A portrait from the Welsh Portrait Collection at the National Library of Wales. Depicted person: Geoffrey Chaucer – 14th century English poet and author

Is Valentine’s day pagan?

Is Valentine’s Day Lupercalia? Probably not

It’s Valentines Day today, and I did some research hoping to answer this question. The festival of antiquity that falls on Valentines day was Lupercalia, the festival from the 13-15th of February. During the festival, young men of Rome stripped to their underwear would run from the cave of the Lupercal through the streets, striking women (lightly) with strips of goat skin from a sacrificial goat. The young men were referred to as Luperci or ‘brothers of the wolf’ and were associated with the wolf fertility and lactation goddess, the Lupercal, who in the founding myth of Rome had suckled Romulus and Remus. The entire ritual was about cleansing and conception and women who wished to conceive would place themselves where they could receive these lashes of cleansing and fertility blessing by the Lupercal.

Any how, soon after Imbolc – the time of new beginnings, this festival of purification and preparation for conception was celebrated in Italy in the middle of February.

Rome was initially a richly polytheistic city.  Prior to Christianity becoming the imperial religion, the polytheistic Romans had no objection to the Christians worshipping their god, but did penalize Christians for refusing to pay polite respect to the gods of others. Why was this a big deal in Rome? Some of these gods were associated with political institutions – the equivalent of not being willing to sing the anthem or say a pledge of allegiance, or being in contempt of court. Following Christianity becoming the dominant religion, these conflicts were framed as religious persecution. 

Christians were rabidly against celebrating other people’s festivals. However, Lupercalia was so popular in Rome, and so associated with the mythology of the city itself, that even once Christianity had become the dominant imperial religion and all other non-Christian festivals were banned, it was the last one retained.

Is Romantic Valentine’s Day about Saint Valentine?  Probably not.

The martyr Saint Valentine was assigned a day by the Pope in the fifth century, around the time that Lupercalia was finally abolished in Rome. The day may have been made available since Lupercalia was no longer being celebrated. There wasn’t any romantic association for Saint Valentine’s feast day in the historical record until 9 centuries later. The date was removed from the Catholic religious calendar in 1969, as the church was unable to clarify which of several martyr candidates was associated with which of the stories attributed to the single martyr. It appears that ‘St Valentine’ was likely a blend of several martyr stories rather than a distinct person. 

So why did Valentine’s Day come to be about Love?

According to Time magazine, the romantic connection with Valentine’s day may have come from a poetic story “The Parliament of Fowles” told by Chaucer about how Valentines day was the day the birds chose their mates before the arrival of spring.  And then people at court in Europe started giving their lovers gifts on Valentine’s day.

So What is Valentine’s Day? What does it mean?

It looks like it’s about that poem, and the actions of some people inspired by it. So really, there’s nothing to it. Lupercalia is not Valentine’s day. Valentine is not Valentine’s day, or even any longer a saint.

So what I’m saying is if Valentine’s Day feels empty to you, then  that might be because it doesn’t have deep roots to nourish it. However people have chosen to make a festival of expressing affection to others, and if it is meaningful to you, then embody it with all the love you have.

Valentine’s day is a poem written in the hope of spring and the plans to meet and mate when things warm.

Image is a portrait from the Welsh Portrait Collection at the National Library of Wales. Depicted person: Geoffrey Chaucer – 14th century English poet and author who wrote “The Parliament of Fowles”.

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