Valentine’s Day is upon us and as a result the price of a blood-red rose skyrockets. Misty-eyed lovers feverishly scribble anonymous cards to the various paramours they are desperately besotted with (or simply fancy shagging). Few pause to ponder the origins of a festival that looms large in the modern calendar.
The clue lies in the festival’s full name: Saint Valentine’s Day. Valentinus, to give him his proper name, was a third century Roman martyr. So little is accurately known about him that in 1969 the Vatican demoted him off the General Roman Calendar. Hence poor Valentine was consigned to the reserves bench of dodgy and knock-kneed saints.
At what point Christians began observing Saint Valentine’s Day on February 14 is uncertain. But, as Christianity waxed in the early centuries of the current era, this festival provided a handy coat-peg on which to hang one of those thoroughly earthy pagan revels that the church detested: the Lupercalian festivals that celebrated the suckling of Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, by the she-wolf Lupa.
In The Mythology of Sex, Sarah Dening describes the Lupercalian revels. “Male goats were sacrificed, young men were touched with their blood, and priests wearing raw goatskins would strike with a strip of goatskin the hands of a woman who wanted to conceive”. In this riveting melange of sex and stupidity we can also perceive the origins of the X-Factor and Celebrity Big Brother shows.
Small pieces of paper
These festivals occurred in mid-February, the month sacred to Juno Februata, the goddess of purifying sex. Dening continues: “Then men and women exchanged clothing and indulged in orgiastic sex. The men chose their partners by drawing small pieces of paper on which were written the names of the women present”.
The Lupercalia consequently became the Christian Saint Valentine’s Day. The small pieces of paper morphed into medieval love notes and latter day Valentine cards. The festival did not shed its overt sexuality until the High Middle Ages and Geoffrey Chaucer’s idealisation of romantic love. Sexual shame forced the lascivious origins of one of our favourite festivals into the shadows.
In times gone by a Valentine card was your marching orders to report for sex with a randomly-chosen priest who stank of dead goat.
Just remember that, dear ladies, the next time you receive a card from Cupid. In times gone by it would’ve been your marching orders to report for sex with a randomly-chosen priest who stank of dead goat. Please appreciate your over-priced roses.