There are so many celebratory days we take for granted, and so many stories that lurk behind them.
One of these days is Valentine’s Day. The more cynical will point out its commercial aspects, but that’s not exactly fair to the tradition. Yes, it can honestly be said that it has been hijacked by profiteers who prey on the lovelorn, but that tells us nothing about St. Valentine, and how this celebration became associated with love, both erotic and sublime.
Valentine’s day’s transformation from a Saint feast day to an independent celebration of romantic love has been traced back to the 14th Century, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem Parlement of Foules
“For this was on Seynt Valentynes day, (For this was on St. Valentine’s Day)
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make, (When every fowl came there to choose his mate)“
The poem is believed to have been written in celebration of King Richard II’s marriage to Anne of Bohemia, and describes how nature convened a parliament of birds on St. Valentine’s day, so that the birds could all choose their mates. It was the first time recorded in the modern world that St Valentine’s day was associated with love, though the Romans’ had celebrated it as a day of erotic intimacy from pre-Christian days.
While it had already started to become synonymous with love, it wasn’t until the 18th century that Valentine’s day became reminiscent of the current celebrations we have today. This was the era of courtly love, where love was a highly fantasized, and often unconsummated relationship between a knight and a courtly lady. Love was expressed by favors, trinkets and dedications, so the romantic notion of St. Valentine’s day became the perfect excuse to exchange cards and gifts with one’s beloved. Thus, the tradition of hearts, flowers and chocolates was born
So, who was the actual St. Valentine? There were three different Saint Valentines, all of who happened to be martyred on February 14th. One was a Priest in Rome, another was a Bishop in Terni, while the third of whom very little is known, was martyred in Africa. Most scholars have concluded that it was the Roman Priest that inspired the mythology behind the Saint Valentine we know of today.
Legend has it that the Roman Emperor Claudius II had forbidden young men to marry, thinking that as bachelors they would be better soldiers and fiercer in battle. St. Valentine defied this decree, performing clandestine weddings for young couples, and even wearing an amethyst ring with cupid engraved on it as a secret signal of his defiance. Claudius II eventually arrested St. Valentine, and after failing to change his ways, sentenced him to death.
While awaiting his fate, St. Valentine performed a miracle, restoring the sight of Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer Asterius. In response she converted to Christianity. The night before St. Valentine was led to the gallows he wrote a card to Julia, and signed it, from your Valentine. While none of that story has been substantiated, and no records exist to support it, it is a legend that has gathered traction in popular culture.
As is often the case with many Christian Saint days and festivals, there is a Pagan celebration that coincides with, and predates it. In this case, it is Lupercalia, a fertility festival celebrated from the 13th to 15th of February.
Lupercalia was a festival in honor of Lupercus, associated with the Roman god Faunus, and the Greek god Pan. It was celebrated by the sacrifice of two goats and a dog, and the burning of salted mealcakes that were made by the Vestal Virgins. The hide from the goats was saved, and dried into strips of leather which were then taken by naked youths who ran through the town and whipped the hips and buttocks of the womenfolk to ensure their on-going fertility.
Yes, kink goes back a long, long way (and we won’t even go into the sex lives of the Etruscans, who were openly fond of alt. sex, and probably had some influence on Roman culture, as the Greeks definitely did).
Still, flowers are probably better than whips, and chocolate generally goes over better than a spanking (depending on your partner). However, no matter how you choose to celebrate the day, we hope you enjoy a Romantic Valentine’s day.
Because love, in any of its many forms, is always worth celebrating.