Love actually: Lupercalia and St. Valentine’s Day

Heather Greene —  February 14, 2017 — 1 Comment

TWH -Feb. 14 marks the secular holiday St. Valentine’s Day, complete with chocolates, hearts, roses, and all things that symbolize love. While this contemporary holiday is mired in overly-commercialized products and is considered inconsequential in some circles, the celebration does have spiritual roots and ties to deeper religious meaning.

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In ancient Rome, Feb. 15 marked the traditional festival of Lupercalia, which was an observance of fertility and the coming of spring. Lupercalia is considered a holiday sacred to the god Faunus, and the mythical she-wolf who reared Romulus and Remus, the semi-mythical founders of Rome. Lupercalia was considered an important holiday of religious observance and purification.

There have been many written accounts of what went on during Lupercalia, and some of these make it seem like simply an excuse for copulation and frivolity. One description comes from W. J. Kowalski’s Roman Calendar page.

The rites of this day included the sacrifice of a goat or a dog at the cave-grotto known as the Lupercal. With the sacrificial blood wiped across their foreheads, the youth partaking in this ceremony would then run the circumference of the Palatine hill, perhaps about 5K, tracing the traditional route of the city boundary traced by Romulus the day he founded Rome.

In the process, girls who approached the runners would be brushed or splattered with the februa, thongs of sacrificial goatskin, presumably bloody, symbolically blessing them with fertility. Red is the color of the day as it is with Valentine’s Day, the day invented to replace the Lupercalia. Fertility and sexuality were likewise replaced with the puritanical pipe dream of sexless love.

In a recent article on NPR, professor Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was quoted as saying, “The Roman romantics ‘were drunk. They were naked.’ The article then goes on to explain that there was also “matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.”

In a 2011 blog post, P. Sufenas Virius Lupus, a modern expert on the ancient festival of Lupercalia and its celebration, stated that the two holidays – St. Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia – actually have little in common:

The fertility here involved is not necessarily sexual fertility in women, though it was often thought to be such when the origins of the festival were eventually forgotten. It was fertility represented by the goat skin itself, a fertility of an agricultural and livestock sort.

The young men running the race were symbolically committing themselves to the protection of their communities, thus their race around its boundaries which indicated their area of influence and the “home territory” they were protecting. The young men who were Luperci underwent a part of the ritual earlier in which the blood from the sacrificed goat and dog were mixed together, dabbed on their foreheads with a knife, and then wiped off subsequently with wool dipped in milk, signifying their transition from a lawless, wild state into a settled and civilized mode of life. [from Lupercalia is not just for Pagan fetishes (15 Feb. 2011) ]

As Lupus describes, it is the “the fertility of the community’s resources, through this protection, is what is being celebrated, not necessarily (nor exclusively) the fertility of humans in reproduction.”

"Representation of Lupercal" From the portico of the Piazzale dei Corporazioni in Ostia, Antica. (98-117 CE). [Public Domain]

“Representation of Lupercal” From the portico of the Piazzale dei Corporazioni in Ostia, Antica. (98-117 CE). [Public Domain]

Lupercalia and its surviving lore are relatively unknown, overshadowed by St. Valentine’s Day. In fact, although the contemporary holiday is largely secular, the general population might be more able to identify the holiday’s Christian origins rather than those tied uniquely to the ancient Roman religious practice.

By some accounts, it was Pope Gelasius I who finally ended the surviving Lupercalia tradition in the fifth century C.E. by combining it with stories of a St. Valentine. According to Professor Lenski, “[The new feast day] was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it.That didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love.”

These new celebrations survived to some degree, eventually giving way to modern traditions.There are reportedly records of Valentine’s Day card exchanges as early as the 1400s.

However, historians note that there is very little historical data remaining to explain the origins of the St. Valentine aspect of the holiday’s story, or even who the real St. Valentine actually was. Some accounts say there was clearly one man named Valentine, where other stories say there may have been up to four.

In one tale, as told by a Catholic historian, Emperor Claudius II executed a Roman priest on Feb. 14 for marrying young people against the emperor’s will. Claudius was said to have believed that single men made better soldiers and didn’t want any marriages to occur until a man was finished with his service.The priest did not agree with the emperor’s edict nor, according to the story, did he agree with other widely-accepted cultural norms surrounding sexuality, fertility, and marriage. This priest continued to perform these ceremonies for young people in secret, but he was eventually caught and executed. He later became known as St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers.

Like many other similar secular holidays, the modern incarnation of St. Valentine’s Day brings with it a cultural whirlwind making it difficult to avoid. According to Nielsen reports, the February holiday runs neck-and-neck with Halloween and Easter every year in the race for top U.S. candy sales.

Despite St. Valentine’s Day’s consumerist trappings, many Pagans do attempt to weave their spiritual beliefs and magical work into the day’s energy. Priestess and author Lilith Dorsey told The Wild Hunt, “There is certainly some room for crossover appeal with this holiday. If only to celebrate and recognize that at this time, Valentine’s Day, so many people are focused on love. We can use this to amplify and expand on the love in our own lives. Focusing not just romantic love, but also love resonating with the universe, self love, love we have for family, friends, pets and last, but not least, our deities.”

Priestess and author Lilith Dorsey [Courtesy Photo]

Dorsey recently published a book called Love Magic, which is both an inspirational guide and practical resource on the subjects of “self-love, marriage, fertility, erotic adventures, and the ethics of love magic.”

“For me personally, the time from Imbolc up to Valentine’s Day has always been a special time for love magic,” Dorsey explained further. “Pay attention to your dreams during this time, if possible do readings concerning love. There are also plenty of spells and rituals in my book that will benefit from being performed at this time – everything from an aphrodisiac chocolate strawberry recipe to a self-love spell with 3 roses (rose water, rose of Jericho, and rose quartz.)”

Although today’s St. Valentine’s Day celebration focuses its attention on romantic love in an overtly commercial way, Dorsey sees a connection between her seasonal spiritual work and the secular traditions attributed to the modern holiday. She said, “We can definitely use their celebration items to our advantage.”

“There are a lot of elements of Valentine’s Day that we can use in our own real magick. Flowers, incense, chocolate, candles, all of these have their special place in invoking romance,” she explained.”It is almost as if the mundane world wants to be witches again for a day … as if Samhain wasn’t enough. Only kidding, but this is true because love is magickal for all of us.”

Dorsey added, “I never liked the saying, ‘keep Christ in Christmas,’ but we can certainly try to keep love in Valentine’s Day. Love is the emotion behind the creation of life itself, it should get more than one day it should get a whole year, but today’s a good start.”

Between the secular St. Valentine’s Day and the ancient feast of Lupercalia, the two days do present back-to-back opportunities for modern Pagans to celebrate and feast, in honor of love and fertility in whatever forms are deemed needed, desired, and appropriate.

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and journalist, living in the Deep South. Professionally, she has worked for Grey Advertising Global, Coca Cola Company and GCI. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League and has formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • “we can certainly try to keep love in Valentine’s Day. Love is the emotion behind the creation of life itself, it should get more than one day it should get a whole year, but today’s a good start.”
    Very nice sentiment that I think everyone can agree with.