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I’m With Cupid

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 life.

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.

—Tom Nattell


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