Valentine’s Day is a holiday dedicated to love and is marked by the exchange of cards, flowers, candy, and romantic sentiment. If you go far enough back in time, you would see the precursor to this holiday of love, and it would likely shock you.
Lupercalia was celebrated as far back as the 6th century B.C. The festival took place between February 13 and 15 each year, and it was a significant part of Rome’s cultural history.
Lupercalia celebrants recalled the legend of Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome. Their uncle, King Amulius ordered the boys thrown into the Tiber River to punish their mother for breaking her vow of celibacy. The brothers floated downstream, where they were pulled from the water by a wolf. The wolf cared for the boys in her den at the base of Palatine Hill. That cave was named Lupercal. The festival of Lupercalia took place to honor the wolf that raised Rome’s founders and to please the Roman fertility god Lupercus.
So much for the history lesson. In practice, the celebration of the festival consisted of much fuel for nightmares. During the festivities, priests called Luperci sacrificed goats and dogs, smearing the animals’ blood on the foreheads of two naked Luperci. As the blood was wiped away with milk-soaked wool, the Luperci were required to laugh.
Following the cleansing of the blood, Luperci priests descended on the carcasses of the sacrificed animals, cutting the hides into long strips. The priests then divided up into two groups, each led by one of the naked priests, and roamed through the crowds, playing tag with racing women by slapping them with the blood-soaked strips of animal flesh. This practice was supposed to be a fertility blessing, but it is difficult to imagine any modern woman feeling particularly blessed by the interaction.
William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar begins in the midst of the Lupercalia festival. Mark Antony is apparently one of those who is running around, trying to tag the women. Caesar tells Antony to be sure to touch his wife as he is running, in hopes that Calpurnia will become pregnant:
“Forget not, in your speed, Antonio,
To touch Calpurnia, for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.” (Act 1, Scene 2)
The entire festival was marked with decidedly-inappropriate abandonment of moral correctness, so it should not be any surprise that the Church frowned upon the whole thing. Pope Gelasius I put an official end to the pagan revelry in the late 5th century A.D. He not only banned the celebration of Lupercalia, but he substituted something much more honorable in its place. He declared February 14 as a day to commemorate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine (226-269), a clergyman who was killed because of the assistance he gave to Christians in need and for officiating in the marriages of Christians, in violation of Roman law.
Legend tells us that one of St. Valentine’s last acts before his execution was to pray for the restoration of sight for the blind daughter of the judge who condemned him to death. He wrote a final letter to the girl before he was put to death, signing the note, “Your Valentine.”
No matter what you might think of the commercialization of Valentine’s Day, there can be no question that receiving flowers, chocolate, and cards is infinitely preferable to getting smacked with a piece of bloody carcass. For that reason alone, Gelasius I and St. Valentine deserve our thanks.
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