by Diana Viola
You are feeling romantic, looking at greeting cards shaped like hearts and decorated with frills. Pink and reds are the colors of the day, bouquets of flowers fill offices and houses, boxes of the finest chocolates fly out of stores. It is Valentine's Day.
Ah, romance. But that is the tradition of today. In the history of Valentine's day we find an armed and
unscrupulous boy attacking victims at random; ravening wolves howling in
the night; a Christian martyr clubbed to death, then beheaded; birds
warbling love songs; a young Danish girl singing in madness. This is the history of romance?
Let us Celebrate!
It is St. Valentine's Day.
Eros or Cupid
In the beginning history of Valentine's day, we find our armed, unscrupulous boy. To the Greeks he was Eros (meaning
sexual desire) , to the Romans he was Cupid (from cupido, meaning desire).
Though the Greeks were more primal than the Romans and mythologized
that this symbol of lust was born from Erebus (primordial darkness)
and Nyx (night), both Greeks and Romans portrayed Eros/Cupid as a winged
boy armed with bows and arrows. The Roman legend of Cupid and Psyche,
recorded by Apuleius, is the best-known of many stories that surround
this figure of romance
In the Roman legend, Cupid was the
mischievous son of Venus, the most beautiful of all the goddesses. Much
to Venus' dismay, however, a younger woman was being hailed for her
beauty. This was Psyche (Greek for both butterfly and soul). Racked
with jealousy, Venus told Cupid to shoot a dart of love into Psyche,
but to make her fall in love with someone so low that she would be abased.
Cupid, the dutiful son that all mothers want, set off to comply with
his mother's wishes. Alas, poor Cupid, he accidentally pierced himself
with one of his arrows and fell in love with Psyche.
Cupid became Psyche's unseen lover,
for he met with her and never revealed himself. After years of rapture,
Psyche, goaded by her sisters, wanted to see her lover. She tricked
Cupid who became so irate that he fled. Psyche wandered the earth, looking
for Cupid in vain. Finally, the great Zeus took pity on the girl, united
her with Cupid and gave them permission to marry. As the writer of any
romance knows, love does conquer all. They lived happily ever after,
giving birth to a daughter whose name was Pleasure. The history of romance has begun.
Today we celebrate with bonbons,
champagne, special meals, gifts of jewels, but Valentine's Day had it
beginnings in pagan Rome in rites of sacrifice. This was called the
Lupercalia. Not in recorded history, but in myth, the ancient city of Rome was founded by the twins,
Romulus and Remus, who were nurtured by a she-wolf. On the Palatine,
one of the Rome's seven hills, then ruled by Romulus, was the cave of
Lucpercus where the she-wolf supposedly suckled the twins. Lupus means
wolf in Latin, and this festival was held on the side of the Palatine
where ravening wolves disturbed the shepherds' flocks. The rituals of
the Lupercalia which are recorded as the beginning history of Valentine's day, were offered to the gods to protect the flocks, and to
The merry revels began with the
sacrifice of a dog and several goats. Once death had appeased the gods,
the priests of the ceremony cut strips of skin from the goats which
they passed around to the young men gathered in attendance. These handsome
lads, naked until the sacrifices were completed, covered themselves
with pieces of fresh goat skin while also taking strips of skin in hand.
They dipped the skins in the fragrant, fresh goat blood, then ran around
the walls of the city, sprinkling blood at the fields to increase their
fertility. Boys will be boys, of course, and they could not resist teasing
the young women with a sprinkle or two from the bloody skin, the intent
being to ward off sterility. The young married women of Rome were eager
to receive this love-filled sprinkling of blood.
The pieces of skin were called februa
and this day was named dies februatus or the day of purification. The
aim of these festive events was to secure fruitfulness of land and flocks,
which meant prosperity for the people. Legend holds that at the end
of the revelry, the women would put their names in a large urn. The
unmarried men would choose a name and the two would be paired for the
coming year. This pagan festival was one of revelry and much drinking.
Chocolate was not available to the ancient Romans.
St. Valentine - A Martyr for Love
Christianity took the ascendancy,
the Catholic church frowning on pagan celebrations. Noting the popularity
of the Lupercalia among the people, the Pope, in 494 AD, declared February
15th the feast of the Purification of the Virgin. He abolished the flaying
of goat skins as a means of purification and gave a more sacramental
significance to the rituals by placing, not the names of lusty young
women, but the names of the saints in an urn. The history of Valentine's Day takes a turn toward purity. The young men drew the
name of a saint and were then expected to emulate the saint whose name
they had drawn. One might surmise the substitution of piety for romance
was not an instant success.
During the reign of Claudius II,
the pursuit of romance grew even more difficult. More warlike than romantic,
Claudius' goal was to build an army for foreign wars, but met resistance
as the young men did not want to leave their wives. In ire, Claudius
decreed that there would be no more marriage.
A young priest named Valentine listened
to the complaints of the young with compassion and with a plan. Though
there are several legends surrounding Valentine, and more than one Italian
city claims him, all agree that Valentine continued to marry young couples
in secrecy and in stealth. All three legends say that Valentine was
thrown in jail, but the fate of the kindly priest gives rise to variation.
One legend says that he died in jail. Another says that Claudius had
him clubbed to death, then beheaded. A third, more gentle one, says
that he fell in love with the jailer's daughter and wrote her notes
that were signed, "Your Valentine."
Whichever legend is true, Valentine's
Day rose in popularity with the people. Though the course of true love
may not run straight, it cannot be stopped. Giving in to popular demand,
Pope Gelasius declared February 15th as the day to honor Valentine.
History of Valentine's Day in the Middle
Chaucer verifies for us that the
medieval Europeans believed February 15th to be the day the birds selected
their mates. Now history is well recorded and documented. In his Parlement of Foules he wrote, "For this
was Seynt Valentine's Day when every foul cometh ther to choose his
mate." Just as the Romans drew the name of their sweetheart on
Valentine's day, so also did the English and the French. In both countries,
a young man would draw a name and then pin it on his sleeve, perhaps
giving rise to the expression of 'wearing one's heart on one's sleeve.'
The lovers would gift each other with treats and frequently end falling
In all time, in all recorded history, love is love is love, the feeling
we all want most, so the holiday increased in popularity. By the middle
of the eighteenth century, it was commonplace for lovers to send each
other hand written notes stating their love. Great pondering and an
attempt at originality went into these individual expressions of love,
a burden on the true of heart who lacked poetic gifts. By the end of
the century, advances in printing made it possible to purchase a printed
card. The lover no longer had to discover an original way to state love.
The first mass produced cards appeared in 1840 in America and the straining
for originality was eased.
A Mad Young Danish Girl?
Why, that's Ophelia in Shakespeare's
Hamlet, garlanded with flowers and singing of St. Valentine's
day in such a way as to shock all around her. click
here for Ophelia's risqué mad song
Tell the one you love about your feelings. Borrow from the poet who
has given us the most beautiful words ever written, and watch your own
|©Diana Viola 2003