SARONNO, Italy – Tuesday is Valentine’s Day. It’s a rosy hearts and flowers kind of day where women expect a romantic card and gift from their significant others, and guys know they’d better not knock on the door empty handed.
|The Birth of Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love by Sandro Botticelli|
Valentine’s Day wasn’t always called Valentine’s Day though. In the beginning, around the 4th century, it was a pagan rite of passage, a tribute to the Roman God Lupercus. Every spring the names of teenage girls were placed in a box and randomly drawn out by teenage boys. The girls would then become the “companion” of the boys who drew their name, and they would be together for mutual entertainment and pleasure, until the next spring when another the process would be repeated and everyone would change partners.
As Christianity began to spread, the Church was determined to put an end to this eight hundred year fertility rite, and started researching for a “lovers” saint to replace the Roman God Lupercus. They settled on Valentino, a bishop who had been clubbed to death and had his head cut off two hundred years earlier.
Valentino had made the mistake of enraging the mad emperor Claudius II by protesting Claudius’ edict forbidding marriage. Claudius believed that married men made poor soldiers because they were reluctant to leave their families for battle. Since the empire needed soldiers, Claudius, never afraid to do what he thought was best for the empire, outlawed marriage.
As the Bishop of Interamma, Valentine, (Valentino), invited couples to wanted to marry to come to him in secret. When Claudius learned about this ‘friend of lovers”, he had the bishop brought to Rome and gave him a choice: convert to paganism and worship the Roman Gods, or have his head cut off.
Valentino turned down the Emperor’s offer and was soon thrown in prison to await his fate. While he was waiting to be executed he fell in love with the jailer’s blind daughter and, it was said, miraculously restored her sight. Just before he was taken away to be clubbed, stoned and decapitated, he wrote her a farewell note and signed it, “from your Valentino.”
From the Church’s point of view, Valentine was the ideal candidate as a replacement for Lupercus, so in 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius outlawed the mid-February Lupercian festival. But because he knew how Roman’s loved games of chance, he kept the lottery, substituting the girl’s names for the names of saints. For the Church’s celebration, both girls and boys could draw the name of a saint and then they were to emulate the life of that saint for a year.
Admittedly it took a long time for the Romans to give up a year of free sex for a year of piety, but in the end Christianity won out. Actually the only part of the Lupercian festival that remained was the tradition of men offering women they were interested in a handwritten note of affection on Feb. 14th, and in the 16th century the Church tried to do away with that as well. They didn’t succeed.
The cards became more popular and more decorative and often embellished with a drawing of the naked cherub Cupid. Cupid, from the Latin cupido, meaning "desire") was the god of desire, affection and erotic love, and is sometimes portrayed as the son of the Venus, the Roman goddess of love and either the god of war, Mars or Mercury, the messenger of the Gods. It seems she was friendly with both of them.