Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Saint Valentine

Instead of chocolates or flowers, why not smear your Valentine with the skinned hide of a goat?

As well as lovers, Saint Valentine is patron saint of bee-keeping, epilepsy, fainting, plague, teenagers and distant travels. We tend not to focus on these other items on February 14th (Valentine’s Day since the Fifth Century AD.)  February is named after a Roman festival of purification. Strips of grisly goat skin were called februa, the verb “to purify” was februare. Grisly goat skin? Valentine’s Day? Where’s Cupid in all this?

Cupid in various guises....


Imagine gathering at a sacred cave where you believe the baby boy twins Romulus and Remus were reared and suckled by wolves (wolves in Latin = lupi.) Imagine sacrificing a goat for fertility and a dog for purification. Imagine two naked youths taking bloody strips of the goat’s skin and wetly slapping the crops to make them grow. Imagine those nude teenagers then turning to local women and swatting them with the same bits of gory flesh in the hope that the sacrifical blood would make the women fertile. Imagine to end the day all the young women place their names in a big urn and the city’s bachelors come along to choose a name; these matched pairs then stay together for a year – either resulting in marriage or the parting of the ways and another turn next year. This festival of Lupercalia was banned at the end of the Fifth Century by Pope Gelasius (great name, not a flavour of ice cream!) who declared February 14th would now be known as Saint Valentine’s Day and there would be no more naked yoofs slapping folk with bloody goat hide.
The joys of Lupercalia

Blind Cupid

So, for Valentine’s Day, we send cheesy cards, boxes of chocolates and flowers today, instead of sacrificing goats…. All the main Christian festivals are attached to pagan days, as a way in the past of the Church “Christianising” them but I think most people sending flowers on February 14th will hardly be giving a thought to the bloody goats strips or even the original Saint Valentine. Most people prefer to think they are following the tradition that Cupid, the god of love, was son of Venus, a female deity associated with love and that worshippers of Venus used to bring sweets and flowers to her altar.
What's Saint Valentine got to do with it, if anything?

The historical Saint Valentine

As far as we can tell, Valentine was beheaded and buried around AD 270. Emperor Claudius II had executed him for performing marriages outside the rule of the clergy. Apparently whilst in prison Valentine fell in love with the jailer’s daughter (who may or may not have been blind) and his final letter to her before his death was signed “Your Valentine.” There are, as ever, several other variations of the Saint Valentine origin story. Chaucer himself may have invested the name of Valentine with courtly love through his satirical Parliament of Foules, written around 1382. Shakespeare certainly imprinted it forever with his portrayal of the faithful Valentine in Two Gentlement of Verona, a contrast to the more macho and devious Proteus, both best friends who fall for the same woman in one of literature’s archetypal triangles.
Proteus and Valentine, Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona