It should be no news to anyone that our culture and civilization is deeply steeped in the myths and practices of the pagan ancient world. The names of the planets in our solar system, the months of the Julian calendar, our democratic institutions and even our current obsession with the Winter Olympics, all stem from traditions and practices that emerged thousands of years ago in the Mediterranean.
So, too, do our annual holidays (once known, of course, as Holy Days) mirror ancient pagan festivals. Easter is most clearly tied to northern European harvest festivals. Christmas derives directly from Solstice festivals in Greece and Rome. Even Thanksgiving, that most quintessential of American traditions, has its pagan roots. Each November Romans celebrated Cerelia by giving thanks to Ceres, Goddess of the Harvest and the Greeks gave honor to Demeter during the Thesmophoria.
Not surprisingly, Valentine’s Day is also loaded with pagan associations. The Romans called the festival the Lupercalia. Centuries before Christ, they celebrated February 15 and the evening of February 14 as an idolatrous and sensuous festival in honor of Lupercus, the “hunter of wolves”?
The deified hero-hunter of Rome was acknowledged when names of young women were put into a box and drawn out by men as chance directed. The man and woman (or teenagers in many cases) would pair off. The pairings would of course lead to sex and in some cases, to marriage a year later.
The Roman month of February, in fact, derives its name from the februa which the Roman priests used in the rites celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day. The febru were thongs from the skins of sacrificial animals used in rites of purification on the evening of February 14. Young men would run naked through city streets lightly slapping young women with the thong to encourage their fertility.
Lupercalia, with its lover lottery, had no place in the new Christian order. In the year 496 AD, Pope Gelasius did away with the festival, citing it as pagan and immoral. He chose Valentine ( a 3rd Century Christian martyr) 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.
Post-Christian advocates love to gloat over these pagan antecedents, further proof, in their minds, that all contemporary religion derives from essentially the same source and practices, whether it be worship of Zeus, worship of Baal or worship of Allah.
The question that remains, then is, does it really matter? What if these festivals were originally pagan? St. Valentine’s Day in the contemporary world is, after all, a pretty tame affair, given over to a schmaltzy celebration of love and stripped clean of any religious associations. There are no longer any saturnalian rites bound up with Valentine’s Day and this minor holiday is certainly a great boon to the economy during one of the darker months of the northern winter.
That might all be true but there is something definitely missing in our modern day commitment to this minor love festival: authenticity. Why celebrate festivals for the sake of celebrating them? Why give in to the social expectation of giving cards, exchanging presents or renewing vows based on customs which have nothing to do with our belief system and tied to ancient practices of pagans, which, no matter how distant, somehow make our own actions a mirror of theirs? Do we really need a day in the calendar in order to express love to another that should otherwise be a constant?
The late great Allan Bloom once said: “Authentic values are those by which a life can be lived, which can form a people that produces great deeds and thoughts. ”
Maybe that is something we should think about as we wrap up our boxes of chocolates , write our trite sentimental messages and scrawl our signatures on our heart festooned Valentine’s cards this February 14.