Cyber Nation

by H.B. Koplowitz

Valentine’s Day Online: This started out to be a quick and easy review of Valentine’s Day Web sites. Then I stumbled over sites speculating on the holiday’s origins, and it became a down and dirty review of pagan fertility rites. Those ancient Romans were one kinky crew.

According to Microsoft’s online encyclopedia “Encarta,”, Saint Valentine is the patron saint of lovers, and Valentines Day is a holiday honoring lovers. It is celebrated Feb. 14 “by the custom of sending greeting cards or gifts to express affection. The cards, known as valentines, are often designed with hearts to symbolize love.” The entry goes on to say the holiday “probably derives from the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalis,” which “gradually became associated with” the feast day of a couple of Third century Christian martyrs, both named St. Valentine.

More blunt is “Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance,”, which says the early Christian church had a “policy of replacing Pagan gods and goddesses with Christian saints.” It claims St. Valentine is a composite of as many as seven legendary Christian martyrs that replaced such Greco-Roman love-gods as Juno Februata, Eros, Cupid, Kama and Priapus. It also says the holiday replaced two Roman feasts, Lupercalia and the feast day of Juno Februata, during which young men would draw the names of young women from a container and they would pair off.

“Religious Tolerance” describes Lupercalia as a uniquely Roman purification and fertility festival of sexual license, in which male pagan priests called Luperci donned loincloths made from the skin of a freshly sacrificed goat, then ran around with goatskin straps, flogging women to purify and make them fertile. It quotes Cicero, who said the Luperci were, “A certain wild association of Lupercalian brothers, both plainly pastoral and savage, whose rustic alliance was formed before civilization and laws.”

“Encyclopedia Romana,”, quotes Ovid as saying, “Neither potent herbs, nor prayers, nor magic spells shall make of thee a mother, submit with patience to the blows dealt by a fruitful hand.” The poet also said the Sabine women seized by Romulus were barren until struck by the goat strips. “Romana” notes it was at the Lupercalia in 44 BC that Mark Antony, as one of the Luperci, ran up to Caesar and offered him a laurel wreath as a token of kingship, a month before Caesar was assassinated. The feast is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “You all did see that on the Lupercal I thrice presented him a kingly crown, Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?”

According to a Web site dedicated to the romantically dysfunctional, “Valentine Be Mine,”, Lupercalia may have honored the god Lupercus, who protected shepherds’ flocks from wolves. Also during Lupercalia, but in honor of the goddess Juno Februata, it says the names of young women were put into a box and their names drawn by eligible men as a way to meet. It notes the ritual continued long after wolves ceased to be a problem for Rome.

“VBM” says that to Christianize the pagan love fests, in 496 AD, Pope Gelasius created St. Valentine’s Day. Legend has it that Valentine was a Third century Roman Christian who was beheaded for secretly performing marriages after Claudius II had them outlawed because he’d noticed that some of his soldiers preferred staying home with their wives instead of going off to war, plunder and rape. While in prison he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter and supposedly wrote her letters signing them, “From your Valentine.”

“VBM” notes another influence on the evolution of Valentine’s Day — Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer and the belief in the Middle Ages that birds began to choose their mates on Feb. 14. The site quotes Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules: “For this was Seynt Valentynes day/When every foul cometh there to chese (choose) his make (mate).”

In fact, no less an authority than The American Heritage College Dictionary goes out of its way to dispute any connection between pagan rituals and Valentine’s Day. “Geoffrey Chaucer should perhaps receive honor as the real Saint Valentine,” it states in the definition for valentine. “Although reference books abound with mention of Roman festivals from which Valentine’s Day — the day for lovers — may be derived … No link between the day and lovers exists before the time of Chaucer and several literary contemporaries who also mention it, but after them the link becomes widespread.”

“Valentine Be Mine” says the earliest known valentine, which is preserved in the British Museum, was sent by a young Frenchman, Charles, Duke of Orleans, who from his confinement in the Tower of London, wrote rhymed love letters to his wife in France after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. It describes a 15th century valentine showing a knight and a lady, with Cupid sending an arrow to pierce the knight’s heart.

“Valentine Blues at Web Holidays,”, says the tradition of card giving spread to colonial America, where it was taboo to display affection in public, so cards became a way to express love. The first commercial valentines began appearing around 1800, and by the 1830s they had poetic messages, decorative papers and pictures of turtledoves, bows and arrows, cupids and bleeding hearts. Over the years, trends in valentine cards have swung from maudlin to humorous. Nowadays, a card is often accompanied by a more substantial gift like candy, flowers or perfume.

Christianity may or may not have turned a Roman fertility romp into St. Valentine’s Day. But to this day, many American school children celebrate Valentine’s Day at school by decorating boxes, which they use to exchange valentine cards, honoring a biological imperative far older and more persistent than any religion or culture.

For more columns by H.B. Koplowitz: E-mail [email protected]

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