We miss the good old days. Remember when we’d get drunk, slaughter wild animals, butcher them into strips, dip the thongs in blood and run through the streets whipping maidens?
Oh wait, that wasn’t us. That was the Romans. Those knuckleheads knew how to party. In honor of the marriage of Zeus and Hera, the Athenians had recognized January 15th to February 15th as the month of fertility, known as Gamelion. The Romans took it one step further, and dedicated that last day to Lupercus, who was a half-naked goat-man. Honest. On Lupercus’ day, the Roman priests would slaughter goats, walk the streets and touch citizens with the bloody pieces. Young women came forward eagerly, hoping to ensure their fertility and an easy childbirth. (Like an early Beatles concert, only bloodier.) At the end of the event, single men and women would draw each other’s names out of an urn, to be pledged to each other for, um…well…you know.
But then the kill-joys showed up. Can you guess who? In 313, Emperor Constantine issued the edict of Milan, which was intended to increase religious tolerance for splinter groups like Christians. But since Constantine WAS a Christian, the effect was to put the Christians in charge, and they turned around and persecuted their former persecutors. Paganism, Schmaganism! In 496, Pope Gelasius put the kibosh on Lupercus, on the grounds that all this sexual activity was sapping the strength of Rome’s young fighting men. As a sort of consolation prize, he gave the people a special feast day on the day before, the 14th. In true Christian fashion, the bloody aspects of the pagan ritual were co-opted to honor sacrifice. “Valentine’s Day” is a testament to at least three different Christian martyrs: a priest from Rome, a bishop from Terni, or a simple pilgrim from Africa. No one knows which, but what the heck, the more the better.
But old habits die hard. A couple of millennia later, martyrs or not, old Lupercus still has us all in a tizzy each spring. You may not want to slaughter a goat. But go for the chocolates, buy the flowers, send the cards. And if all else fails, throw some names in a hat…
Have a bloody nice Valentine’s Day.