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Are There Ancient Roman Origins to Valentine’s Day?

by   -  February 12th, 2015

Couple in love by roxanabalint, despositphotos.com
Couple in love by roxanabalint, despositphotos.com
As Cupid sets his sights (or his arrows) on lovebirds around the world soon, it’s interesting to note that this $20 billion dollar cash cow could be tied to an ancient pagan Roman festival known as Lupercalia. In fact, many traditional and even Christian holidays were once pagan in origin, as we even discussed last year at Halloween. So it should come to no surprise that Valentine’s Day could be another one of them.

Interestingly, while I consider myself fairly versed in ancient history (I actually went to school to study ancient art, history, and literature), for some reason, while researching this article, I was surprised to find its possible roots in paganism. Though it should come to no surprise, considering the ancient Romans certainly loved romance, nakedness, and fertility rites.

I, like pretty much everyone else, knew more about the 5th century connection with the Christian martyr Saint Valentine – or to be more precise, the two martyrs (possibly three if you include one in Africa) with that name.

Like most Christian holidays, Valentine’s Day is theorized by scholars to cover up a wildly popular pagan holiday and give it a new name. Lupercalia is one of the oldest Roman holidays, and one of the feriae listed on ancient calendars. Had I been paying attention in high school when I read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, I would have at least realized I was introduced to this ancient holiday, buy alas, I think I’ve repressed most of my high school career.

Lupercalia is thought to have started as early as the founding of Rome, back in 753 B.C – and maybe even earlier – making it one of the longest running Roman holidays at 1200 years.

The Ancient Rome – Valentine’s Day Connection

As with most evolutions, it can be hard to distinguish blatant ties when enough time has passed. Some scholars find it hard to believe there is a connection between Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia, while others think the link is fairly obvious.

So how does Lupercalia and Ancient Rome relate to Valentine’s Day?

• For starters, Lupercalia took place between the 13th and 15th of February – or right over what we know as modern day Valentine’s. Historians say that may not mean much though, because in the ancient Roman calendar, February was actually in the spring. But we can run with it for now.

• Lupercalia was all about the sex. As a fertility holiday, priests (known as luperci) would sacrifice a wolf (or a dog) and a goat, they smeared the animal blood on two boys who, clad only in a bit of goatskin (or sometimes nothing at all), led a band of revelers. The boys and crew then whipped the female bystanders with goatskin strips (called a februa) fashioned from the sacrificed animal. Women so whipped (even previously barren ones) were thought to become fertile.

• Cupid was Roman. While not specifically tied to Lupercalia, Cupid was god of desire, affection, and erotic love. Cupid today appears shooting his bow to inspire romantic love.

• Roses for Venus. Venus (Aphrodite in Greek mythology), the Roman goddess of love was very partial to red roses. Additionally, the color red is a symbol of intensity – so the flower of the goddess of love, mixed with intense feelings. Makes sense to me.

• The heart shape in antiquity. Where exactly the modern day heart comes from is harder to distinguish, however, many scholars do hypothesize that it goes back to antiquity. Specific suggestions of how they relate include: the shape of the seed of the silphium plant (used in ancient times as an herbal contraceptive), and stylized versions of female buttocks, pubic mound, or spread vulva.

What do you think? Can you see the trail of Roman origins in modern day Valentine’s Day? Or do you think it really relates more to the Christian martyrs bearing the name Valentine?

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is an passionate author and freelancer from Minnesotan with a focus in creative writing.

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