Romae, via Flaminia, natalis sancti Valentini, presbyteri et martyris, qui, post multa sanitatum et doctrinae insignia, fustibus caesus et decollatus est, sub Claudio Caesare.
Interamnae sancti Valentini, episcopi et martyris, qui, post diutinam caedem mancipatus custodiae, et, cum superari non posset, tandem, mediae noctis silentio eiectus de carcere, decollatus est, iussu praefecti urbis Placidi. (Martyrologium Ecclesiae)
February the 13th, tomorrow, corresponds to the Ides of February. The 14th of February, corresponds to the first day towards the Kalends of March in the Julian calendar. Plum trees are in bloom, almond trees have already blossomed. Spring is in the air for coastal Californians and for ancient Romans who lived at around 30–40 degrees of latitude (Santa Cruz: 39º N; Rome: 41º N).
In ancient Rome, the goddess Juno, who was revered as the queen of the pantheon in the late Republic, was honored on February 14th. Juno was also taken to be the goddess of women and marriage. Juno Lucina was the goddess of childbirth.
The following day, on February 15th, Romans celebrated the Lupercalia, a festival animated by a sort of brotherhood (a sodalitas) of young men called luperci, i.e. the “wolf-guys,” (from lupus= wolf). Sacrifices were made in the Lupercal, the cave in Rome reputed to have sheltered the she-wolf who brought up Romulus and Remus. For the rest of the ritual, I quote from The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3d ed., 1996, article “Lupercalia” p. 892):
the blood was smeared with a knife on the foreheads of two youths (who were obliged to laugh), and wiped with wool dipped in milk; then the Luperci, naked except for girdles from the skin of sacrificial goats, ran (probably) round the Palatine [….] striking bystanders, especially women, with goat-skin thongs (a favourite scene in the iconography of roman months [….].
Perhaps this striking, or marking, of women was not left to chance but was the product of deliberation under the guise of mayhem, and was expected to lead to marriages.
What does Valentine have to do with the Lupercalia? Under Claudius II, around the year A.D. 270, Valentine was a priest in Rome. He was eventually arrested (for marrying young people?) before the Prefect of Rome, Placidus, who condemned him to be beaten to death with clubs and to have his head cut off (see Latin above). He suffered martyrdom on the 14th day of February, about the year 270. If the date of his death is correct, it might be the date alone that attracted to the name of Valentinus stories about his marrying young people in Rome…. The pull of the Lupercalia festival would have been strong enough to make Christianized Romans draw new meanings from the ancient Roman feast and attach them to Valentinus who died on that same day. Or did it happen the other way around, that is, Valentine was associated with marriage, and the date of his death was conveniently attached to that of the Lupercalia festival?
Eventually, the Christian church went further and tried to completely transform this early Spring festival . Gelasius, bishop of Rome at the end of the 5th c., is thought to have “banned Christian participation [in the Lupercalia] and transformed it into the feast of the Purification of the Virgin.” (see Oxford Classical Dictionary, quoted above). Again, a very ancient aspect of the Lupercalia has here been adapted, namely the lustrations (purifications) of this fertility ritual. The Saint Valentine cult appears therefore to have come into full bloom in the 5th c. as an early Christian counter-reform, an adaptation of an ancient fertility and pre-marital ritual.
I look at the modernized version of the St Valentine as a further stage of development. Love, its randomizing possibilities, and the sacred aspects of social contracts and fertility, are submitting to great pressures coming from agressive forms of relentless commercialization. Yet, the wild, “wolf-like” behavior of the Lupercalia somehow survives….