Legend claims holiday deep in pagan roots

February 6, 2012 Feature Print Print
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Ah, Valentine’s Day. Chocolates, roses, diamonds, fine wine, cherubs and … martyrs?

Yeah, martyrs. As in, a person who dies in the name of his or her faith or cause, generally in some horrible manner.

In this modern consumer culture, St. Valentine’s Day has taken on the trappings of all other holidays on which gifts are offered.

There are mad dashes to obtain the choicest treats and trinkets; vast amounts of overspending; and the ritual judging of a person’s merit as a human being based on the scope of his or her wallet.

What has all this to do with dead people?

“It’s one of those holidays that had pagan roots, and was adopted by the Catholic Church, much like Christmas and Easter,” said Pamela Stout, folklore professor.

“I believe its origins were in a fertility festival, in ancient Rome.”

That festival was known as Lupercalia, according to an article on www.history.com. The festival had more than a few elements working against it in the Christians eyes, but the final straw was the ritual pairing of eligible young Roman men and women, according to the article.

“Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would then each choose a name out of the urn and become paired for the year with his chosen woman.

“These matches often ended in marriage. Pope Gelasius declared Feb. 14 St. Valentine’s Day around 498 A.D. The Roman ‘lottery’ system for romantic pairing was deemed un-Christian and outlawed.”

But who was this Valentine, anyway?

“Valentine was a priest who performed illegal marriage rites for soldiers,” Stout said.

“The Roman emperor at the time didn’t want his soldiers to be married. He wanted them devoted to serving him, going into battle, dying for their country, stuff like that.

“But Valentine kept performing ceremonies for the soldiers, and when the emperor found out, he was executed for his trouble.”

Actually, a few of the more popular elements of the holiday, like Cupid, are just Christianized versions of the pagan symbols and deities involved in the old festivals, Stout said.

“The fat baby with wings, the cherub, is actually a watered down, Catholicized version of Cupid, who was the Roman god of love.

“A lot of the mythic characters were watered down and turned into something manageable,” Stout said.

“For instance, Cupid is depicted now as a little baby, instead of a being with some real power, who could make people fall in love and do things that might not be in their best interest, just for sport.”

So the next time someone says, “Will you be my Valentine?” just remember: Valentine died for love.

And the only reason anyone still knows his name is because the young church needed a way to control those pesky pagan parties.

To contact Jeremy Cloud, email editor@occc.edu.

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