The pagan origins of Valentine’s Day


AFRICAN countries previously dominated by French and British colonisation have incorporated foreign English calendars where secular holidays, not of national significance, are denoted and celebrated; one such being Valentine’s Day, fêted on February 14.
Religion is an important and vital part of indigenous Zimbabwean heritage; with religion come certain practices and regulations that in time become approved customs.
Contrary to common belief, most Western religions have their basis in paganism; therefore, in order for us to understand the various aspects of Christian commemorations such as Valentine’s Day, one needs to understand paganism, a polytheistic religion practised in Roman times from which the Roman Catholic religion of today remixed, appropriated and superimposed with its own.
Among the various Greco-Roman pagan rituals was the Roman primaeval rite of ‘Februa’, said to be a ‘spring-cleaning’ ritual held during ‘Februarius’, the name for the month of February, known today as ‘Febbraio’ in Italian.
The Februa ceremony was conducted to prevent evil spirits, purify the communities of the city of Rome and promote health and fertility; no doubt, much like the Korekore practice of ‘kuchenesa masango’, the cleaning of the forests in preparation of the on-coming rains.
In time, this pre-Roman pastoral ritual was superseded by the ceremony of ‘Lupercalia’ which came to be observed annually on February 15.
In ancient Greek mythology, the name Lupercalia was connected with the worship of Lycaean Pan, assumed to be a Greek equivalent to the Roman deity Faunus.
In Roman mythology, ‘Lupercus’ is the deity of shepherds.
His festival being celebrated on the anniversary of the founding of the Roman Temple on February 15 came to be known as the ‘Lupercalia’, was held in the cave where the infants Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf after they were found abandoned, and who subsequently became the founders of Rome.
The pagan celebration of Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders of Romulus and Remus and was celebrated on the ides of February, or February 13.
The Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at the sacred cave, dressed in goatskins; at which a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification were sacrificed, and salt meal cakes prepared by the Vestal Virgins were burnt.
This was followed by stripping the goat’s hide into strips, dipping them into the sacrificial blood and taken to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the strips of goat hide.
Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides since it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year.
According to legend, later in the day, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn.
Each of the city’s bachelors would then choose a name from the urn and become paired with the chosen woman for the year.
These matches often ended in marriage.
Although the Lupercalia survived the rise of Christianity, it was later outlawed by Pope Gelasius I at the end of the 5th Century as it was deemed ‘un-Christian’.
He recast this pagan festival as a Christian feast day circa 496 and declared February 14 to St Valentino; which much later came to be associated with love.
Another ancient pagan Roman festival was ‘Terminalis’, dedicatory to the god Jupiter Terminalis who was said to preside over boundaries.
His figure was merely a stone or post stuck in the ground to distinguish between adjacent properties.
His veneration was instituted by the emperor Numa Pompilius (c.715-673 BC), the second king of Rome who was said to have instituted religious rites in Rome.
Pompilius ordered that landed property owners marked their boundaries with stones, to be consecrated to Jupiter Terminalis.
This annual public festival of Terminalia was celebrated at the sixth milestone-landmark on the road towards Laurentum, at which they offered sacrifices.
The owners of the two adjacent properties would raise a crude altar and crown the stone markers with wreaths on which they offered corn, honeycombs and wine; here too they sacrificed a lamb or a suckling pig.
The rite or festival was concluded by singing praises of the deity Jupiter Terminalis.
The Roman pagan ritual of ‘Saturnalia’ is well-described by Dan Brown in his novel Da Vinci’s Code, whereby the Vestal Virgins are raped as part of the ceremony.
Roman emperor Claudius II, claiming that bachelors made better soldiers, is alleged to have prohibited marriage for young men to prevent them from avoiding the draft by marrying.
Valentinus, a Christian priest, agreed to perform secret marriages for those who wished to become married.
He was eventually apprehended by the Romans and put to death.
Some, however, argue that Claudius II, in fact, urged his men to take multiple wives.
Probably the most plausible account surrounding St Valentine is one not focused on passionate love –Eros, but on agape, Christian love, the Christian who was martyred for refusing to renounce his religion.
Valentine’s Day is celebrated on February 14 in many Christian denominations.
While in the Anglican Communion St Valentine is marked as a ‘commemoration’ in the calendar of saints for the Lutheran Church it is included as the ‘feast’ of St Valentine.
In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church, however, revised its liturgical calendar, removing the feast days of saints whose historical origins it deemed questionable; thus the feast of St Valentine was removed from the Roman Catholic calendar of saints.
This, however, has not diminished the fervour of the event.
Foreign Roman-Greco pagan festivals such as Lupercalia, Saturnalia et al, together with their muses of love such as Venus, the Roman goddess of love and beauty, known as Aphrodite by the Greeks, are still part of our colonial mind-set and have been incorporated into the international Eurocentric calendar.
Aphrodite was the mother of Cupid, the muse of love.
His father Vulcan was the patron of metal work.
He was said to have wrought the strongest, finest, sharpest metal arrows that could cause lightning and thunder.
His ageless offspring Cupid, known as the Roman deity of love and represented as a winged boy with a bow and arrow as well as his mythological Greek counterpart, Eros, have become important visual symbols of love on Valentine’s Day.
As we know it today, St Valentine’s Day contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient pagan Roman primordial rites.
Valentine’s Day, as with most Western holidays and celebrations that we have come to take for granted, was steeped in pagan roots and is centred on the experiences of an individual, in this case St Valentino whose real identity is obscured in the mists of socio-religious history.
It no doubt originated from an ancient pagan Roman rite.
What relevance is it to Zimbabwean religion and hunhu/ubuntu?
Art and education consultant, artist and lecturer Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate of Business Administration) in Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant.
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