Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Lupercalia and St. Valentine's Day

St. Valentine's Day is a festival that has achieved popularity throughout the world. Although ostensibly a Christian festival in name, like every Western festival, it has its roots in ancient pagan traditions. It is possible that, like Martisor in Rumania, it originally was a feast in preparation and purification for the beginning of Spring (and indeed the New Year) either at the New Moon or on 1 March of the solar calendar.

The lunar New Year usually begins in February. For most ancient cultures, the solar new year began in March.

The Roman festivals that correspond precisely with the date of Valentine's Day are the feast of Lupercalia and a celebration dedicated to the Goddess Juno in her capacity as guardian of women and marriage. The month of February may be named for the 'februa' ('means of purification') the scourges made of skin used during Lupercalia or for Juno Februata, goddess of the 'fever' of love.

The name Lupercalia probably is derived from the Latin word for 'wolf'. The focal point of Lupercalia processions was a cave on the Palatine believed to have been the sacred cave in which Romulus and Remus. twin founders of Rome, were suckled by the she-wolf.

The story of Romulus and Remus is a tale of twin brothers found in myths throughout the world. It begins with a usurper to the throne of Alba Longa. Amulius took the throne from his brother Numitor and forced his niece, only daughter of Numitor, to become a Vestal Virgin. Forbidden to marry, the god Mars nonetheless fell in love with her and she bore twin sons from this union. The usurper, fearing that the children would seek the throne if they were allowed to survive, placed them in a basket and flung the basket into the Tiber.

Instead of drowning according to plan, the basket was found on Palatine Hill by a she-wolf who nurtured the boys with her own milk. A woodpecker, the bird sacred to Mars, fed them as well.

Faustulus, shepherd to the usurper king, later found the twins and adopted them. When they became adults, they did lead an uprising against him, restoring the throne to their grandfather Numitor.

The two brothers then decided to found a city of their own on the Palatine. Remus mocked his brother for building walls so low that he could leap over them easily. In anger, Romulus slew him and proceeded to name the city after himself. This is the mythological history of the foundation of the city of Roma.

In fact, there are a number of universal elements in the tale. The first important element of the tale is the divine intervention in the life of one who is a Virgin or 'untouched'. The issue of such a union often is not accepted by the community. In this case, the children presented a threat to the usurper. The child destined to rule often is concealed in a chest or basket and placed 'on the waters'. In some cases, he is set adrift in the ocean. He then either is discovered and rescued or arrives at the shores of his future kingdom. The Northern king Ing was said to have arrived on the shores of England in a basket, accompanied by a sheaf of grain. Any one who is familiar with the story of Moses or Musa knows of his concealment 'in the bullrushes' in a basket, to be found and adopted by the daughter of the Pharoah.

The tale of the child or children who are suckled by animals is fairly common. In the Nibelungenlied, a she-wolf devours nine of Sigmund's brothers, night after night, but spares him, bravest of all the Volsungs. Sigmund fled with the she-wolf, into the forest, then 'ran with the werewolf', performing wild deeds with his nephew and son, Sinfjotli. In tales like this, the strength and power of the animal are assumed by the 'foster child' and the animal becomes a totem or guardian not only for the child, but for future generations.

The final component of the tale of Romulus and Remus is the sacrifice of one brother by the other. It is probable that this was not an act provoked by anger or mockery but was a ritual sacrifice designed to give protection and blessing to the new city. In fact, in many ancient cultures, a human sacrifice was mandated whenever any new village, bridge or other structure was built. Even in Nepal in the 20th century, human sacrifices were not uncommon whenever a bridge was constructed. Despite official repudiation of the custom, a belief in the efficacy of such a sacrifice persisted.

In any event, the Lupercalia probably had its basis in the tale of the foundation of Roma. It primarily was a feast of purification and fertility (as most festivals in Spring). During the feast, the Luperci priests celebrated a sacred ritual in the cave of Lupercal on the Palatine Hill. Vestal virgins prepared sacred cakes made from the first ears of the harvest of the preceding year. The cakes were named 'mola salsa' (salted cakes). These cakes were set as offerings at a fig tree at the site of the cave. Goats and a dog then were sacrificed. The blood from these animals was smeared on the foreheads of two naked young men and then wiped away with wool dipped in milk. It is possible that the knife used to sacrifice the animals was used to slice the forehead of the young men as an additional act of sacrifice and consecration. When their faces were cleansed of the blood, the young men were required to laugh.

The Luperci and the young men, clothed only in loincloths made from the skins of the sacrificed animals, then ran through the streets, following the pomarium, the sacred boundary of the ancient city and the seven hills. As they ran, they lashed bystanders with strips of skin from the sacrificial goats. These scourges were known as 'februa' or 'Juno's Cloak'. Young wives in particular would strive to receive a blow from these whips on their outstretched hands as it was believed to confer fertility and easy childbirth. Ritual lashings often were included in ancient rituals of purification. In fact, many of the elements found in Lupercalia were part of the old mystery religions known throughout the Roman Empire.

The priests called 'Luperci' were known as the 'Crepi' or 'Creppi' from the word for he-goat. The Festival of Juno Sospita preceded the Lupercalia in January. Juno Sospita or Juno the Saviour was depicted wearing a goatskin, the head and horns of which were drawn over her head. She carried a spear and shield and wore shoes with curled toes. These shoes, like the cap worn by Mithras, are characteristic of the ancient Phrygians.

Another tradition of Lupercalia was the lottery, wherein the names of young maidens were placed in a box, to be drawn out by young men. The couples thus paired performed rituals together to honour the gods throughout the festival.

Of this, Butler, famed for his 'Lives of the Saints' 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 this month, several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets, given on this day.'

As described, Christianity incorporated some of the old traditions of the season in a new festival when Pope Gelasius, in the year 496, created St. Valentine's Day on 14 February. Instead of a box containing the names of young maidens, the new Christian version of the festival lottery contained the names of Saints. The substitution never proved popular.

The historical basis for the figure of St. Valentine is not entirely certain. Most people tend to believe that he was a Christian who performed marriages under the rule of Emperor Claudius. Claudius had begun to discourage marriage for soldiers as he believed that married men would be less devoted to the Empire than those who were single. There are tales about a man who performed marriages clandestinely. Whether or not this was the reason for Valentine's martyrdom, it is accepted generally that a man named Valentine was 'martyred' in the year 496.

One of the tales surrounding this event involves the blind daughter of the prison guard, cured of her blindness by the intercession of Valentine. A note composed to her before he was dragged away to his execution purportedly stated simply 'From your Valentine'. Whatever the facts, St. Valentine has been the patron saint of lovers now for many centuries, although the practice of sending Valentines on the day probably began in the 15th century.

Imprisoned in the Tower of London, the Duc d'Orleans sent a 'Valentine' to his wife in 1415. This is considered to be the first modern 'Valentine'. In fact, he sent her a number of love letters, now preserved in the British Museum.

The Age of Chivalry was the age of courtly love and it was common for a man to wear a 'favour' belonging to his Leige Lady on his sleeve. In medieval England, the lottery system of Lupercalia was revived in modified form in a custom wherein the names of maidens and young men were drawn out of a box in pairs on 14 February. Gifts were exchanged and the young man accepted the girl chosen for him as his 'Lady' for the year, but only in the sense of courtly traditions. In fact, the original lottery of the Lupercalia was not a sexual alliance but was a pairing made solely for the purpose of the rituals of the festival.

It was not until the 17th century that handmade cards became elaborate and popular. A century later, in 1797, the practice of sending 'Valentines' had become so prevalent that a British publisher issued a book entitled: 'The Young Man's Valentine Writer', containing 'suitable' verses for the romantically-inclined.

'Mechanical Valentines' were produced in limited editions and by the Victorian era, the practice of exchanging Valentines had become quite commercial. Sexually suggestive Valentines caused some countries to ban the practice of exchanging Valentines and in Chicago at the end of the 19th century, the post office rejected as many as 25000 cards as 'unsuitable' to be carried through the U.S. postal service.

The first American to publish Valentine cards was an illustrator named Esther Howland whose father owned a print shop. She made elaborate Valentines from lace that cost as much as thirty-five dollars.

Chocolate became part of the traditions of Valentine's Day much later than cards. The Cadbury Brothers began to manufacture boxes of chocolate in the 1860s. Richard Cadbury produced the first heart-shaped box of chocolate for Valentine's Day in 1870 or thereabouts. The boxes in which chocolate was offered were extremely elaborate, constructed using mirrored glass and velvet. Like many boxes of the period, they were used for storage of trinkets and letters long after the chocolates had been consumed.

The heart is an ancient fertility symbol that may not have represented that organ at all originally, but instead may have been a representation of the buttocks or female genitalia. Like the egg and arrow symbols, the heart with an arrow through it represents the energy of life as well as its container. It is both yin and yang, male and female united in a single icon.

Be that as it may, every child recognises the symbol of a red heart as a symbol of love. Valentine's Day may have been a festival of fertility originally but in contemporary cultures, it has become a festival of love, embracing family and friends as well as lovers.

In our own home, Valentine's Day always was a festival celebrated by the entire family. My mother had remarried when I was six years old. From the very first Valentine's Day in their marriage, our stepfather was careful to include my sister and myself in the celebration.

Our own tradition of the 'Festival Table' dominated St. Valentine's Day as well as other Spring festivals. On the morning of 14 February, my sister and I would awaken with a sense of excitement and anticipation. We would run to the dining room to see what 'magic' had been wrought. My mother always decorated the table, but it was my stepfather who supplied the Valentine's Day gifts.

The table would be set with a festive red cloth and one of the best sets of china. At each individual's place, there would be a beautiful box of chocolate with a card. The box of chocolate would be from our stepfather and the card would be from our mother. If it were not a school day, my mother often would serve a special breakfast. Our boxes of Valentine Day chocolates would be smaller than the one given to our mother, but they nonetheless would be very beautiful. It made us feel very special, and we felt that we were 'women' rather than children on that day.

I do not know if other families did this or not but those exquisite boxes of chocolates remain a vivid part of my childhood memories. Like every other festival, Valentine's Day was a day when the rules could be ignored. We actually could open the box and have a chocolate in the morning before breakfast. In the same way, another family tradition is being able to eat a piece of birthday cake for breakfast on the day after a birthday.

Perhaps Valentine's Day is supposed to be a romantic festival for lovers, but I seldom have experienced any Valentine's Days that have surpassed those childhood celebrations. In those days, my sister and I felt that adult life would bring only more glorious boxes of chocolates and splendid romances in the best traditions of chivalry. One can remember childhood dreams fondly even when reality seldom is quite that romantic.

N.B. It is possible that archaelogists have unearthed the site of the original Lupercal. An article published by AP on 27 January 2007 described an exciting discovery. While restoring the palace of Rome's first emperor on the Palatine, workers taking core samples found a cavity 52 feet deep. Within was a vaulted space decorated with seashells, frescoes and niches. Roman texts declare that the 'Lupercal' was close to the palace of Augustus and the archaeologist in charge of the Palatine believes that this new discovery may indeed be the Lupercal. They now are searching for the entrance to the ancient grotto.

1 comment:

Fleming said...

What a fascinating history! When is the book coming out?

It is very interesting to read about your family celebrations of Valentine's Day when you were a child because in my home of mother, father, and three brothers, nothing like that ever happened. We were supremely excited about Christmas and Thanksgiving and Halloween and the Easter Rabbit and his gifts, as well as the fireworks of the 4th of July, and my parents made those days very special. . . but the only event of my childhood Valentine's Days was watching Mother exclaim over the Whitman's Sampler candies that Daddy gave her every year. For me, Valentine's Day was for couples.