The origins of Valentine's Day

By ALEX CUKAN, United Press International

, Feb. 12 (UPI) -- While some men are convinced Valentine's Day was created by card and flower companies, some believe it dates back to the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, a time of lovemaking and licentiousness, according to Anthony Aveni, author of "The Book of the Year -- A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays."

"Lupercalia was when young Roman males would sacrifice goats, put on the goatskins as a loincloth and then run around striking young women with thongs from the same goatskins," Aveni, a professor of astronomy and archeology at Colgate University, in Hamilton, N.Y., told United Press International.


"This was taken seriously by women because it was a rite intended to eliminate feminine barrenness and awaken the powers of fertility."

This gentle "flogging" was to stimulate sexual organs in anticipation of spring and fertility.


"Valentine's Day is a sort of coming out party from the dead of winter, although the winter was not so dead in Central Europe where many of the customs originated," said Aveni. "It's a season of anticipation to an awakening world, we're theoretically past the coldest day of the year on Jan. 25, so the rest is downhill to May Day, when sexual acts actually occur."

Aveni, an investigator of our holiday beliefs, has traced Valentine's Day from Lupercalia to the proclamation of St. Valentine's sainthood.

The actual origin of Valentine's Day is a bit murky and Aveni offers several possible versions.

Roman Emperor Claudius II had difficulty drafting men into his army, so believing men did not want to leave their families or loves, canceled all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine, a priest in Rome at that time who aided Christian martyrs and secretly married couples, was stoned to death and later made into a saint in one version.

Another version has St. Valentine as a martyred Roman who refused to give up Christianity. He befriended his jailer's daughter and left her a farewell note signing it "From your Valentine."

According Hamilton College Classics Professor Barbara Gold, love for ancient Romans was interesting, both to live and to write about, because it was painful, like a disease.


"The Roman poets, almost all men, described themselves as 'wounded, wretched, enslaved by their lovers, having their bone marrow on fire and suffering from double vision,'" Gold told UPI. "Love was an affliction, a painful one, and men were enslaved by horrible women."

The erotic love poets such as Catullus, Propertius and Ovid in first century B.C. Rome melded coarse obscenities with deepest expressions of sexual, erotic longing.

The poets wrote about male lovers who were dominating, unfeeling and promiscuous and love was an intellectual pursuit to be embellished with obscure mythological details and dished up in elegant, contrived metrical forms and diction, according to Gold.

One of Catullus' poems to his Lady Lesbia is two lines long and would not be out of place on any number of current reality television programs such as FOX's "Joe Millionaire" or ABC's "The Bachelorette."

"I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why do I do that?

I don't know but I feel it happening and am tormented," (Catullus translation adapted by Guy Lee).

It's a far cry from the current Valentine's Day sentiment. Gold sent her students from her Poetry and Love and Desire in Ancient Rome class, from Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y., to stores to study the messages of Valentines and found the themes of love and completeness and a world of dreamy romantic scenes of couples walking on beaches surrounded by hearts, doves, flowers and rays of sun.


"Romantic love, or mutual love did not exist in ancient Rome, Roman women, often in puberty, would be married in arranged marriages, often with men the age of their fathers and their role was restricted to the home," Gold said. "Women were perceived as scary creatures and often portrayed as witches and it was the man's jobs to control, constrain and keep her in the home."

Giving women too many roles made them frightening and too powerful so even the gods had limited roles, in Greek mythology Aphrodite was considered beautiful but not too bright while Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was depicted as none too pretty, according to Gold.

"But even today, women perceived as pretty and intelligent are considered scary by many," Gold said. "Hillary (Rodham) Clinton is probably the best example of a woman considered to have too much power, she was least liked when she given the responsibility for healthcare."

Courtly love, of the romantic ideal of mutual affection, an ideal couple, soul mates, came in medieval times and this is when couples wanted to become "one," melded together, according to Gold.

In Elizabethan England, the first person one saw on Feb. 14 would automatically be one's Valentine; so many women would plan whom they would see, according to Aveni.


"There was magic in a name written down so women would carry the name of their Valentine next to their heart and the man would carry the name of his hat band," Aveni said. "Preceding the giving of chocolates, in 17th century England, carrots, eggplants and bananas along with figs and oysters were considered aphrodisiacs -- their resemblance to male and female generative organs is likely not coincidental."

Commercial valentines are credited to Esther Howland, a student at Mt. Holyoke College in the late 1840s, and her well-marketed product netted over $100,000 a year by 1850, according to Aveni.

"The popularity of Valentine's Day has grown exponentially, by 1930, Valentine's Day ranked second only to Christmas as an occasion for retail spending," Aveni said.

"In the post World War II period, Valentine's Day got ratcheted up a few notches so a card or flowers are no longer enough, one has to produce a meaningful gift as well to remain in favor."

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