Was Lupercalia a Precursor to St. Valentine’s Day?
Lupercalia was held every year, on the 15 February in ancient Rome. It took place in the Lupercal, where Romulus and Remus were said to have been nurtured by a she-wolf. The Lupercal contained an altar and a grove sacred to the god Lupercus. Since St. Valentine’s Day is celebrated on 14 February many believe that there is a link between this ancient celebratory ritual and the romance of the latter. What actually happened on Lupercalia and is there a link to Valentine’s Day?
The Luperci, who were priests dedicated to Lupercus, assembled on the day of the Lupercalia. They sacrificed animals, namely goats and young dogs, to Lupercus. Lupercus was a fertility God and these animals were specifically chosen because of their strong sexual instinct. Two male Luperci youths of noble birth were then led to the older Luperci. One of the priests then touched their foreheads with a sword dipped in the sacrificial blood. Another priest immediately wiped off the bloody spots with wool dipped in milk. The two youths were then expected to break out into a shout of laughter. This ceremony is believed to be a symbolical purification of the shepherds Romulus and Remus.
After the sacrifice was over, the Luperci partook of a meal, at which they were plentifully supplied with wine. They then cut the skins of the goats which they had sacrificed, into pieces. They covered parts of their body in imitation of the god Lupercus, who was represented half naked and half covered with goatskin. They cut other pieces of the skins into thongs, and ran through the streets of the city, touching or striking persons whom they met in their way, with the thongs.
Women especially came forward willingly, since they believed that this ceremony rendered them fruitful and eased the pains of childbearing. Running with goatskin thongs was considered a purification of the land and that of touching persons a purification of men and women. The goatskin itself was called februum and over time the festive day became “dies februata” and the month in which it occurred Februarius.
Apart from similar dates, links between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day are tenuous. The two only get equated in the 20th century, partly due to fundamentalist Christians wanting to attack Roman Catholic celebrations and discredit them as pagan. A lover’s festival, however, doesn’t necessarily derive from the ancient fertility rites and flagellation by goats.
There is actually no shred of historical evidence for the connection. In fact, St. Valentine’s Day was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496 CE in honour of the Christian martyr, St. Valentine of Rome, who was executed on that date in 269 CE.
Saint Valentine was imprisoned for performing weddings to soldiers who were forbidden to marry and for ministering to Christians persecuted by the Roman Empire. According to legend, Valentine restored sight to the blind daughter of his judge and wrote her a letter signed “Your Valentine” as a farewell before his execution.