Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Would you be my Lupercalian?

Every February, across the country, candy, flowers, and gifts are exchanged between loved ones, all in the name of St. Valentine. But who is this mysterious saint and why do we celebrate this holiday? The history of Valentine's Day — and its patron saint — is shrouded in mystery and contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition. At that time it was the custom in Rome in the month of February to celebrate the Lupercalia, feasts in honour of a heathen god. On these occasions, amidst a variety of pagan ceremonies, the names of young women were placed in a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed. So, who was Saint Valentine and how did he become associated with this ancient rite?

Under the rule of Emperor Claudius II, Rome was involved in many bloody and unpopular campaigns. Claudius the Cruel was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues. He believed that the reason was that roman men did not want to leave their lovers or families. As a result, Claudius cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome. The good Saint Valentine was a priest at Rome in the days of Claudius II. He and Saint Marius aided the Christian martyrs and secretly married couples, and for this kind deed Saint Valentine was apprehended and dragged before the Prefect of Rome, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off. He suffered martyrdom on the 14th day of February, about the year 270.

According to folklore, Valentine actually sent the first 'valentine' greeting himself. While in prison, it is believed that Valentine fell in love with a young girl — who may have been his jailor's daughter — who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter, which he signed 'From your Valentine,' an expression that is still in use today. Although the truth behind the Valentine legends is murky, the stories certainly emphasize his appeal as a sympathetic, heroic, and, most importantly, romantic figure. It's no surprise that by the Middle Ages, Valentine was one of the most popular saints in England and France.

While some believe that Valentine's Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of Valentine's death or burial, others claim that the Catholic Church may have decided to celebrate Valentine's feast day in the middle of February in an effort to 'christianize' the pagan celebrations of the Lupercalia festival. In ancient Rome, February was the official beginning of spring and was considered a time for purification. Houses were ritually cleansed by sweeping them out and then sprinkling salt and a type of wheat called spelt throughout their interiors. Lupercalia, which began at the ides of February, February 15, was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at the sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would then sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. Luperci, Lupercalia, and Lupercal all relate to the Latin for 'wolf' lupus, as do various Latin words connected with brothels. The Latin for she-wolf was slang for prostitute. The legends say that Romulus and Remus were nursed by a she-wolf in the Lupercal. Servius, a 4th century pagan commentator on Vergil, says that it was in the Lupercal that Mars ravished and impregnated the twins' mother.

The boys then sliced the goat's hide into strips, dipped them in the sacrificial blood and took to the streets, gently slapping both women and fields of crops with the goathide strips. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed being touched with the hides because it was believed the strips would make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. Each young man would draw a girl's name from the jar and would then be partners for the duration of the festival with the girl whom he chose. Sometimes the pairing of the children lasted an entire year, and often, they would fall in love and would later marry.

Sacrifice, which was a part of Roman ritual, had been prohibited since 341, but the Lupercalia survived beyond this date. The pastors of the early Catholic Church in Rome endeavoured to do away with the pagan element in these feasts by substituting the names of saints for those of maidens. And as the Lupercalia began about the middle of February, the pastors appear to have chosen Saint Valentine's Day for the celebration of this new feast. So it seems that the custom of young men choosing maidens for valentines, or saints as patrons for the coming year, arose in this way.

Generally, the end of the Lupercalia festival is attributed to Pope Gelasius (494-496). It may have been another late fifth century pope, Felix III. The ritual had become important to the civic life of Rome and was believed to help prevent pestilence, but as the pope charged, it was no longer being performed in the proper manner. Instead of the noble families running around naked, riffraff was running around clothed. The pope also mentioned that it was more a fertility festival than a purification rite and there was pestilence even when the ritual was performed. The pope's lengthy document seems to have put an end to the celebration of Lupercalia in Rome, but in Constantinople the festival continued to the tenth century. Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine's Day around 498 A.D. The Roman 'lottery' system for romantic pairing was deemed un-Christian and outlawed.

Lupercalia is one of the most ancient of the Roman holidays (listed on ancient calendars from even before the time Julius Caesar reformed the calendar) and is familiar to us today for two main reasons. It is associated with Valentine's Day and it is the setting for Caesar's refusal of the crown that was made immortal by Shakespeare, in his Julius Caesar.The Lupercalia may be the longest lasting of the Roman pagan festivals.

Lupercalia started out as a fun event with spectators serving occasionally as willing participants. Naked bodies were unusually exposed to view. There was a fertility component. There was food from the sacrificial animal. Everything centered around the place where the Vestal Virgin was raped by the god Mars in order to conceive the founder of Rome, Romulus. It's this blend of pagan worship, fertility and erotic elements, as well as the date, that ties Lupercalia to Valentine's Day.


We continue as a nation to pray for God's blessings while practicing pagan rituals and celebrations. We think God doesn't hear us. Did it ever occur to us that maybe it's not that He doesn't hear us but that He won't hear us?

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2Tim 3:1-7 (KJV) This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. (2) For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, (3) Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, (4) Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; (5) Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. (6) For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, (7) Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
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Refs. http://www.pictureframes.co.uk/pages/saint_valentine.htm
http://www.history.com/content/valentine/history-of-valentine-s-day
http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/socialcustomsdailylife/a/010908Lupercal.htm

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