Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 02/14/2007

Happy Lupercalia!

It’s February 14, and love is in the air. Sleet, however, is on the ground, so the kids will be home from school for the foreseeable future. Which means that our mid-winter holiday of love is strictly an academic and culinary issue in this corner of the greater Allentown metropolitan area.

You probably know that many of our modern holidays were superimposed onto existing pagan holidays — Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Fourth of July …

Okay, just kidding about the last one.

What I didn’t know until just this morning is that even St. Valentine’s Day is based on a Roman festival called Lupercalia:

February occurred later on the ancient Roman calendar than it does today so Lupercalia was held in the spring and regarded as a festival of purification and fertility. Each year on February 15, the Luperci priests gathered on Palantine Hill at the cave of Lupercal. Vestal virgins brought sacred cakes made from the first ears of last year’s grain harvest to the fig tree. Two naked young men, assisted by the Vestals, sacrificed a dog and a goat at the site. The blood was smeared on the foreheads of the young men and then wiped away with wool dipped in milk.

The youths then donned loincloths made from the skin of the goat and led groups of priests around the pomarium, the sacred boundary of the ancient city, and around the base of the hills of Rome. The occasion was happy and festive. As they ran about the city, the young men lightly struck women along the way with strips of the goat hide. It is from these implements of purification, or februa, that the month of February gets its name. This act supposedly provided purification from curses, bad luck, and infertility.

Long after Palentine Hill became the seat of the powerful city, state and empire of Rome, the Lupercalia festival lived on. Roman armies took the Lupercalia customs with them as they invaded France and Britain. One of these was a lottery where the names of available maidens were placed in a box and drawn out by the young men. Each man accepted the girl whose name he drew as his love — for the duration of the festival, or sometimes longer.

As Christianity began to slowly and systematically dismantle the pagan pantheons, it frequently replaced the festivals of the pagan gods with more ecumenical celebrations. It was easier to convert the local population if they could continue to celebrate on the same days … they would just be instructed to celebrate different people and ideologies.

Lupercalia, with its lover lottery, had no place in the new Christian order. In the year 496 AD, Pope Gelasius did away with the festival of Lupercalia, citing that it was pagan and immoral. He chose Valentine as the patron saint of lovers, who would be honored at the new festival on the fourteenth of every February. The church decided to come up with its own lottery and so the feast of St. Valentine featured a lottery of Saints. One would pull the name of a saint out of a box, and for the following year, study and attempt to emulate that saint.

You may wonder who was St. Valentine. I’d never given him much thought, figuring he was semi-mythical, like St. Christopher. But I was wrong:

At least three Saint Valentines are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of February 14th. One is described as a priest in Rome, another as a Bishop of Interamna, now Terni in Italy, and the other lived and died in Africa. … However, most scholars believe Valentine of Terni and the priest Valentine of Rome were the same person.

Claudius’ Rome was an extremely dangerous place to be Christian. Valentine not only chose to be a priest, but was believed to have been a leader of the Christian underground movement. Many priests were caught, one by one, and imprisoned and martyred. Valentine supposedly continued to preach the word after he was imprisoned, witnessing to the prisoners and guards.

One story tells that he was able to cure a guard’s daughter of blindness. When word got back to Claudius, he was furious and ordered Valentine’s brutal execution — beaten by clubs until dead, and then beheaded. While he was waiting for the soldiers to come and drag him away, Valentine composed a note to the girl telling her that he loved her. He signed it simply, “From Your Valentine.” The execution was carried out on February 14th.

Another legend touts of a well loved priest called Valentine living under the rule of Emperor Claudius II. Rome was constantly engaged in war. Year after year, Claudius drafted male citizens into battle to defend and expand the Roman Empire. Many Romans were unwilling to go. Married men did not want to leave their families. Younger men did not wish to leave their sweethearts. Claudius ordered a moratorium on all marriages and that all engagements must be broken off immediately.

Valentine disagreed with his emperor. When a young couple came to the temple seeking to be married, Valentine secretly obliged them. Others came and were quietly married. Valentine became the friend of lovers in every district of Rome. But such secrets could not be kept for long. Valentine was dragged from the temple. Many pleaded with Claudius for Valentine’s release but to no avail, and in a dungeon, Valentine languished and died. His devoted friends are said to have buried him in the church of St. Praxedes on the 14th of February.

You may wonder how Cupid made his way into the picture. It helps to remember that Cupid is the Roman version of Eros, the Greek god of love. And Eros didn’t just make people fall in love with each other — he could shoot someone with a lead arrow and make him indifferent. He was not considered a benevolent fellow. Although the Greeks wouldn’t have described him that way, he was kind of a dick.

The most famous story about the god of love and desire is Cupid and Psyche:

Once upon a time there was a king with three daughters. They were all beautiful, but by far the most beautiful was the youngest, Psyche. She was so beautiful that people began to neglect the worship of Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Venus was very jealous, and asked her son Cupid (the boy with the arrows) to make Psyche fall in love with a horrible monster. When he saw how beautiful she was, Cupid dropped the arrow meant for her and pricked himself, and fell in love with her.

Mixed marriages have never been simple, and relationships between gods and mortals were more complicated than most. (Check out the story of Leda and the Swan if you want to see the extreme consequences of god-on-human hookups.) For the life of me, though, I can’t figure this one out. I first read the story in college — it appears in The Golden Ass of Apuleius, a Roman who helped invent the novel in the second century AD — and still can’t figure out why Cupid decided to marry Psyche, but wouldn’t allow her to see him in daylight.

I guess there’s something happening on a metaphorical level, along the lines of Shallow Hal, when Hal gets hypnotized by a gigantic motivational speaker and can only see the inner beauty of the people he encounters. Except in this case Psyche isn’t allowed to see the outer beauty of her husband. And when she does try to see what he looks like — goaded by her jealous sisters, naturally — she accidentally burns Cupid with lantern oil, and damned near ruins the marriage.

Eventually, the story would become part of our Disneyfied romantic mythology; it appears to have inspired Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, and, who knows, maybe Starsky and Hutch. As long as you have two beautiful people who want to be in love but struggle to get past seemingly insurmountable obstacles, you can trace it back to Cupid and Psyche.

What I find most interesting is that modern Valentine’s Day is a lot more like the ancient Roman tradition — simple, sweet, and inclusive of everyone who wanted to be included — than any of the baggage that’s been strapped onto its roof rack in the past 2,000 years. We don’t really need to venerate a Roman priest who was clubbed to death on orders of the emperor, or celebrate a mythical god who wouldn’t let his own wife see what an attractive hunk of godliness he really was.

Just let it be about love. And, as the poet once sang

Turn your heartache right into joy,
She’s a girl, and you’re a boy.
Well get it together,
Make it real nice.
You ain’t gonna need any more advice.

And there’s a rose in the fisted glove
And the eagle flies with the dove,
And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey,
Love the one you’re with.