Lupercalia: The forgotten Valentine's Day

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Lupercalia: The forgotten Valentine's Day
Ancient religion and modern love (Getty Thinkstock)

“The customs of Valentine’s Day have been handed down from the Roman festival of the Lupercalia, celebrated in the month of February, when the names of young women were put into a box and drawn out by men as chance directed. This is the origin of valentines - cards linking men and women together for sexual purposes. This festival was characterized in the later Roman period by wanton raillery and unkindled freedom.”

— James Hastings – Author of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics.

Two “youths of noble birth” ravage down the street, naked aside from sporadic coverings of the still-bloody hide of a sacrificial goat, joyously slapping willing women with strips of mutilated goat carcass. This might not sound like your traditional Valentine’s Day, but many people believe this is the true, pagan origin of the holiday. It might sound like heathen madness, but people weren’t above that sort of thing in those days – the early books of the Old Testament involve a fair amount of animal sacrifice. Plus, Christianity adopted the practices of Saturnalia for Christmas, so is it really beyond belief that Valentine’s Day could have a pagan past?

The ritual

Lupercalia: The forgotten Valentine's Day
( Images)

Lupercalia is a celebration of the Roman god Lupercus, who was their god of fertility – and the namesake celebration is all about fertility and purification. The story goes that two children – Romulus and Remus – were abandoned and found by a she-wolf, who took them into the Lupercal (essentially a cave with an altar to Lupercus) and nurtured them, assumedly instead of tearing them to pieces. They were eventually found by a shepherd and then became the founders of Rome.

The annual celebration took place on the 15th of February at the cave’s opening, where the “Luperci” (the festival’s priests) sacrificed goats and dogs to the gods. Two (naked) youths of noble birth were led to the priests, who wiped them with a sword dipped the blood of the sacrifices, before some other priests cleaned them off. They were obliged to laugh at this point. After a short feasting break – involving copious amounts of wine – the slaughtered animals had their skins cut into strips, which was used to cover the boys so they resembled the wolf-god Lupercus.

The remaining skins was fashioned into whips, and the boys proceeded to rampage through the streets, slapping women with blood-sodden hide. They wanted it too, according to scholar Leonard Schmitz, the practice was mainly aimed at “women, who even used to come forward voluntarily for the purpose, since they believed that this ceremony rendered them fruitful, and procured them an easy delivery in childbearing.”

Was there a sex lottery on the eve of Lupercalia?

Lupercalia: The forgotten Valentine's Day
(Jupiterimages/ Images)

One of the particularly shocking elements of the Lupercalia ritual was the lover’s lottery. This was supposedly conducted on the 14th of February in honour of the god Juno. The names of teenage girls would be placed in a jar, and the boys would take turns drawing lots, as it were. The boy and girl pairs would then unite for general merry-making, dancing and erotic games, rendering it essentially a historical swingers’ party.

This practice spread to England, too, with a slightly more genteel version where the man became romantically linked to the lottery-picked woman for the following year. The church weren’t too fond of the practice, and tried to replace the girl’s name with that of a saint. The boy would then have to attempt to live life in a similarly saintly fashion. However, the earliest reference to this entire concept comes from the eighteenth century, in Alban Butler’s book “Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints.”

Did Lupercalia become Valentine’s Day?

Lupercalia: The forgotten Valentine's Day
(Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images)

When Christianity was instituted, Lupercalia still continued on strong. Generally speaking though, and for pretty obvious reasons, it wasn’t exactly looked on kindly. Professor of classics at the University of Colorado at Boulder, Noel Lenski, explains that Lupercalia was “clearly a very popular thing, even in an environment where the [ancient] Christians are trying to close it down. So there's reason to think that the Christians might instead have said, OK, we'll just call this a Christian festival."

This is essentially the theory in a nutshell. The Christian church started to close down the practice, notably Pope Gelasius in around 486 A.D. The aim was to strip it of all the drunkenness, sacrifices, nudity and the messing around with animal parts. The original Lupercalia was transformed, moved a day earlier and dedicated to a saint Valentine. Antiquarian John Brand comments that, “for almost every Pagan ceremony, some Christian rite was introduced.”

The link between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day is questioned by some scholars, but the fact that the holiday was instituted by the pope who attempted to erase the practice seems to support the idea. The main argument seems to revolve around how little resemblance the festival bears to our modern ceremony, but with the church’s characteristic objections, it seems like it would have been difficult to integrate any element into a Christian holiday. Lupercalia was a tad too wild for that.

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