The Hidden History of Valentine's Day: An Emperor, a
Priest, and a Goddess
Valentine's Day approaches -- that time of year when lovers (and
wannabe's) are frantic, wondering whether to splurge on the
heart-shaped box of chocolates, over-priced flowers, or the
predictable greeting cards. Ever wonder how the madness all got
The history of Valentine's Day began with the ancient
Festival of Lupercalia which honored the founding of Rome. To
insure the fertility of the land, the festival also celebrated
the erotic love that was the special domain of Juno, the Roman
goddess of love and marriage. The month February was even named
in her honor -- the word comes from the Latin word "febres",
meaning feverish or febrile.
Held on the hillside near the Lupercallus ("Wolf-Cave"),
where Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were raised as
infants by a pack of wolves, the festivities were held on
February 15 each year. Led by a pagan priest, the activities
included "whipping" all the women to ensure their fertility.
Another part of the celebration involved a lottery in which
the names of the unmarried females were drawn by the eligible
bachelors and the couples were paired for the following year to
honor the goddess Juno -- obviously a prototype of
Turn the clock forward to the third century and you find
Claudius II serving as the Emperor of Rome, which by that time
had seen its glory days and was now being threatened on its
borders by the Goths.
Claudius had a problem on his hands. He definitely needed his
army to be at full strength. He felt that married men weren't
very good soldiers, given their tendency to go A.W.O.L. when it
was time to harvest the crops or whenever they felt the urge for
a conjugal visit.
So concerned was the Emperor that he used his authority to
ban the practice of marriage. And he banned the Festival of
Lupercalia as well, since it was obviously contributing to the
high incidence of marriage that seemed to be destroying his
For the first time, the pagan Emperor and the growing
Christian church found themselves on the same side of an
argument. The Church was also opposed to the pagan festival of
Lupercalia, objecting to its lustfulness, and especially the
practice of the lottery.
Yet it was a dangerous time to be a Christian priest. A
parish priest named Valentine was part of the Christian
underground and, in defiance of the Emperor's edict, continued
to marry couples in secret. He was soon found out and carried
off to prison.
There must have been something very "special" about
Valentine. The Emperor himself supposedly took the time to visit
him in prison and tried to convert him to the worship of the
ancient pagan deities. He failed miserably, and Valentine was
executed on the February 14, in the year 270.
Church policy in dealing with the ancient religions often
included a strategy of incorporating, rather than just banning,
the pagan traditions. And it proved to be an effective strategy.
Many of our contemporary holiday rituals and traditions are
actually based on ancient pagan celebrations.
Anxious to end the lusty Lupercalia that they saw as a
"festival of the flesh", the Church was a bit more subtle than
the Emperor in their approach to getting rid of it. Having a
"Saint's Day" celebration for the martyred Valentine, and
holding it a day earlier than the pagan festival, was a clever
But like so many other holidays, Valentine's Day was co-opted
once more, this time by secular, commercial interests. And so
today we find ourselves sending valentines to all sorts of
people, even those for whom we haven't the slightest marital,
romantic, or lustful feelings . . . and wonder where all the
passion in our lives has gone.
And what about that cute little guy in diapers who goes
around shooting arrows loaded with aphrodisiacs? Hard to believe
he once was an actual god! You can read more about it at :
The Pagan History of Valentine's Day.