Before there were chocolate, roses, and sentimental cards, there were animal sacrifices, whippings, and nakedness. It must have been quite a party!
Early celebrations of the holiday that would eventually be known as Valentine’s Day were a bit more raucous than our modern-day traditions. As with most Christian-based holidays, there was a pagan festival that preceded it.
Lupercalia was the ancient pagan fertility festival of February. Lupercalia centered around purification and fertility, with its own unique rites and rituals. Lupercus is a god associated with shepherds and wolves (similar to the Greek god, Pan).
Members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, gathered at a sacred cave where the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were believed to have been cared for by Lupa. Lupa was a she-wolf that suckled the orphans before these human children were found and saved by shepherds.
The festival would have been an important time to keep your dog on a short leash. A dog and two goats, representing fertility and purification, were sacrificed for the event. Strips of skin from these animals were wrapped around the priest’s waists.
Clad only in these skin belts, the priests ran around the city in revelry and rapture. In their hands were goatskin thongs that they used to lightly whip bystanders and those in the streets. Women would intentionally get in the priests’ way in the hopes of getting swatted. These strikes were purported to increase fertility, ease childbirth, and cure barrenness.
In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Lupercalia is featured prominently. Knowing that Antonius will be running as one of the priests in the festival, Caesar instructs his wife, Calpurnia, “Stand you directly in Antonius’ way, when he doth run his course.” And to Antonius, “Forget not, in your speed, Antonius, to touch Calpurnia; for our elders say, The barren touched in his holy chase, shake off their sterile curse.”
It is unfortunate that Caesar trusts so completely this superstition, but not the one that follows immediately on its heels: Just as he finishes speaking to Antonius, a soothsayer slips up and warns him to “beware the Ides of March,” the day he will be assassinated.
This erotic festival was also sacred to Juno Februata, goddess of the fevers of love and namesake of the month of February.
As Christianity strengthened, ancient Roman rituals, paganism, deity worship, and other such un-Christian traditions were eliminated. But the celebration of purification continued: Lupercalia was eventually outlawed in the 5th century, and in its place came the feast of the Virgin Mary, or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin (Candlemas), and eventually the modern Valentine’s Day. The martyrdom of a man named Valentine on Feb. 14, the day before the Lupercalia, sealed his sainthood and this date on the Christian calendar.
Though today’s holiday bears little resemblance to naked runs of priests and animal butchery, it does invite thoughts of wild life, purity, and fertility. The hearts that symbolize the day may be echoes of the animal hearts solemnly sacrificed by the Roman priests, or the heart of a martyred saint. Today’s hand-drawn or store-bought Valentine hearts remind us that even deep in the midst of winter, life, love and romance endure.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.