February 14 is now known as a day of romance, where couples exchange cards, flowers and gifts in the name of St. Valentine. But where did this tradition actually come from?
Who is St. Valentine?
St. Valentine is a third-century Roman saint recognised as the patron of love, young people and happy marriages.
The legends surrounding St. Valentine are very inconsistent, to the extent that the Roman Catholic Church removed him from the General Roman Calendar as so little is known about him. However, the Church still recognise him as a saint.
It is said that he was a priest martyred during the reign of Claudius Gothicus.
There are several stories surround his life and death.
One such story suggests that Valentine was imprisoned for helping Christians escape harsh Roman prisons. He was rumoured to have fallen in love with a young girl who often visited him.
Before his execution, he wrote his lover a letter signed “from your Valentine”. This was the first valentine greeting that is still used today.
Another popular legend claims that Claudius outlawed marriage for young men, believing that single men made better soldiers. Valentine rebelled by performing marriages for young couples in secret. However, when his actions were discovered, Claudius ordered for Valentine to be put to death.
Despite the ambiguity surrounding the saint, all stories present him as a courageous, romantic figure.
So where does Valentine’s Day come from?
Before people celebrated St. Valentine, February stood as the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. This was a fertility festival in the middle of February for Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture.
During the festival, Roman priests would gather at the cave where Romulus and Remus, the orphan siblings who founded the city of Rome, were said to have been cared for by a she-wolf, also known as a lupa.
The priests would then sacrifice a goat, stripping its hide into strips. They then took to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the flesh in order to encourage fertility.
Another festivity included placing the names of all the young women in the city into a large urn. The local bachelors would each choose and name and become a pair for the year, which often ended in marriage.
Lupercalia was soon outlawed by Christianity, however. In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day.
And where does Cupid, a naked flying baby, come into this?
Cupid is the ancient Roman god of love. He is said to be the son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, and the equivalent of the Greek god Eros and the Latin god Amor.
He is depicted as the cherubic archer of Valentine’s Day. His arrows are said to inspire love or passion upon wounding their victim.
He is generally seen as a benevolent god, although he is portrayed as mischievous in some of his matchmaking pursuits.