Valentine’s Day is a day for swooning lovers to throw themselves at one another with all the passionate heat of a Hallmark card…or Hallmark movie, for that matter. It’s also a day where lonely hearts find a mutual connection (or call up the guy you went on one date with who you kind-of-sort-of didn’t hate) to spend some quality time with. It’s a day for people who work in the food service industry to angrily decry the whole institution. I mean, it’s just more consumer driven mass-hysteria parading as the perfect date to propose to your loved one (cause it’d be a hard anniversary to forget). Others say it was created by the greeting-card companies with the sole purpose of shoving heart shaped chocolates, cheap cardboard sentiments, and obnoxious “I’m a grown woman, why would I want this?” teddy bears off store shelves, right? That’s all so cynical, though. What exactly are the true origins of this presumably manufactured commercial holiday? It seems they’re far more “bloody” than you might realize.
Feast of Lupercalia
Just as the pagan celebration of Samhain became All Saint’s Day and, eventually, what we know as Halloween, Valentine’s Day has similarly pagan roots. Like most Americanized holidays, we can trace the origins of this particular calendar date back to an ancient hedonistic festival, the Roman Feast of Lupercalia. Running from February 13th through the 15th, Lupercalia was a celebration in worship of Lupercus, the god of fertility. Festivities included lots of drunken revelry, gluttonous portions of food, a “win a date with…” style lottery (more on that below), and all was rounded out with a side of sadomasochism. Maybe the 50 Shades films really are the perfect VD date flicks?
You see, this was really an excuse for dudes to get drunk and butt-naked (oh, you crazy Romans). The festival was overseen by priests known as “Luperci” (translates to “brothers of the wolf”). Come the time of Lupercalia, the priesthood of Luperci would sacrifice a goat or two, anointing that year’s chosen ones with the animal’s blood. They would all then chow down on a feast that included meal-cakes prepared by the Vestal Virgins (think Romanian nuns). After the food settled, strips of flesh would be taken from the sacrificial goats and fashioned into thongs known as “februa” for the chosen Luperci to wear. This was meant to aid the male in purification. He would run through the village assisting the women reach their ultimate goal of childbearing. How’d he do that exactly?
Keep in mind, a februa wasn’t meant solely for the purpose of concealing one’s special bits, it was utilized as a means of physical purification by way of whipping as well. Women of the village would quite literally line up in order to be “blessed” by the Luperci and his flesh-whip. Who needs a pink Valentine’s Day card when you’ve got goat’s skin? The chosen one would strike each woman who offered herself up to be flogged. The hope was this would ensure the female could become pregnant. Those who already were pregnant believed it would facilitate a smooth pregnancy.
Outside of this aggressive display from the machismo patriarchy, there was a lottery too. The young males would be randomly paired with available women of the village. The lotto-couple would then spend the duration of the festival together, getting to know one another…intimately. If the pairing was a match, they could keep kickin’ it. If not, they would go their separate ways. Now tell me that doesn’t sound like Valentine’s to you?
Who the Hell is Valentine Anyway?
Naturally, when the Catholic church came around, they weren’t too pleased with all this tawdry streaking and bed-hopping. In order to try and circumvent the heathens, Pope Galesius, in the year 496, tried to rebrand Lupercalia as Saint Valentine’s Day. Of course, that sounds nice and sweet, but the name was in honor of two Christian martyrs, Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni. The two saints were coincidentally executed on the same day, some years apart on, you guessed it – February 14th.
Valentine of Rome’s tale seems especially prescient for the holiday. It seems that Roman Emperor Claudius II stuck a law banning marriage! Yep, it was illegal to tie the knot. His reasoning was that young men would become weak of heart if they were to fall in love, and he needed them strapping young fellas to battle in his army. Valentine believed this to be ridiculous and proceeded to marry young starstruck lovers in secret. It wasn’t really that secret, though, because he eventually got busted. Off with his head!
From there, it was really only a matter of time before poets and playwrights (looking at you, Shakespeare) took all this scattershot mythology and tied it together in one big romantic bow. So, this Wednesday when you’re looking in your partner’s eyes and you whisper “Happy Valentine’s Day,” remember the long trail of blood and goat’s flesh that led to that drug-store box of chocolates in your hand.
Happy V-Day, Fiends!