Today is Valentine’s Day. Feb. 14 is a date in American culture
that has evolved into a day of cards, candy, candlelight,
conversation, cuddling and a host of other “c” words that
often include the economic foreplay of the clinging of cash
registers. Valentine’s Day is a day for confessing passion
from the heart, and also a significant midwinter spike in
the nation’s economic pulse. All those Valentine’s Day accessories
add up to a hefty chunk of change, which might lead one to
conclude that the day’s origin springs from corporate decisions
about how to convert love into profit. With the help of a
little research, I found the day has an interesting history
that goes back well before the invention of corporations,
intertwining the legends of a Christian martyr and the mythological
exploits of an ancient fertility god.
Valentine’s Day started out as the feast day of St. Valentine.
Feb. 14 was declared St. Valentine’s Day by Pope Gelasius
in 496 A.D. (and dropped from the Roman Catholic calendar
in 1969). The date was chosen because it was on that day in
270 A.D. that the feast day’s namesake was beheaded and became
a martyr. This date may also have been chosen to provide religious
competition for an old Roman fertility celebration that occurred
on the following day. While the setting of the feast date
is clearly documented, details about St. Valentine remain
a bit cloudy.
Among Christian martyrs, there appear to be at least three
different St. Valentines, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.
One was a priest in Rome, another a bishop from Terni (Italy),
and a third, about whom little is known, achieved martyrdom
in Africa. All went by the name of Valentinus. Some martyrologists
think that the Roman priest and the bishop from Terni may
be the same person, since both suffered similar acts of Roman
persecution in the late third century.
There are several different accounts explaining Emperor Claudius
II’s sentencing of St. Valentine (regardless of which one
he actually is). One portrays Valentinus as an avid Christian
proselytizer who went up against the official dictum prohibiting
such activity. Another ties the saint’s execution to his refusal
to abide by the emperor’s declaration that soldiers not marry
(Claudius II believed that unmarried warriors performed better
in battle). In secret, Valentinus persisted in performing
Christian marriage rituals in defiance of the ban. When the
secret got out, the emperor branded him a security risk and
called for his head.
OK, thus far in the story (whichever one you go for), there
isn’t a whole lot of loving going down, but between the time
of his imprisonment and his death, another Valentinus legend
picks up. This story involves the blind daughter of his jailer,
whom the soon-to-be martyr took under his tutorial wing until
summoned by the executioner. Valentinus left behind a note
for the young girl, who opened it and found inside a yellow
crocus. As she focused on the flower, her eyesight miraculously
returned. The message accompanying the crocus said, “From
your Valentine”—which some claim to be the earliest valentine.
These stories of St. Valentine portray a person who stood
up for his beliefs and helped others despite the ultimate
cost. While these stories provide some explanation of how
the word “valentine” came into current usage, the love and
sexuality associated with our marking of the day are absent.
St. Valentine became the patron saint of marriage, but the
love, attraction and desire associated with it would rely
on the resurgence of an ancient fertility god. It would be
up to Cupid to spice up the lovefest.
Cupid is a Roman god of love whose mother was Venus, the goddess
of love and beauty. His proper Roman name, Cupido, can be
translated as “desire” or “lust.” He appears to be a Romanized
version of the Greek god Eros, an ancient fertility god associated
with the more intimate aspects of love. The Greek poet Hesiod
(eighth century B.C.) wrote that Eros was one of the oldest
gods, basically a cosmogonic force that underlies life itself.
Without Eros, life would simply not be possible. No sex, no
Early renditions of Eros give him a well-proportioned mature
body with large feathered wings. His image would undergo major
age loss over the centuries, eventually assuming the body
of a young child we recognize as Cupid today. The god of love
started out working with a whip, which was upgraded in the
sixth century B.C. to a bow and quiver of love-inducing arrows.
His archery skills would subsequently play a supporting role
in generating the heat for numerous romantic liaisons of the
gods and, sometimes, targeted humans. The stories of Cupid/Eros
were stored and made available to successive generations through
poetry, plays and other written texts that survived the ages
and the rise of Christianity in Europe.
In the 15th century, romance would begin to blossom as part
of St. Valentine’s Day. During this time, there is evidence
that some Europeans began to associate the date with the pairing
of birds for mating. Perhaps the early fertility rites the
saint’s day hoped to supplant were based on similar wildlife
observations. Despite the attempts to eradicate “pagan rituals,”
some of the old ways seemed to persist.
As St. Valentine’s Day emerged from the Middle Ages, it began
to be associated more with the heat of love than the contract
of marriage. Handwritten messages of affection became popular,
and the first valentine card is ascribed to Charles, Duke
of Orleans, who in 1415 sent one to his wife while he was
serving time in the Tower of London.
Thanks to a religious martyr, an ancient fertility god and
the mating habits of birds, the celebration of love has become
part of our annual calendar cycle. It’s somewhat reassuring
that despite all the corporate marketing of Valentine’s Day
products, they can’t sell us what the day is all about: love.