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Monday, February 14, 2005

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 The pagan origins of Valentines Day

If you want to annoy your religious friends who insist that today is named after a saint, remind them that Valentines Day is just one more celebration that the Catholic Church hijacked from the pre-christian pagans.

The celebration did indeed originate as a pagan tradition in the third century. During this time hordes of hungry wolves roamed outside of Rome where shepherds kept their flocks. The God Lupercus, was said to watch over the shepherds and their flocks and keep them from the wolves. Every February the Romans celebrated a feast called Lupercalia to honor Lupercus so that no harm would come to the shepherds and their flocks. The focal point of this festival was a site on the Palatine hill: the Lupercal, the cave in which, according to legend, the wolf suckled Romulus and Remus.

February occurred later on the ancient Roman calendar than it does today, so Lupercalia was held in the spring and regarded as a festival of purification and fertility. The ritual involved the sacrifice of goats and a dog in the Lupercal by priests who smeared the foreheads of two noble young men with the blood of the sacrificed animals and then wiped it off. The priests, clothed only in loincloths, then ran about the area, lashing everyone they met with strips of skin from the sacrificed goats. Young wives were particularly eager to receive these blows, because it was believed that the ritual promoted fertility and easy childbirth. Of course, these ceremonies were accompanied by much revelry and drinking :)

Apropos to today's traditions, the names of young women were put into a box and names were drawn by lot. The boys and girls who were matched would be considered partners for the year, which began in March.

This celebration continued long after wolves were a problem to Rome.

As Christianity began to slowly and systematically dismantle the pagan pantheons, it frequently replaced the festivals of the pagan gods with more ecumenical celebrations. Lupercalia, with its lover lottery, had no place in the new Christian order.

In 494 AD, Pope Gelasius I made February 15 the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. Two years later, Gelasius did away with the festival of Lupercalia, citing that it was pagan and immoral. He chose Valentine as the patron saint of lovers, who would be honored at the new festival on the fourteenth of every February. The church decided to come up with its own lottery and so the feast of St. Valentine featured a lottery of Saints. One would pull the name of a saint out of a box, and for the following year, study and attempt to emulate that saint.

Leave it to the Catholic Church to take the fun out of a party....

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