The dreaded St. Valentine’s day is almost here again, with its vile commercial exploitation of the most noble of sentiments and the institutionalized shaming of unattached persons. Should you not subscribe to this custom, you might be interested in learning the rather bawdier origins of the celebration.
The St. Valentine’s day we know is a Christian invention from the year 496, when pope Gelasius I decided that the anniversary of the stoning and decapitation of the bishop Valentine from Interamna in 273 was the perfect symbol for romantic love. In his defense it must be told that the saint wasn’t even mentioned in the decree instituting the festivity: the various legends about the “miracles of love” allegedly performed by Valentine came only much later. February 14th was originally just the celebration of Mary’s fertility and purity – with a lot of emphasis on the latter.
The reason behind the papal bull was in fact to put an end to the last surviving pagan rite in Rome: the lupercalia. This was an ancient yearly festival from the IV century b.C. to worship and appease Faunus Lupercus, the primal god of wolves. The 15th of February was, on average, the coldest day of the year, when the hungry beasts were more probable to descend from the hills and kill the sheep, goats (and the children) of the farmers: having Lupercus on your side meant they might survive unharmed one more year.
Being one among the many manifestations of the archetypal faun, however, this was also the deity of fucking fertility – which sounded appropriate, since the second half of February marks the beginning of the mating season for birds and the first, timid signs of seasonal blooming. And how do you worship a fertility god? Exactly.
Now here is the kinky part that is usually omitted by historical accounts. According to Ovidius, the lupercalia began after a long frigidity spell of the first Roman women. When the townsfolk prayed the goddess Juno for a solution, she answered that the women would have to be penetrated by a holy goat to become fertile again. A very diplomatic augur however explained that what she really meant was they’d have to kill a goat, cut its skin into stripes, make a whip out of it and flog the women with this implement. Of course.
Dyslexic goddesses aside, the actual ritual took the form of a number of “possessed” men covered in dirt and goat blood running around the Palatine hill holding bloody whips. The women happily «offered their bellies» (hint: it’s not tummies we are talking about) to be flogged and to be blessed with a divine pregnancy – even if in latter times they were customarily beaten only on their outstretched hands. Either way, as you can see in the above photo of a modern reenactment, it didn’t look very Christian – hence the pope’s decision to replace the event with something softer.
School’s over. You can now go and buy your heart-shaped chocolates.