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Valentine's Day: Religious Origins and Background

Pagan Origins of Valentine's Day


At first, the connection between Valentine’s Day and religion might seem obvious — isn’t the day named after a Christian saint? When we consider the matter more closely, we find that there isn’t a strong relationship between Christian saints and romance. We should then realize that our initial ideas may have been too hasty. To gain a better understanding of the religious background of Valentine’s Day, we have to dig deeper.

There is a lot of debate and disagreement among scholars about the origins of Valentine’s Day. We’ll probably never be able to disentangle all of the cultural and religious threads in order to reconstruct a complete and coherent story. The origins of Valentine’s Day lie too far in the past to be sure about everything. Despite this, there are a number of speculations we can make which are reasonably sound.

For one thing, we know that the Romans celebrated a holiday on February 14th to honor Juno Fructifier, Queen of the Roman gods and goddesses, and that on February 15th they celebrated the Feast of Lupercalia in honor of Lupercus, the Roman god who watched over shepherds and their flocks. Neither of these appear to have much to do with love or romance, but there were a number of customs focused on fertility which were associated with one feast or the other. Although attributions vary depending on the source, they are consistent in their description of the rituals.

In one, men would go to a grotto dedicated to Lupercal, the wolf god, which was located at the foot of Palatine Hill. It was here the Romans believed that the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by a she-wolf. It was also here that the men would sacrifice a goat, don its skin, and then proceed to run around, hitting women with small whips. These actions were taken in imitation of the god Pan and supposedly a women struck in this way would be guaranteed fertility during the next year.

In another ritual, women would submit their names to a common box and men would each draw one out. These two would be a couple for the duration of the festival (and at times for the entire following year). Both rituals were designed to promote not only fertility, but also life generally.

Our modern festival isn’t called St. Lupercus’ Day, it’s called St. Valentine’s Day after a Christian saint — so where does Christianity come into play? That’s more difficult for historians to decipher. There was more than one person with the name Valentinius who existed during the early years of the church, two or three of whom were martyred.

More: Christians Take Over Valentine's Day »

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