Holiday of Love
By now, if you've been reading this column, you may have noticed that just because a name of European origin has “Saint” in front of it doesn't mean that person was real. Or holy. And if the name is also associated with sex, however tenuously, the association probably has Pagan origins. These generalities hold true with our dear St. Valentine.
My Catholic Lives of the Saints makes no bones about it: St. Valentine's day became the day of lovers only because it was the day before Juno Februata's day. Juno Februata (left) was the goddess of passionate love, or febris. To celebrate properly, well, what could you do? Erotic rites, of course. Young men each drew the name of a young woman, who then became his partner in the festivities. If chance was kind, perhaps the young couple would marry that June, the month that celebrates another of Juno's patronages, that of marriage.
Other accounts claim the festival on the 15th was Lupercalia, an ancient cleansing festival centered at a temple near the cave in which the twin founders of Rome had been raised by a wolf. It was dedicated to either the she-wolf mother of Romulus and Remus or to Lupercus, who is associated with the Roman Faunus and the Greek Pan, the sexy goat god (right). Whichever it was who inspired the partying, the celebration gave young noblemen a chance to run around the town naked. They sacrificed goats and, in later years, started wearing loincloth skins à la Pan and Faunus. They made strips of the sacrificed goat's skin and used them to flay others, mostly lightly and in jest. For women, it was to bless their marriage and fertility.
St. Valentine (left), on the other hand, was reportedly beaten and beheaded in 270 C.E. when the Romans were still beating and beheading those who were Christian (as opposed to a few years later when they killed those who weren't Christian). Seriously un-fun by comparison to the Pagans' activities. Sadly, he was an unsung hero until centuries later; he was not mentioned in a list of acknowledged Roman martyrs produced in 354. In fact, no mention of him was made until 496 when Pope Gelasius I claimed he was one of those saints that men didn't know but God surely appreciated, so now he's an official church saint. And oh, by the way, Pope G continued, his feast day is the day before that lewd festival that's now illegal. So St. Valentine became the Patron of Greetings. Yeah, that's even less exciting than being martyred. [An interesting tidbit (coincidence?) in the story is that the list of Roman martyrs produced in 354 was financed by a wealthy Roman named Valentius.]
Obviously, other aspects of today's Valentine's Day have pre-Christian origins as well. Take the cute naked guy with wings and a bow and arrow, for instance. We know him as Cupid (right), the Roman embodiment of desire. The adult winged Cupid represents sexual love and beauty. Eros is his Greek counterpart, but unlike Cupid, he is often associated with male love, while his mother Aphrodite takes care of romantic love between the sexes.
There are also many darling little guys with fluffy white wings that are actually putti, an art motif, not angels or baby Cupids. But the more grown-up ones are erotes, members of Aphrodite's traveling band of love deities. They each have their roles and specializations, but they're all winged, naked, and good looking. It's starting to sound like a party again!