* Reader discretion advised- Come to find out the history of Valentine’s day contains some mature content. This is not recommended for readers under 13.*
We all know it; some love it, some despise it, and some dread it. That eternal culture pressure of romantic love - Valentine’s Day. Americans are expected to spend over 19 billion dollars on Valentine’s day this year, a dizzying number to some. Red, white, and pink are everywhere you look. Roses, cupids, doves, and hearts adorn every surface. The greeting card, jewelry, and floral businesses boom on the intense societal influence of commercial love.
That being said, I am utterly intrigued by Valentine’s day. How did St. Valentine- a Christian martyr, become the honorary patron of romantic love? My hunch was that the roots and concept of “Valentine’s Day” actually fell with the ancient Greeks or Romans, as many western traditions do. I decided to do some digging to find out about how we came to celebrate this holiday.
I have to start with a disclaimer, the origins of Valentine’s day are disputed. This is the evidence I found, and the conclusions I made.
Not knowing where to start, I turned toward the Greek Goddess of love herself, Aphrodite. After examination of Aphrodites, It seems that we derive much of our Valentine’s troup and symbols from the Aphrodite (Venus in the Roman Pantheon). She was known as the goddess of love, physical attraction, sexual desire, lovers, seduction, sweet talk, beauty, and pleasure. Her favor would grant you reciprocated love or unparalleled beauty. Her disfavor would curse you to love someone who would never love you back.
You can probably guess what her favorite flower was. Here’s a hint, 250 million are produced for Valentine’s day every year. That’s right, the rose.
Her bird, the dove of course.
You may also recognize her winged son, Eros or Cupid. With his famous white wings and bow. When struck with an arrow from his bow the person was said to fall into uncontrollable desire.
Eros’s personal love story with the mortal woman Psyche is one of the most famous of all time. In fact, the archetype of Psyche and Eros has inspired copious amounts of stories and artwork throughout the years. (Read about the whole story here).
The story of Psyche and Eros is one wrought with jealousy, betrayal, sacrifice, and perseverance that can come with romantic love.
With all these connections to Valentine’s day, I thought for sure that Aphrodite’s festival had to fall near February 14th. I was surprised to find that the festival of Aphrodite actually took place in July.
The scene depicting the revelry of Lupercalia.
Next, I was brought to the festival of Lupercalia. Celebrated on February 15th, it was an ancient Roman festival thought to be in honor of the she-wolf that adopted Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome (Read more about that here). Historians believe that this was most likely a fertility festival. The priests or Luperci sacrificed male goats, a symbol of sexuality in ancient Rome, and smeared the blood on their forehead. Which they then washed off with milk, making the festival colors red and white (sound familiar?).
The Luperci would then run around naked while whipping women with strips of the sacrificed goats’ hide. Each woman that was struck was then supposedly blessed with fertility.
The ancient Roman priests would then essentially pick a name of a woman out of to create a couple. Some pairs were even said to stay together for the following year.
This random scramble for a partner does remind me of the tendency of people to try to find a significant other as Valentine’s day nears.
A Victorian-era Valentine. Featuring Cupid, roses, & hearts.
So how did the western world turn from celebrating Lupercalia to St. Valentine’s Day?
For that, we can thank Pope Gelasius in the 5th Century. Concerned with the pagan festival, he eliminated Lupercalia and instated St. Valentine’s Day instead.
From there, Geoffery Chaucer wrote a poem in the middle ages which made reference to St Valentine’s Day.
Formally written Valentine’s have been found from the 1500s, and in the 1800s the United States started printing Valentine’s cards commercially.
And the rest is history.
So whether you like to celebrate Valentine’s day for all of its lovey-dovey glory, if you like to celebrate Valentine’s day with your friends, or if you prefer “Galentine’s day” (coined by the character Leslie Knope in the television show Parks and Recreation), take a moment this Valentine’s day to tell the people closest to your heart that you love them.
This post is dedicated to Nicole, on her favorite holiday.
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History.com Editors, (2017). Lupercalia. A&E Television Network: HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-rome/lupercalia
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The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, (2018). Valentine’s Day. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Valentines-Day
Tsolakidou, S. (2013). Ancient Greek influences on st Valentine’s day. The Greek Reporter. https://greece.greekreporter.com/2013/02/13/ancient-greek-influences-on-st-valentines-day/