Well it's that time of year when the shops are filled with hearts and flowers, love is in the air, and there is much rejoicing among card manufacturers! And thus it ever was, all the way back to Roman times, or at least so the received wisdom would have you believe. However as ever in the shifting world of folklore, things are not always what they seem. Now according to a slew of articles and puff pieces that surface every February, St. Valentine's Day is a Christianization of an ancient festival held back in the days of Classical paganism.
In Graeco-Roman times, according to some, young folks had marriages set up by drawing lots: names were placed in an urn and picked out at random, pairing up the lads and lasses. And according to others, as well as this romantic lottery, this was part of a wild festival celebrating werewolves. Now as appealing as both these sound, sadly both of these claims are what we historians call - confusing technical terms alert! - "poppycock", "claptrap" and "flapdoddle". For both these claims are at best wildly inaccurate and their connection to the origins of Valentine's day suspect at best.
Now there was a Roman festival, held from the 13th to the 15th of February, called Lupercalia. However it must be noted that this was very much a local custom, a festival held pretty much exclusively in Rome as there are only scant references to Lupercalia being held anywhere else. Therefore it wasn't a custom that spread throughout the Roman Empire, so it couldn't possibly be the seeding a proto-Valentine's day across Europe.
Lupercalia's purpose was thought to be to cleanse the city of evil spirits and usher in the spring, however there is a good deal of mystery about it. Often it is said that its name was from derived from a Lycaean god Lupercus, a god originally worshipped by shepherds and identified with the better known Roman deity Faunus and the Greek Pan. However as this was a set of customs peculiar to the city of Rome, it has also been claimed that it was a celebration of Lupa, the she-wolf who according to legend suckled that ancient city's founders, Romulus and Remus. Furthermore many other gods have been referenced as part of the celebrations such as Juno, queen of the Roman gods, and the afore-mentioned Pan and Faunus. Also often invoked in Lupercalia was Februus, a god of purification from whom we get the name February.
Indeed it is thought that Lupercalia grew out of imported Greek practices fusing with different aspects of local cult worship around the core of an earlier festival honouring Februus, called Februa. Hence these celebrations held on the Ides of February were not dedicated to the worship of any one god or spring solely from one religious tradition but were actually a folk amalgam of many different rites. Interestingly this festival was so old that even Classical writers of the time were not sure of its history - much like our own folk festivals that survive today, its origins and exact meaning had long been forgotten by the Romans although the practice still continued.
The main event of Lupercalia was the sacrifice of two goats and a dog. Young men of the city were annointed with the blood of the animal, and then led by the priests and dressed in goatskins and/or going naked, ran round the walls of the old city, presumably to scare off the afore-mentioned evil spirits. They carried freshly cut strips of hide from the sacrifices and playfully whipping the ground and the spectators with the newly cut thongs to purify them. It was considered good fortune to be whipped, and for ladies it would ensure fertility and easier births, for it was a common belief in the ancient world that if one was purified, one would be healthy, happy, fortunate and fertile.
However by 1 AD the festival was largely a somewhat rowdy drunken affair, with Lupercalia appearing to have more in common with the kind of beery, bawdy mischief that football teams get up to than a serious religious festival. Indeed for this reason, it was outlawed at the end of the 5th century as it was felt the festival was something of a public disgrace. So then, while undoubtedly there was a link to fertility and the spring in the festival, Lupercalia had little or nothing to do with Roman marriage customs, and in its later centuries appears to have been about as romantic as a fraternity kegger. More damningly however, no Classical source mentions any custom of drawing of lots for romance or marriage or just for fun. Furthermore there are no archaeological discoveries of artifacts used in such practices, and no frescos, statuary or artworks depicting the custom either. So while it is a quaint story, without any historical evidence that is all it is.
Now then as for the werewolf festival claims, I'm afraid that as fun as this sounds, this too is without historical basis. Or rather its alleged historical basis is actually the result of sloppy research. This lycanthropic origin for Valentine's Day appears to have surfaced only relatively recently in the last few years but has taken root on the internet. So now it gets gets bandied about every February, with all and sundry being too busy making "Happy Horny Werewolf Day!" cracks to bother to check any sources.
The first alleged link is a misunderstanding of the nature of the god Lupercus. While his name is linked with wolves, he wasn't a lupine god at all. He was portrayed as a satyr i.e. a figure half man, half goat, hence his identification withe the Greek Geek and the Roman Faunus. Now you can go a long way in history and folklore by analyzing the etymology of words and names, however simply equating two words or names as the same as they sound similar is doing a half a job at best. So simply equating "Lupercus" with the word for wolf "lupus" does not suddenly make him a wolf god or werewolf deity without a shred of any other supporting evidence. The consensus among historians is that his name actually means "he who protects from wolves" - which makes more sense for a pastoral goat god originally worshipped by shepherds.
Similarly some writers peddling the werewolf festival line have pointed out that Lupercus was identified with Pan, who was sometimes referred to as Pan Lycaeus. Now "lycaeus" is derived from the Greek word for wolf and hence these unwise fellows have assumed that this meant that Pan, another goat god, had a wolf form In fact several Greek gods sported the tag 'Lycaeus' such as Zeus and Apollo, but it actually refers to Mount Lykaion. While its name in Greek means literally 'wolf mountain', this location in Greece is very important in Classical myth, and hence these gods all had their own mythological links to it and shrines to them built on it. Therefore "Lycaeus" is usually interpreted as a geographical honorific, with a secondary school of thought taking the alternative view that it means "Protector against wolves". Either way, Classical scholars are very sure it does not denote a wolf form of these gods, and certainly is not a sign of divine werewolvry! Other dubious claims of wolvish links are made with the detail of a sacrifice of a dog, alleging it was a substitute for a wolf. However according to Classical scholarship, dogs were a standard animal to sacrifice in many Roman rites, and if there was any symbolic significance for the choice of sacrifices in the festival of Lupercalia, it is thought that the sacrifice of two goats and a dog are thought to represent a flock and its protector.
The final misunderstanding, and the one central to the werewolf festival flapdoodle, is the erroneous idea that the dressing in the skins of the sacrifices was some specious ritual transformation into wolves. Now this would be a reasonable assumption... if they were wolf pelts, in a wolf ritual, to honour a wolf god. But as it was goatskins donned, it was clearly to emulate the satyr gods of Lupercus, Faunus and Pan. Furthermore in a festival linked to shepherding and farming, the idea of celebrating wolves, never mind werewolves, is nonsensical at best. Again there is no mention of wolves, let alone werewolves in contemporary Classical sources, and the iconography for the festival found in surviving Roman statuary and the like, clearly shows a strong ovine theme, with rams and ewe heads and not a wolf insight. All of which rather definitively slays the werewolf festival myth.
So then having debunked these two modern myths, where did these oft repeated Graeco-Roman origin claims come from? Well, they actually appear relatively late in the day, in an 18th century work Lifes of the Principal Saints. The author Alban Butler writes -
To abolish the heathen, lewd, superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honour of their goddess Februata Juno, on the 15th of February, several zealous Pastors substituted the names of Saints in billets given on that day.
Now while Februata Juno is thought to be a confused reference to Lupercalia and the earlier festival of Febra, as we have established, there is no mention in Classical sources of this custom of drawing lots. However being a respected source, Butler's claims have been repeated without question for many years and it is only relatively recently that scholars began to question his claims. Now as we have established there is not historical evidence for this alleged Roman custom, but as generations of historians, scholars and folklorists accepted Butler's account thus the modern erroneous myth of a Graeco-Roman origin for Valentine's Day was born.
However it is some truth in what Butler says. And that is that as far back as the 15th century, romantic matches were being made by lottery in mid February in Europe. Given the prominence of Classical origins in many of our old customs, Butler perhaps can be forgiven for attributing Roman roots to what was a common medieval custom.
From sources that document this tradition, it would appear that this wasn't necessarily a serious practice - back in those times marriages were carefully arranged affairs to consolidate land, titles and power. Rather it seems to have been a playful game popular in the courts of kings and nobles. It was so popular and widespread that later the custom spread down through society and down through the ages, to the extent it was still being played in 19th century - with Scottish poet Robert Burns mentioning choosing a valentine by drawing lots in the song Tam Glen. Indeed rather than betrothal by lottery, it appears to have been more cross between a party game and a sort of loose form of divination.
But having debunked the Roman origins, where does this curious custom of romance by chance come from, and why the association between romance and mid February? Well it would appear we can blame Chaucer for this. Actually that is possibly a little unfair - rather it is in a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer that we have the first recorded instance of an odd medieval belief that was to set this romantic ball rolling. In Parlement of Foules, thought to have been penned around 1382, Chaucer writes -
For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.
And for those of you who don't speak Middle English that means -
For this was on St. Valentine's Day,
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.
Yes, in medieval lore there was said to be an exact day when our feathered friends paired up for the year, a date for the annual marriage of the birds. And this is the seed of both the drawing of lots custom, and later of Valentine's Day itself.
Now some scholars have questioned whether Chaucer's "seynt Volantynys day" actually refers to February 14th. They claim that later an astronomical process called the precession of the equinoxes would have changing the date of the start of spring, and therefore when Chaucer was writing it would be too early in the year for birds to be mating. So then, it has been suggested that perhaps he was referring to the later celebration of another Valentine, the feast of Valentine of Genoa which falls on May 3rd in the liturgical calendar.
However the idea he might not have been referencing February 14th is based on the underlying assumption that Chaucer is referring to an actual belief concerning the nature of birds. But examining scholarly interpretations of the poem, this marriage of the birds is often considered to be a poetic invention for his narrative. Partly this is due to there being no other written precedent for this belief, it is only every mentioned in other poems by John Gower, Otton de Grandson and Pardo of Valencia. And difficulties in dating all these worthy gentlemen's verses make it impossible to say whether they were written before or after Chaucer put quill to vellum. Either way it would appear to be a poetic conceit rather than authentic folklore, for the mythic tone and themes of Parlement of Foules, rather suggest it is a legend invented specially for the narrative of the verse.
But if we are to entertain the possibility that Chaucer was documenting actual contemporary lore, which have have lost other sources for, it would still be most unwise to assume that folks of his time believed in an actual marriage of birds occurring on a set day. Firstly bear in mind that the people of Chaucer's day lived in an agrarian society and were far more aware of the habits and life cycles of local wildlife than us modern townies, and hence they were very unlikely to believe such a whimsical idea. Furthermore medieval people, very much at the mercy of the whims of the British climate, would know very well that despite the vernal equinox marking the start of spring in astronomical and calendar terms, in reality spring coming was a variable event, dependent on the local weather. Some years it would come early and birds indeed may start nesting in February, but in other years February might be lost in swathes of snow, still in the depths of winter. Therefore there could have been no real expectation that spring would actually have to start on any arbitrary date.
A modern analogy would be having a white Christmas - that is what is depicted in our seasonal imagery, and what we hope for, but we know that it is not guaranteed, or timetabled to snow at the end of December. The medieval world view was one that was rich in symbol, allegory and metaphor, and hence if February 14th was popularly held to be the date of the marriage of the birds, it would be understood as a symbolic event marking the coming of spring, and not as biology or natural history. Therefore we can safe assume that Chaucer meant the usual date, and as further evidence will confirm.
But no matter where it originates, whether as poetic fancy or a genuine lost piece of medieval lore, the link between St.Valentine's Day and romantic love had been made. And thanks to its appearances in poetry, the idea soon gained popularity. This was after all the age when 'courtly love' was all the rage, and poets like Chaucer were its standard bearers in literature. Therefore it is perhaps unsurprising that Valentine's Day was to become the focus for romantic activities. Now as to which St. Valentine's Day Chaucer is referring, confirmation that it was the usual date comes around two decades later. For King Charles V of France held an event named 'The Court of Love' on the 14th of February in the year 1400, which featured feasting, jousting and competitions in writing amorous verse. This is widely accepted to be the very first St. Valentine's Day party.
Further into the 15th century, we have the earliest valentine love poems appearing, and into the sixteenth century we have Chaucer's bird tradition and the love customs now fused together, with poets Michael Drayton and Robert Herrick referring to the avian lore in their love poems To His Valentine and To His Valentine On St. Valentine's Day. And so Valentine's Day has been a tradition since the 15th century, and rather than emerging from a Christian whitewash of surviving Graeco-Roman pagan activities as Butler suggested, it would seem that our Valentine's customs are more the product of the culture and literature of courtly love that flourished in the Middle Ages. Indeed even the legends attached to St. Valentine that link him to the practice of sending cards are an addition to his mythology that appear well after the courtly love culture had invented and popularized Valentine's Day. And so despite having a saint's name and feast day, our Valentine's customs have their roots in literature and court entertainments rather than religious rites, pagan or Christian. Essentially it is a product of medieval pop culture!
However the traditions have shifted and changed over the centuries. Most recently, in the latter years of the 20th century, Valentine's Day has became increasingly a couples' carnival - indeed to the extent it is regularly joked that old St. Val is now the patron saint of making single people feel like shit. But in centuries past it was more a day for finding love than celebrating an established relationship. And while love tokens were sent out to win hearts, it was also a day for a spot of romantic divination. So then let's round off with a look at some of the various charms and rites you could use to find yourself a valentine.
Some were not dissimilar to the Valentine lotteries detailed above, allowing the forces of random chance to reveal your romantic destiny. For example, there was this common custom - you could write the names of possible beaus on strips of paper, wrap them up in clay, and then drop the clay pellets into a bowl of water - which ever roses to the surface first would reveal the name of your true love.
In the poem The Shepherd's Week (1714) in the section Thursday, or The Spell, John Gay mentions another Valentine's folk belief (alongside many more similar charms and rites) -
Last Valentine, the day when birds of kind,
Their paramours with mutual chirpings find,
I early rose, just at the break of day,
Before the sun had chas'd the stars away;
A-field I went, amid the morning dew,
To milk my kine (for so should house-wives do).
Thee first I spied, and the first swain we see,
In spite of Fortune, shall our true love be.
Yes, from the 17th century right up to the 1920s, there was the superstition that the first person of the opposite sex you see on Valentine's Day morning was to be your valentine for that year. Regardless of who they were - the only stricture was that they were single. Unsurprisingly there are reports of an attendant tradition of young folks going about blindfolded or staying in indoors on Valentine's Day!
In a similar vein, and in a thankfully less arbitrary fashion, there also was folklore regarding the meaning of the first thing you saw on Valentine's Day morning. In Derbyshire, it was the custom to peep through the keyhole of the front door and divine your romantic prospects from what you saw - if you saw a single object or person, then you would be single for the rest of the year. If you saw two things or people together, you would be destined to meet some one special in the next twelve months. And if you spotted a cock and hen together, you would be married before the next Valentine's Day came around.
Keeping on the avian theme, and tying in nicely the old Chaucerian ideas of the bird "marriages", it was also said that the first bird a young lady saw on Valentine's Day morning was an omen of her future marriage prospects. There are several variations as to which bird means what but common ones are as follows - if it was a robin, she would marry a sailor, a blackbird signified a clergyman. A sparrow promised wedding a poor man but a happy married life, while a goldfinch presaged a wealthy husband to come. But a woodpecker meant you would forever stay single and never marry.
For the more adventurous, it was said that if you went to a graveyard at midnight the night before Valentine's Day, and ran round the church twelve times, then the ghostly shape of your future lover would appear before you. And finally if you had a very strong stomach you could try the following ritual to invoke a vision of your lover to be on Valentine's Eve. It starts simply enough - gather five bay leaves and pin them to your pillow, one in each corner and one in the middle. According to some versions, you must now sprinkle it with rosewater. Next take an egg, and hard boil it. Then slice it in half, remove the yolk and fill the cavity with salt. Yes, all of it! Then before going to bed you eat this specially prepared egg. And again - all of it! Yes, including the shell! Then after this highly unusual supper, before going to sleep, you recite the following charm -
Good valentine, be kind to me; In dreams, let me my true love see.
And provided that a) you aren't up all night suffering with hideous indigestion, and b) can actually get a wink of sleep for bay leaves poking your face, you will then - allegedly - see the face of your one true love in your dreams.
DISCLAIMER - The management accepts no responsibility for any ills that may befall you should you try this at home!
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