Will you be my Valentine?

Esther Hannan-Moon

Visuals: Rachel Lee | @r_chell__

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CONTENT WARNING: Mentions of blood and sexual references

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Aww, Valentine’s Day. Can you smell the roses? The bouquets? The chocolates that range from the high-end brands to the ones purchased for an extravagant $5 from the local servo? Well, the 14th of February wasn’t always so fragrant. If you were alive on the fifteenth during the Roman Empire, you would more likely be smelling the sweet, copper scent of blood and sex. I’m going to say that one more time: Valentine’s Day was, in the past, drenched in blood and sex.

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The sex part isn’t as shocking as the blood part – it is a day of love after all. However, Valentine’s Day is potentially believed to have stemmed from a pagan fertility festival called ‘Lupercalia’. The day would start with a sacrificed goat and dog by the priests known as Luperci. Sounds wholesome. 

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The blood from the sacrifices would be smeared on two Luperci and washed off with milk. Afterward, naked and semi-naked Luperci stripped the sacrificed goat-hide into thongs. (No, not the underwear, they were strips of leather, essentially!) The men would then proceed to run around the Palatine Hill in Rome, whipping any woman within arms reach with the thongs. Naked priests whipping at women doesn’t exactly inspire romance, does it? Apparently (because scholars still aren’t certain about anything in this ritual), a lash from the thong would ensure fertility in a woman, and most offered their skin willingly.

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By this point you may be asking, “Where is the romance? The love?” Or, “Why was Valentine’s Day so violent?” But that was only the first part of the festival! The second stage — although once again, scholars are on the fence — took the form of men picking a woman’s name from a jar at random. Thus, the two would be partnered for the remainder of the celebration. Most would end up marrying or staying together until next year’s Lupercalia. So there you have it the blow of cupid — well maybe more lady luck, but still kinda counts as celebrating love and couples, right?

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However, even if the origins of Valentine’s Day don’t relate to Lupercalia, they can be traced to St. Valentine. In the third century B.C.E., Emperor Claudius II outlawed marriage based on the belief that married men made weaker soldiers. Pre-St. Valentine – and probably many other more reasonable people – disagreed, so he went and married couples in secret(well, not too secret, because he was eventually caught and beheaded). I guess that’s what they mean by the price of love — yikes! Now, here’s the punchline: before his head was lobbed off, he sent a love letter to the jailer’s daughter, with whom he had fallen in love,signed, ‘from your Valentine’.

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So ta-da! That is the origin of Valentine’s Day! But what does that mean for our holiday in the 21st century? Surprisingly, even with modern commercialisation, the day hasn’t lost its true and ancient meaning. Whether the Day of Love stems from Lupercalia or St. Valentine, it is still a celebration of love, and that is something to always appreciate. Couples reflect on their time together, new matches are made, and we feast — on chocolates at least.