The Origins of Valentine’s Day

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What do you think Valentine’s Day is all about?

Cuddly toys? Boxes of chocolate? Cards? Finding someone to have a relationship with? Spending disproportionate amounts of money on a meal out in some over-the-top restaurant? Celebrating a Saint?

Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and, since no one except those closest to the Church celebrate saints, wrong. Let me describe as much as I’ve found out about the origins of this “festival”, and what (if if you can be bothered to look) can be found in many textbooks.

The Forum, at the bottom of the Palatine Hill
The Forum, at the bottom of the Palatine Hill

Valentine’s Day originates from a Roman feast called Lupercalia which occurred between February 13th and 15th. We can be fairly sure that it was a feast of fertility and purification and the most likely God of this feast was Lupercus the wolf-hunter. The Greeks called Lupercus by the name of “Pan”, the Semites called Pan “Baal”, and Baal, who gets mentioned so often in the Bible, was merely another name for Nimrod, “the mighty hunter” (Genesis 10:9).

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During the festival a special order of priests, called Luperci, would run around the Palatine Settlement in Rome stark naked and whip anyone they came across with a goatskin thong with the intention of warding off evil influences (something that’s also associated with Paternalia which occurred around the same time) and to promote fertility.

The act of hitting a woman with this thong is thought to have represented sexual penetration (and depending on your personal sexual kinks, it may still do today). Of course any husband would have objected to his wife being really penetrated by a priest in the streets, so breaking the skin with a symbol of fertility, like part of a goat, was considered just as effective (although I’m not sure I want to know which parts were used).

It is also thought that women were sometimes encouraged to be hit by “showing some skin”. These days something like this would be thought of as indecent exposure, porn or maybe even prostitution – more on this in a bit.

lupercaliaIt was a generally fun event, with bodies freely and voluntarily exposed. There was food from the sacrificed goats and most importantly, the aspect of fertility revolved around the legend of the god Mars impregnating the mother of twins, Romulus and Remus which made the feast all the more important as this legend was key to the story of the origins of Rome and where the she-wolf suckled the twins.

So what’s interesting about this picture? Something you may not know is that “she-wolf” is a Latin term for prostitute – so next time you sing Shakira or Sia, think about what you’re actually singing! The god Mars was said to have effectively raped the mother of Romulus and Remus in the legend, hence women would get symbolically (and not literally) penetrated in the streets as if they were as good as prostitutes – all in the name of increased likelihood of getting pregnant!

All this effectively make Valentine’s Day a feast about sexuality, prostitution and getting offspring by any means possible – nowadays we’d use adoption, IVF or escort services.

Ancient Romans must have been great fun to be around at this time of the year!

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Pagan, bi-sexual and caffeine drinker by necessity. Also Physics student, Twitter (ab)user, co-Head of Marketing and Web for Southampton University's Formula Student Team. So much for giving up my day job! On here I'm one of the LGBT Series writers. :)

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