St. Valentine’s Day has become a keystone holiday within the cultural zeitgeist of America. It is a day when convenience stores and pharmacies put out boxes of heart-shaped chocolates and pink and red bears clutching little heart balloons. Restaurants are booked out, wine is bought in surplus, and, of course, love is in the air. But have all of us young lovers stopped considering this holiday’s origin? There may be something to learn in the history of the saint of love’s special day.
In celebration of Valentine’s Day, our Elixir Bar space at The Alchemist’s Kitchen in Soho, New York City, is welcoming author Sophie Strand to tell us the many myths of St. Valentine’s Day. She has been kind enough to write us an excellent excerpt about these myths, so read on to discover the true nature of this holiday of love!
The Myths of St. Valentine’s Day
How do older land-based traditions survive when they are subsumed by conquering empires and dominator cultures? They hide as stowaways in the new religions, fusing symbiotically with holidays and gods to survive. Saint Valentine’s Day is probably another such occurrence, overlapping neatly with the older spring and fertility festival Lupercalia celebrated on February 15th whose origins are now obscure to us.
We can gather that its name derives from the Latin “lupus” for wolf. There is speculation that the celebration honored a theriomorphic deity – half human and half animal – that protected people from wolves. Another interpretation of evidence offers that the god Faunus was associated with the festival, another woodland variation of the goat-god fan.
The celebration included animal sacrifices by priests known as Luperci. And then the young men would dawn the sacrificial animal hides and run through the hills, striking with leather thongs at young women believing that the action would render them more fertile. Summoning erotic and playful energy and overseen by magical theriomorphic gods, the festival developed into a ritual that paired young women off with men by lottery. However, the rise of Christianity demonized these pagan and embodied rituals. Pope Gelasius outlawed the festival, and the myth is that in knowing he could not totally eradicate such a long-lasting and well-loved rite, he replaced it with a Christian holiday and saint: Saint Valentine.
Eros and Spring
Whether or not this origin story of the lover’s holiday is true, what seems clear is that a rite honoring eros and springtime could not be entirely eradicated by Christianity. Instead, like algae and fungi fusing to create lichen more resilient to environmental pressures, Lupercalia used a symbiotic syncretism to survive, slipping into the new figure of Saint Valentine, changing a sterile martyr into a figure of redemptive, embodied love.
It is disputed which Saint Valentine is even the correct martyr to associate with the day, given that there were several. Legend has it that one such figure called Valentine defied the emperor’s orders and secretly married couples to protect the men from being called into war. Other accounts suggest the man martyred by Claudius II Gothicus in 270 CE is the best fit as he signed a letter to his jailer’s daughter with the now famous phrase “from your Valentine.”
Popularity and Beyond
While the holiday gained popularity in the 15th century, becoming associated with Cupid, the Roman god of love, birds as the season overlaps with avian migratory patterns, and flowers, it has faced another syncretic shift, fusing with extractive capitalism. The holiday stresses consumerism, encouraging couples to buy gifts, candy, and express love through a material transaction.
It also upholds a narrow view of love that exiles the queer, the disabled, and the solitary. We need to slip loose our heteronormative ideas about how love arrives and reclaim the wild origins of this holiday. Wolves and goat-men oversaw it. It was deemed dangerous by the empire because it encouraged anarchic behavior from young men and women. Love must be commodified and defined, and contained because it is dangerous.
A real holiday devoted to love doesn’t inspire you to buy more objects. It inspires you to throw them down and run to the hills to commune with a lover that is bigger than a human being, bigger than a single self. Real love shows people that more pleasure, freedom, and miracles are possible than the dominant culture has neural-pruned us to expect. How can we reclaim the inter-species and revolutionary origins of this holiday?
Prepare for Love
If you’re interested in buying healthy, artisan-made products for your loved ones, be sure to check out our Season of Love Sensual Bliss Collection!