Most Christian holidays are based on older pagan ones, and Valentine’s Day is no exception; like Christmas, the modern celebration of love has much darker origins in a very ancient Greek festival which involved human sacrifice and cannibalism. The original reason for the festival of Lykaia is unknown, but it was held in Arcadia sometime in the spring (possibly May Eve but this is by no means certain) from roughly the beginning of the third millennium BCE and involved adolescent boys; it may have been a manhood ritual but also seems to have involved some recognition of the bestial side of humanity. When the worship of Zeus was introduced to the area, a myth arose (very similar to that of Tantalus) that the native god Lycaon was overthrown by Zeus after serving one of his own sons to the god at a banquet; such myths demonstrate the abhorrence of the later Greeks for the human sacrifice practiced by their ancestors. But in the case of the Lykaia, the ancient habit continued on in a sort of grisly game of Russian Roulette; every nine years one who had broken a taboo by entering a sacred cave was sacrificed and a small portion of his meat was mixed into the meat of a slaughtered goat, and whichever young man consumed this nasty surprise at the sacrificial feast was believed to turn into a werewolf.
In later times the festival became associated with the god Pan, and in this form (without the human sacrifice) it was carried into Italy. There it merged with the pre-Roman festival Februa (from which is derived the word “February”), a ritual cleansing very much like the Celtic and Germanic Imbolc; the combined festival was called Lupercalia (“Wolf Festival”) and ran from February 13th-15th. It honored both Lupercus (one of the Roman names of Pan) and Lupa, the she-wolf who had suckled Romulus and Remus; they were invoked to protect the new kids and lambs from wolves in the months to come. The celebrants were, as in the Lykaia, young men, and over time the blessing conferred by the ritual grew beyond the flocks and was believed to affect human women as well. As Plutarch wrote in his Life of Caesar:
Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.
The ceremonies were presided over by the Luperci, goatskin-wearing priests of Lupercus (also called Faunus), who sacrificed a dog and two billy goats and anointed younger priests with the blood. After the sacrificial feast the Luperci would cut rough strips from the skins of the sacrificed goats and then young men of the equestrian and senatorial classes would run around the Palatine Hill swinging these makeshift lashes; girls and young women would line up along the parade route because it was believed that being struck by the whips conferred a blessing which would ensure fertility and ease the pains of childbirth. This popular celebration was eventually abandoned by the upper classes around the time of Julius Caesar, but it remained popular with the lower classes into Christian times until its observance was banned by Pope Gelasius I in 496.
It isn’t too difficult to understand how a festival of fertility eventually became a holiday celebrating love, but what does it have to do with a Christian saint? The answer, I’m afraid, is “nothing at all”. Though there were several early martyrs by the name of Valentine, the only things known about the one whose feast day was February 14th are 1) that he was buried along the Via Flaminia north of Rome on that day in the year 270 or thereabouts; and 2) that Pope Gelausius I established his feast day the same year he abolished Lupercalia. Legends tell us that St. Valentine married young couples in violation of an (otherwise unheard-of) imperial edict forbidding the marriages, and that his letter to his sweetheart from prison was signed “From Your Valentine”. But these legends date only to the late 14th century and do not appear in any hagiographies before that. Indeed, the concept of St. Valentine’s Day as a time for romantic love seems to have largely been the idea of Geoffrey Chaucer, who in his Parlement of Foules (1382) wrote: “For this was on seynt Volantynys day/Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” Why Chaucer chose to portray birds as mating in mid-February is immaterial; the important thing is that it (pardon the pun) dovetailed neatly with the growing popularity of the idea of courtly love, and Chaucer, his friends and his readers quickly established the day as an occasion for displays of romance. The French established a “high court of love” on St. Valentine’s Day of 1400, and the earliest surviving handwritten valentine dates to 1415.
By the end of the 18th century English printers were producing valentine cards, and by the 1840s mass-produced valentines were the rule rather than the exception; these valentines were among the first popular printed greeting cards and Valentine’s Day was the first commercialized holiday (by which I mean a secular holiday heavily promoted by merchants as an excuse for gift-giving). But it wasn’t until the 1950s that American merchants began to sell the holiday as an occasion for giving flowers, chocolates and the like, and beginning in the 1980s jewelers upped the ante by presenting the day as one on which to give diamonds. From werewolves to teddy bears and from cannibalism to chocolates; what changes a holiday can undergo in 5000 years!
(This essay previously appeared in The Honest Courtesan on February 14th, 2011; it has been slightly modified to fit the Cliterati format.)