How did a bloody ritual turn into a cheesy celebration of love? Learn more about the origins of Valentine's Day.
Valentine’s Day is nearly here, and you’re probably wondering what to get for your significant other, or who you’d love to spend that lovely festivity with. I don’t really get why, but there are people who take this celebration very seriously. I mean, for some it’s the best holiday of the year, even when they don’t have anyone to spend it with. Every restaurant and coffeeshop is terribly crowded, so you can’t go anywhere. People pretend to be nicer just because it’s Valentine’s day, only to be the same lame and crappy people they normally are every other time of the year. If you happen to be single, people rub into your face how in love they are, as if being single was something horrible. But enough of my ranting, what I mean by saying all these things is that I’ve always found kind of ironic how people celebrate this as if it were a nice and cute festivity, when in fact it comes from something quite creepy. This is the story behind Valentine's day.
Most likely you already know about the character who inspired this celebration: Saint Valentine. If you don't, let me tell it quickly so you know what I’m talking about. According to the story, or better said to the general consensus, there was a Roman physician and priest who had converted to Christianity when it was a persecuted religion. His name was Valentine of Terni, and according to some of the stories, he used to marry Christian couples in secret. When he was exposed, he was imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded. Naturally, he became a martyr and the patron saint of true love and marriages. How nice, isn’t it? I mean, that's kind of a dark story, and I don’t see anyone celebrating this man who was killed in the name of love (well, of Christianity to be precise). However, the origins I was referring to are actually the Roman festivities of the Lupercalia, and get ready because this one’s really, really interesting.
Read more: The Roman Emperor Who Prostituted Himself In His Own Palace
What is the origin of Valentine's Day?
Long before our friend Valentine of Terni was born, among the many celebrations ancient Romans had, there was the Lupercalia, which took place on February 15, exactly a month before the Ides of March. If you remember your Shakespeare lessons, this was the day of Julius Caesar’s assassination, but in ancient Rome, it was seen as the beginning of the new year and a date to pay old debts in life. So, what was the Lupercalia about? For the Romans, this was a time to scare evil spirits away and purify the cities. It was also seen as the perfect celebration to renew themselves in terms of health and to ask the gods for fertility.
According to historians, the celebrations started almost at the same time of the founding of Rome, but others claim that it was actually before that, and that it was a heritage taken from the ancient Greek festivity of the Likaia honoring Lycaon, King of Arcadia (and the place where this celebration was held every year) who, wanting to test if Zeus was indeed almighty, decided to throw a feast and serve him the meat of his own son Nyctimus. As a response, Zeus brought the young man to life and transformed Lycaon into a wolf together with his offspring. It’s said that during these celebrations they would sacrifice a young man and feast from his flesh. Those eating it would turn into werewolves like in the myth. Now, you might ask, where’s the connection with the Lupercalia?
Well, although there’s no written evidence, it’s thought that both festivities relate to the image and symbol of the wolf. The Lupercalia took place in the Lupercal Cave, the place where Romans believed Romulus and Remus (founders of Rome) had been fed by the she-wolf. Lupus in Latin means "wolf," thus the name of the cave. The term of she-wolf was also used as a nickname for prostitutes back then. So, while the festivity was a means of purification before the year ended, ancient Romans took it quite seriously because it was also a celebration of the creation of the Roman Empire. That's why this festivity lasted for centuries. Even when the Western Roman Empire fell, the Eastern Empire continued celebrating Lupercalias.
The celebration had two stages. First, special priests would go to the Lupercal cave and sacrifice a goat (thought to be symbol of sexuality and fertility) and a dog. The blood of these animals was smeared on the foreheads of two previously selected young men (mainly aristocrats) named the Luperci. Some records claim that the blood was mixed with wolf meat, representing the wolf that fed the founding twins, as a symbol of fertility. They would feast from the flesh of the sacrificed animals and drink wine to raise their spirits. After that, they would run and dance naked around the sacred Mount Palatine. Then came the second stage of the Lupercalia and the most cringy one. With the flesh of the animals, they would make some lashes and literally scourge anyone crossing their way. However, it’s said that naked women would make lines so that these young men would hit them on their backs and thus ensure their fertility.
Naturally, the celebrations evolved, and as the Roman society became more conservative, so did the festivity. With the emergence of Christianity, the Lupercalia became more of a secret private pagan celebration, although it was still widely celebrated. It’s believed that the festivities ended in the late fifth century, when Pope Gelasius decided to release an edict explaining “the truth” behind the Lupercalia. By the time, besides the fertility celebrations, people used to engage in the Lupercalia to help prevent pestilence and any other epidemics, but in the edict, the Pope explained that the festivity didn’t help a thing on this matter and that it was actually just a pagan ritual to secure fertility.
According to some historians, it was then when he decided to bring back the story of Saint Valentine, and start a celebration to honor love and holy matrimony, so that people would forget about the pagan celebrations of the Lupercalia. So, if you’re cynical about Valentine’s Day, you can go tell people that their favorite holiday started out of bloody rituals.
For more interesting stories from Ancient Rome take a look at these:
The Roman Festival Where Prostitutes Offered Sexual Favors
The Decadent Roman Celebration Of The Sun That Became Christmas
From Caligula To Nero: There Might Be A Scientific Explanation For Their Eccentricities
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