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Lupercalia & The Ancient Origins of Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day marks the season of love and courtship, but its ancient roots in the Roman festival of Lupercalia reveal a much more bloody and wild history.

It is no coincidence that across different cultures and religions there are festivals and holy days (or holidays as we now call them!) that often fall around similar dates. Whether it be Samhain and Halloween, Yule and Christmas, or Lupercalia and Valentine's Day, a lineage of tradition can be traced back to these specific times of year.

Taking a look at the festivities of our ancient ancestors tends to reveal the cultural twists and turns humans have taken over the years, and allows us to inspect our own traditions to see their irrationalities and idiosyncrasies more closely. With no further delay, let’s delve into the history of St Valentine’s Day and its Roman predecessor, the festival of Lupercalia.

The Saint Who Wouldn't Surrender

While modern Valentine’s Day is synonymous with red roses and romantic restaurant meal deals, it’s association with the martyred Saint Valentine is much less pleasant.

The skull of Saint Valentine crowned with flowers in a golden cabinet
It is said that Saint Valentine’s skull now resides in a church called Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Dublin, after being excavated in the 19th century, and although it is largely disputed, gifts of chocolate and tokens of love are left by the glass cabinet it is held in.

Living in Rome in the 3rd Century AD, Valentinus was a clergyman who had been arrested for practising Christianity and performing illegal marriage rites for Christian couples. While imprisoned, he briefly gained the favour of Rome’s Emperor Claudius Gothicus II, who, according to some descriptions, had recently banned marriages in Rome in order to encourage more soldiers to enlist into the Roman army.

A staunch evangelist, Valentinus repeatedly tried to convert the Emperor to Christianity during their discussions, but Claudius eventually became displeased. On February 14th, 269 AD, he ordered Valentine to be brutally beaten by clubs before being executed by beheading. Claudius got his comeuppance when he died of pestilence a few years later, and over the next few centuries Christianity prevailed throughout Europe. Almost 200 years after Valentine’s death, he was finally canonised as a Saint in the year 496 AD. An interesting side note to this story is that Valentine is also credited as the patron saint of epilepsy, plague and beekeepers - although accounts are largely murky as to why he is linked with these specific topics!

Renaissance painting of the feast of Lupercalia
The Feast of Lupercalia by Andrea Camassei (c. 1635)

Fertility, Feasting and Naked Priests: The Festival of Lupercalia

Over the course of the next 1500 years, Christianity banned and reformed many ancient festivals in a bid to stamp out the pagan roots of both their ancestors and the native traditions of conquered lands. While this erasure of culture has many implications, the original rites and festivities of dates such as Valentine’s Day were often much more wild, intense and bloody before Christian sanitisation.

The early Roman festival Lupercalia, for example, essentially reads as an excuse for Roman priests to go batshit for a few days in the pursuit of honouring the gods and encouraging fertility.

The name Lupercalia relates to Lupercal, a she-wolf who supposedly nurtured Romulus and Remus, the twin orphans who were said to have founded Rome. Celebrated on 15th February to honour Lupercal’s fertility and maternal instincts, the festival was the classic potent mix of animal sacrifice, feasting, and a sprinkling of more peculiar Pagan rites.

On the night of Lupercalia, a sect of Roman priests named Luperci (meaning ‘brothers of the wolf’) would meet inside Lupercal's cave on Palatine Hill in Rome. A goat and dog would be slaughtered in sacrifice, the blood would be wiped across the foreheads of two of the Luperci, then removed with cotton soaked in milk - which had of course been prepared earlier by Vestal Virgins. To close the ritual, the Luperci were expected, for some unexplained reason, to burst into laughter, before enjoying a large feast.

Now, owing to the after dinner ‘fun’, we are going to suggest that copious amounts of wine was likely consumed as the Luperci feasted, because once satiated, the next order of duty was to run naked through the streets whipping people with thongs made of leather. Their targets, who were mostly women, were thought to then be blessed with increased fertility and safe pregnancy, which led the festival to be associated with sex, lustfulness and courtship. Once this was out of the way, the Luperci would return to the cave on Palatine Hill and (we can only imagine) congratulate themselves on a good night’s work.

A Victorian Valentines card featuring a white dove delivering a letter over a red heart
An example of a Victorian Valentine's card

Modern Love: The Gods of Commerce

As mad and bloody as these ancient customs often were, they were usually carried out to appease the gods, in the hope of rectifying some sort of societal or seasonal difficulty. We might not be able to quite understand the religious fervour with which they were performed, but we can certainly see similarly ludicrous patterns in our modern celebrations today. (Anyone who has worked in retail or hospitality around Christmas will understand this well).

Centuries after St Valentine’s bloody death, and his story of Christian martyrdom is often ignored. As the industrial advancements of the Victorian era pushed print, letter-writing, and buying ‘stuff’ to the middle classes, Valentine’s cards and tokens of love became the commonplace rites of February 14th. (We would like to think that the more brutal side of Lupercalia is largely lost to history.)

Today it could be argued that Valentine's day is dedicated to the gods of commerce as much as our lovers and the concept of romance. Marked by premature retail displays and grand materialistic gestures, we often grumble that the few festivals we celebrate are now void of their deeper sentiments, rich histories and ancient roots. But all in all, we’ll take a romantic 2-4-1 pizza and a bottle of wine over naked priests and blood sacrifices any day.


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