The Origin of St. Valentine's Day: The Pagan Festival of Lupercalia
Valentine's Day is another one of those well known traditions thought to have Christian origins but actually grew from Pagan rituals. BibleStudy.org outlines the history of the conversion and we have some other detailed information on the Festival of Lupercalia where it all began.
In 313 A.D. Roman Emperor Constantine the Great legalized Christianity and ended Rome's persecution of Christians. In 380 A.D. Christianity is made the OFFICIAL state religion of the Roman Empire. These actions not only enabled the teachings of Christianity to spread unhindered within the empire, it encouraged non-Christians to convert to the once-persecuted religion.
The pagans, however, who adopted Christianity as their religion did not entirely abandon the traditions and practices they held before their "conversion." One of these traditions brought into the church was the fertility celebration known as the Lupercalia:
"Yet the vestiges of superstition were not absolutely obliterated, and the festival of the Lupercalia, whose origin had preceded the foundation of Rome, was still celebrated under the reign of Anthemius." (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbons, Chapter 36, Part 3)
Western Roman Emperor Anthemius ruled the empire from 467 to 472 A.D. Mr. Gibbons goes on to state:
"After the conversion of the Imperial city (Rome), the Christians still continued, in the month of February, the annual celebration of the Lupercalia; to which they ascribed a secret and mysterious influence on the genial powers of the animal and vegetable world. "
Valentine's Day Card from Victorian Era
Twenty-four years after the death of Emperor Anthemius a "christianized" form of the festival of Lupercalia was officially adopted by the church as a day to honor a saint - St. Valentine:
"As far back as 496 A.D., (Catholic) Pope Gelasius changed Lupercalia on February 15 to St. Valentine's Day on February 14." (Customs and Holidays Around the World by Lavinia Dobler).
"Early Christians were happier with the idea of a holiday honoring the saint of romantic causes than with one recognizing a pagan festival. In 496 A.D., Pope Gelasius named February 14 in honor of St. Valentine as the patron saint of lovers. " (How Valentine's Day Works, Apr. 1, 2000, retrieved Jan. 11, 2011)
Here's more on the Festival of Luercalia which celebrated the rites of Purification and Fertility. Here's a little about the rites:
A certain element of the lupercalia was related to fertility. The Romans began as shepherds according to legend and Ovid suggests that the ancient origins of the festival lay in imported rites of Pan rededicated to the god Faunus in his role of god of the herds.
The rites were also linked to human fertility. Female bystanders were slapped with the goatskin throngs in order to ensure reproduction and it was common for those who wanted to become pregnant to put themselves in the way of the luperci.
This part of the rite dates to the time of Romulus. After the abduction of the Sabine women, the Romans wished to ensure that their marriages produced children. The goddess Juno was consulted in her sacred grove and instructed the citizens to instigate the rite of the goatskin straps.
If you are looking for even more of the legends behind St. Valentine and the road to the holiday, check out this article from Magickal Winds.
As Christianity began to slowly and systematically dismantle the pagan pantheons, it frequently replaced the festivals of the pagan gods with more ecumenical celebrations. It was easier to convert the local population if they could continue to celebrate on the same days… they would just be instructed to celebrate different people and ideologies.
Lupercalia, with its lover lottery, had no place in the new Christian order. In the year 496 AD, Pope Gelasius did away with the festival of Lupercalia, citing that it was pagan and immoral. He chose Valentine as the patron saint of lovers, who would be honored at the new festival on the fourteenth of every February. The church decided to come up with its own lottery and so the feast of St. Valentine featured a lottery of Saints. One would pull the name of a saint out of a box, and for the following year, study and attempt to emulate that saint.
Confusion surrounds St Valentine’s exact identity. At least three Saint Valentines are mentioned in the early martyrologies under the date of February 14th. One is described as a priest in Rome, another as a Bishop of Interamna, now Terni in Italy, and the other lived and died in Africa.
Image from Koshyk on Flickr
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