated a garage on Chicago’s north side which was a base of Moran’s operations. They then lined Moran’s men against the wall, pulled their tommy-guns and aimed, resulting in the bloodiest annihilation in gangster history.
For a detailed account the strong of stomach can watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iC2FZO0hoNA
Al Capone was never convicted of the murders, but later he went to Alcatraz for – guess what? Income tax evasion.
But enough about that. Best to keep it to the hearts and flowers.
During the age of chivalry and courtly love, the St. Valentine’s tradition began to take on a more romantic meaning. In the Middle Ages, Valentine began to be celebrated as a heroic and romantic figure amongst the masses in England and France.
Remember Geoffrey Chaucer? He did more that write the Canterbury Tales. UCLA medieval scholar Henry Ansgar Kelly, author of “Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine”, credits Chaucer as the one who first linked St. Valentine’s Day with romance.
In medieval France and England it was believed that birds mated on February 14. Hence, Chaucer used the image of birds as the symbol of lovers in poems dedicated to the day. In Chaucer’s “The Parliament of Fowls,” the royal engagement, the mating season of birds, and St. Valentine’s Day are related:
“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.”
Ah, the birds and the bees. They may be a bit wiser than humans after all 🙂 So on this Valentine’s Day, don’t forget to count your blessings and share the love.