While Valentine’s Day may have no intentional link to Lupercalia, its current meaning has more in common with the eros of ancient Roman fertility festival than the self-sacrificing agape of St. Valentine. It could be yet another attempt by the early Christian church to co-opt an existing pagan holiday, but I think this time it might just be a case of ‘old habits die hard’.
A University of Kansas literature professor named Jack Oruch (Associate Professor Emeritus, Former Associate Chair of English, Medieval and Early Modern English Literature) recently popularized the claim that the link between the two holidays is due to Chaucer and his homies, but while Gelasius may not have deigned to replace Lupercalia with the loftier St. Valentine’s Day, the evidence that he moved to strike the holiday from existence is indisputable.
Lupercalia had already replaced the earlier purification ritual of Februalia, which (according to Ovid, anyway) took place in the last Roman month, on the ides (February 13-15). The symbolism of a year-end purification ritual in springtime rainfall seems fitting, but Lupercalia celebrations just sound like more fun. Pope Gelasius wasn’t willing to tolerate people sacrificing goats and dogs, then running around the perimeter of the city naked (save the skinned carcass of the goats and dogs), whipping the women who had lined up to watch with strips of the skin. He tried to put an end to Lupercalia with some clever re-branding in 496 A.D., but it doesn’t seem to have held. Sure, no one calls it Lupercalia, but examine how most people celebrate this ‘holiday’ and I think you’ll agree that much of the original spirit of the occasion remains intact.
We owe our very notion of romance to the Romans, or at least the word. Somehow I doubt our collective cultural concept of a ‘romantic’ evening has space for a nude romp with freshly skinned sacrifices, but Eros is still the type of love that comes to mind when people think of romance; further evidence that as we lose touch with the original meaning of words, we lose our ability to define and analyze reality in an effective way.
Gifts are tiny sacrifices we make toward our loved ones. The gift of twelve red roses has deep and varied esoteric meaning depending on the tradition, and flowers may have been the earliest gifts ever given. Small candies presented in heart-shaped boxes mimic the sweets ritually presented to the ancient gods. Even the heart shape itself has an ‘obscured’ origin - originally a green ivy leaf which slowly changed to the red shape we know and love today. Even Cupid is accused of being a cover for Nimrod (Baal/Tammuz/Osiris/every other Mesopotamian god), since his story dovetails at points with the tale, though I don’t recall Cupid building the Tower of Babel. (To be fair, I wasn’t paying attention for a while. He may have.)
Oddly enough, people hypothesize that Lupercalia has roots in the ancient Greek tradition of the Lycaea, which is the conceptual and etymological root of lycanthropy, with rumored traditions of ritual human sacrifice and cannibalism. That’s a weird left turn even I’m wary to explore. Let’s leave that one in the shadows for now.