Hey sweet Valentine, how ‘bout some roast goat and a good whipping?
We are all used to giving and getting chocolates, or red roses, or at least a hug and a kiss from our special someone on Valentine’s Day. But did you know that this “lover’s” celebration began in a very different way more than 2700 years ago in Rome? And instead of the romantic images of little Cupid, hearts and flowers, the images that marked that celebration was more along the lines of wolves, slaughtered animals, and whips.
The origins of Lupercalia, the precursor of our Valentine’s Day, are murky, but we know it is ancient, perhaps dating to the founding of Rome around 735 BCE. The story began with twin brothers Romulus and Remus whose uncle, to ensure his own access to the throne, demanded they be thrown in the Tiber River. As would be expected, the boys did not die. Instead, a servant laid them in a basket and placed it in the river. (If you are noticing some resemblance to other similar stories, you are on the right track—many such founding tales abound throughout many cultures).
The basket floated gently, guided by the river god until it became entangled in some branches.
A she-wolf was around and she decided to feed the children instead of eating them. She took care of them in a wolf den at the base of the Palatine Hill, where Rome was founded. The iconic image is carved in stone and in bronze in plazas and palaces of the city.
Eventually, when the brothers grew up, they killed the uncle who had ordered their killing. Then they found the cave where she-wolf had nurtured them and named it Lupercal, to honor Lupercus, a Roman fertility god. But the word is also linguistically related to the Latin for “wolf,” lupus. An interesting aside is that the Latin word for she-wolf is also slang for prostitute, and a brothel in Latin (as well as in Spanish) is another derivative of wolf—lupanar.
So here is the first part of Lupercalia—a connection to the wolf, actually a she-wolf, and goats.
Lupercalia rituals took place between February 13 and 15 inside the Lupercal cave on Palatine Hill.
The festival began with the sacrifice of a dog and one or more male goats, symbols of sexuality and fertility. It concluded with a feast of roasted meat from the slaughtered goats.
When the feast was over, the all-male participants fashioned whips from the hides of the newly sacrificed goats. Then they ran naked, whipping any woman within reach, because the belief was that a good whipping led to fertility! The whips were called februa and it is possible that the name of the month comes from this. There was also matchmaking of sorts—an early precursor of our romantic Valentine’s traditions. Young men drew names of women from a jar, and the couple would then be “together” for the duration of the feast. Sometimes the coupling lasted longer if the match was right.
The feast of Lupercalia lasted for many centuries but it became tamer. Although the whipping continued, it was done by fully-clothed men striking women only on their hands.
Then came Christianity, and the church appropriated pagan rituals and festivals and made them fit their religious narrative. In the 5th century CE the church outlawed Lupercalia and mandated that February 14th would instead mark the death of St Valentine. But which one? Apparently there were three men named Valentine who had been martyred over the centuries. One of them supposedly married couples in defiance of Emperor Claudius II who wanted men to be single in order to be better warriors. This Valentine was eventually executed and is the most likely candidate for the connection to love. February 14 stopped being a celebration of sexuality and fertility and became the worship of Christian martyrdom and pure love. Just to muddle things a bit more, the Normans used to celebrate Galatin’s Day—known as the “lover of women” around the same time. The two names sounded similar—Galatin and Valentine—and they may eventually have been conflated into one.
And this is how the other ingredients—a lover of women, a lover of Christ who officiated marriages, and fertility—all ended up in one basket.
Eventually the celebration turned from its original violence and focus on fertility, to sweetness and romance. By the age of chivalry, Valentine’s Day was seen as romantic and Valentine’s love greetings were exchanged. Then another symbol from ancient Rome crept into the mix—Cupid—the Roman name for the god of love the Greeks called Eros. He is the naughty little boy with a bow and arrows that he shoots into hearts to make you fall in love.
So here is a little history of Valentine’s Day and its origins. It is up to you to celebrate as you see fit. Fire up the barbie and roast a goat in the back yard or bring her a bouquet of flowers then take her to a candlelit dinner at a fancy restaurant. Whipping optional and only for consensual adults.