Saturday, February 8, 2014

14 Things about Valentine’s Day, No. 6: No, It’s Not about Lupercalia

Lupercalia image from the Univ. of Washington
In 1756, a Roman Catholic Priest named Alban Butler published the first of four volumes titled The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and other Principal Saints (generally shortened to Lives of the Saints), in which he wrote, “To abolish the heathens’ lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honour of their goddess Februata Juno, on the fifteenth of [February], several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets [tickets or tags], given on this day.”

This claim was embellished further by English antiquarian Francis Douce in 1807, who stated that the custom of drawing names was a feature of the Roman holiday of Lupercalia, and that Lupercalia is the origin of the pairing-up customs we associate with Valentine’s Day.
In a 1916 article in the folkore journal The Lotus, the supposed pagan origin of Valentine’s Day is offered as a given.
“There is no surpise in being told that St. Valentine’s day is the Christianized form of the classic Lupercalia, which were feasts held in Rome during the month of February in honour of Pan and Juno and known as Juno Februata. Among other ceremonies it was customary to put the names of young women in a box, from which they were drawn by the men as chance directed. The Christian clergy, finding it difficult to extirpate the pagan practice, strove to give it a religious aspect by substituting names of particular saints for those of women.”
The drawing of saints’ names was supposed to inspire an imitation of said saint’s virtues throughout the following year. That some clergy actually did this at some point in time would not surprise me, but it was not part of any early adaptation of a pagan practice.
Nowadays, you will find many sources on the Web stating with an air of certainty and authority that the “real” origin of Valentine’s Day is the Lupercalia.
No. It isn’t.
Prof. Oruch, whose research tracing Valentine traditions to Chaucer was explained in an earlier post (see also source below), found no pagan/Lupercalia link to the holiday, and points to Butler and Douce as the sole sources of this myth.
About Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Oruch wrote, “Butler’s ideas were prompted, in all probability, by a confused knowledge of the date of this isolated event; a less charitable explanation would attribute his remarks to wishful or pious fantasy.”
And as for Douce’s Lupercalia connection, scholarly works such as “Some Notes on the Lupercalia,” by E. Sachs (source below), describe the holiday’s customs as involving young men running half-naked through the streets of Rome whacking people with strips of animal skin. None of the surviving eyewitness accounts (the festival continued into the 5th century) say anything about the drawing of names or any sort of pairing up.
The origin of the Lupercalia is itself quite murky, as is its conflation with the purification feast of Februa, which lent its name to the month. Even in Roman times, contemporary observers such as Plutarch (45–120 CE) were not sure when the Lupercalia, which took place on 15 February, got started.
History prof. John A. North, University College of  London, and classics prof. Neil McLynn, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, describe the origin and history of the Lupercalia something like this:
The festival probably began as a religious ritual sometimes referred to as Caesar’s Carnival, commemorating Rome’s founding legend (the name being related to lupus, Latin for wolf), and involving the sacrifice of a goat or goats, after which young men wearing the skins of the sacrificed animals ran through the streets carrying strips of the skins and hitting people with them. At some point, the custom became associated with a fertility ritual, and women would hold out their hands to be struck by the skins to ensure their own fertility.
The event morphed during Roman times into a kind of street theater, its exact purpose not entirely clear, except maybe for unruly youth to let off steam. It was still associated with the idea of conferring fertility, and infused with erotic overtones, if you know what I mean. Some accounts say that women were beaten, but it appears that it was much more benign and playful (in a bawdy sort of way) and consensual than that.
In the fifth century, Pope Gelasius banned the festival, though it is often said that he “converted” it to the Feast of the Purification, or Candlemas, which takes place on 2 February (40 days after Christmas). Whether the Christian Feast of the Purification is adapted from or influenced by the Roman Februa is a separate matter and not one I plan to address in the context of Valentine’s Day, but it’s clear that Pope Gelasius had no interest in “converting” pagan holidays; he banned them.
I will take a more general look at the implications of February’s place on the calendar at the midway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, and how that likely influenced the holidays we mark during this month, in my final post in this series.
Next up, some early Valentine customs in 15th century England.


[author unknown] “Madame Valentine.” The Lotus Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 5 (Feb. 1916), pp. 234-238. (Accessed from JSTOR database via Hennepin County Library.)

Green, William M. “The Lupercalia in the Fifth Century.” Classical Philology. Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan. 1931), pp. 60-69. An online article from the U Chicago.

North, J.A., and McLynn, Neil. “Postscript to the Lupercalia: from Caesar to Andromachus.” The Journal of Roman Studies. Vol. 98 (2008), pp. 176-181. (Accessed from JSTOR database via Hennepin County Library.)

Oruch, Jack. B. "St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February." Speculum, Vol. 56, No. 3 (July 1981), pp. 534–565. (Accessed from JSTOR database via Hennepin County Library.)

Sachs, E. “Some Notes on the Lupercalia.” The American Journal of Philology. Vol. 84, No. 3 (July 1963), pp. 266-279. (Accessed from JSTOR database via Hennepin County Library.)

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