February 14th was a festival of randy, heathen practices called the Lupercalia in early Rome. Young men and women were matched by lottery on this day. They had as long as the following year to engage in “practice sex” and then decide whether they actually wanted to marry. How many years might that go on? “It was fun, but I want to try him out next,” said the 28-year-old . The original festivities also included the ceremonial offering of a goat which was then skinned, the skin split into strips, the strips soaked in blood, and finally the bloody skins were used to slap women. Any women. It was supposed to make them more fertile. It was all in good fun. I can’t imagine that being a whole lot of fun. In fact it sounds more like some really messy sado-masochism to me. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I hear.
Then there is the Cupid’s arrow connection. Remember the story about Cupid (Venus’s son) and Psyche? Venus was jealous of Psyche, which is typical of beautiful women in the mythology of misogyny. So Venus told Cupid to use a love-poisoned arrow to make Psyche fall in love with some other guy. Instead Cupid scratched himself with the arrow and fell in love with Psyche and kept her in a beautiful palace with invisible servants. He made love to her at night so she couldn’t see him and know his identity. They ended up happily-ever-after, eventually. Psyche had to win him from his mother. Typical mother-in-law. It is instructive, however, to understand that he was not a chubby baby with wings – like you see hanging around today. He was a charming, if clumsy, young man with magic arrows and a very possessive mother.
Here is the problem with myths. It might have been any of three different men named Valentinus who became the Saint whose festival day is February 14th. That was the day one of him was beaten and beheaded. He was performing a wedding ceremony for Christians in Rome, which had been banned, or helping Christians to escape imprisonment. Maybe both. I find it interesting that “valentinus” means honorable and strong in Latin. It was also a fairly popular name. Maybe any man who martyred himself helping Christians was referred to as Valentinious, and one of them was beaten and beheaded on February 14th. I’m just saying, this might be the reason we have a Saint named Valentine and a Valentine’s Day.
There are female saints as well. I know, you better sit down. There is a Saint Valentina in the Greek Orthodox Church. She sacrificed herself for her friend in 308 AD. Valentina and Thea (her spiritual sister – according to the Nuns of the Monastery of Saint Syncletike) were at a gathering of fellow Christians when the local officials scattered the crowd. Thea was captured and tortured; Valentina came to her rescue. When Thea’s attackers tried to make Valentina kneel at a heathen altar, she kicked it to pieces. I hope she kicked some asses as well, because they started torturing her instead. Finally, the women were burned, together. And that is the horrific end of their story. No Hallmark cards for that one.
What is this holiday really about? It sells cards, chocolates, jewelry and flowers. It inspires sexy lingerie. But we could just spend some money and have a nice night any old day. We take one day of the year to celebrate love, and pinning down the origin of the day is almost as confusing as the subject. Today’s paper hearts and shiny red balloons seem silly at times; the flowers and candies worn out clichés or obligations. At least they don’t involve slapping each other with bloody goat skins. The romantic love we idealize in stories like Cupid and Psyche’s seems long on sex and melodrama to me. Still, love strips us down to our most human motivations – lust, jealousy, passion, possessiveness. For some of our relationships, love is unconditional to the point of being sacrificial. The nobility and strength needed to confront evil and protect other people from harm is certainly the result of love.
Whatever it means to you, whoever you love, however you celebrate, I hope you are happy on Valentine’s Day. May the cards and flowers, cupids and candies remind you that love is bigger than all of us and part of every one of us. Especially today.