Wednesday 13 February 2008

Valentine's Day: Sex and sacrifice

Valentine's Day might now be a time to send your partner a soppy card and take them out for an overpriced meal, but the pagan origins of the festival of love are far more visceral.

In ancient Rome, a fertil­ity festival called Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15. It was dedicated to the twin-founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, who were raised by wolves, according to legend.

By modern standards, Lupercalia was a bloodthirsty event. Crowds would gather to watch a goat being sacrificed. The officiating priest would then rub blood from the knife on to the fore­heads of two young people and cut strips of hide from the sacrificed animal. These were called Februa (a derivative of the word February). The youths would run though the streets whipping women with the bloody strips and daubing them with gore. It was believed this would increase fertility.

In the evening, names would be drawn from an urn and the selected couples paired off as lovers. The Romans did enjoy an excuse for an orgy.

In 496 AD, the Christian church replaced Lupercalia with the Festival of St Valentine. St Valentine had the reputation of being a friend to sweethearts by performing secret Christian marriages in Rome at a time when weddings had been forbidden by Emperor Claudius II. Claudius II believed marriage prevented men from being good soldiers. Upon hearing of Valentine's defiance, he had him put to death.

St Valentine was eventually removed from the Christian calendar in 1969 but the celebration of Valentine's Day had already long been distanced from Christian overtones.

One of the earliest forerunners of the modern Valentine card was written by a French­man, Charles, Duke of Orleans. Imprisoned in The Tower of London after the Battle of Agincourt, in 1415, he sent poems and rhymed love letters, or Valentines, to his wife.

The first commercial Valentine card appeared around 1800. By the 1830s they contained messages and were highly decorated, often with ribbons and lace. Symbols such as cherubs, cupids, hearts and flowers replaced the Christian icons of the celebration.

For more information on Lupercalia:

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