CHIAVARI, Italy - Today is Valentine’s Day. It’s a rosy hearts and flowers kind of day. A day where a romantic card, a gift, a bouquet of flowers from a significant other goes a long way to sweetening a romance. It’s the perfect day to show a little love.
But Valentine’s Day wasn’t always about boxes of chocolates and fancy wrapped gifts, nor was it called Valentine’s Day. In the beginning, somewhere around the 4th century, it was a pagan rite of passage, a tribute to the Roman God Lupercus, the God of Fertility.
The Roman rite of passage went something like this: Every spring, on the 15th of February, a type of lottery was created to decide which teenage girl would be with which teenage boy. The names of the girls were placed in a box and randomly drawn out by the boys. The girls would then become the “companion” of the boy who drew her name, and they would be together for mutual entertainment and pleasure, i.e. sex, until the next spring when the process would be repeated and everyone changed partners.
As Christianity began to spread, the Church was determined to put an end to this eight hundred year fertility rite, and started looking for a “lovers” saint to replace the Fertility God Lupercus. After much searching, they settled on Valentino, the Bishop of Interamma (modern day Terni).
The Bishop had made the mistake of enraging the emperor by protesting the edict of the Roman Emperor Claudius II forbidding marriage, and had been put to death by the mad emperor two hundred years before. Claudius believed that married men made poor soldiers because they were reluctant to leave their families for battle. He reasoned that the empire needed soldiers more than men needed wives, so he did what he thought was best for the empire and outlawed marriage.
To counter the Emperor, Bishop Valentino would often marry couples 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 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, he miraculously restored her sight. Just before he was taken away to be clubbed, stoned and then decapitated, he wrote her a farewell note and signed it, “from your Valentino.”
Two hundred years later, the Church decided Valentino would be the ideal candidate to replace Lupercus, and in 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius outlawed the mid-February Lupercian festival. But because he knew how Romans love games of chance, he kept the lottery, substituting the girl’s names for the names of saints.
In the revised version of the Lupercian festival, both girls and boys could draw a name from the box, but the name was not the name of the person they would spend a year of hanky panky with, but the name of a saint, whose life they were to emulate for the entire year.
Admittedly it was a struggle for the Romans to trade a year of wild 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. In the 16th century the Church tried to do away with that tradition as well, and as you well know, they didn’t succeed.
The cards became more popular and more decorative and often embellished with a drawing of the naked cherub Cupid, for in their hearts the Romans were never too far from their old gods. Cupid, from the Latin cupido, meaning "desire") was the god of desire, affection and erotic love, and is described as the son of the Venus, the Roman goddess of love. His father was either Mars, the god of war, or Mercury, the messenger of the gods. It seems his mother was friendly with both of them.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Copyright 2016 © Phyllis Macchioni