Saint Valentine's Day is likely to have originally been an ancient pagan fertility festival known as Lupercalia (originally known as Februa) - yet how did it become connected to a Christian saint and how did it evolve into the modern-day commercialised celebration that we recognise today? Why did this celebration happen in February and how was it connected with nature and the natural seasons?
Christian Feast Day
Saint Valentine's Day was a Roman Christian feast day to commemorate the lives of two saints both called Valentine (Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni) who were martyred and buried on Via Flaminia. Valentine of Rome was martyred in 269 it is believed and became a saint in 496 by Pope Gelasius I and it is thought that Valentine of Terni was martyred in 273 by Emperor Aurelian during his persecutions of Christians in a time of strengthening the Roman pantheon. Various legends have been passed down through the ages regarding these saints although little is known historically. It is thought that one of the saints was buried at Via Flaminia on the 14th of February. There is the possibility of a third saint called Valentine who was martyred in Africa although little is known of him.
These events of Christian tension in the empire eventually led up to the Great Persecution which was the most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman empire - it happened in the early 4th century and it's thought that records of Saint Valentine were destroyed at this time. Christians were demanded to conform to pagan rites across the different regions of the empire with the most severe persecution happening in the eastern provinces. The persecutions became severe and involved torture (removal of eyes etc) and execution including being burnt alive. In 306 Constantine stepped into office and restored the legal rights of Christians and restored their property and the Edict of Milan of 313 traditionally has been seen as bringing an end to the persecution - this was an agreement to treat Christians benevolently throughout the empire. Constantine formally converted to Christianity in 312 after receiving profound visions.
The Christian Martyrs' Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1883) This type of execution was known as damnatio ad bestias (condemnation to beasts) and was also a form of 'blood-sport entertainment' for the spectators - some accounts state that Christians died in this way, along with runaway slaves and criminals.
There are two fairly historic accounts of what happened to Saint Valentine during those persecutory times. The first was from the 5th or 6th century and known as Passio Marii et Marthae although I cannot find many details about this text - it supposedly told the story of the martyrdom of Saint Valentine of Rome. These events were again retold in Bede's Martyrology written in the 8th century - in this account the Christian Valentine debated with Emperor Claudius II who tried to get him to convert to paganism yet Valentine refused and tried to convert the emperor instead which led to his execution. Just before he was executed, it was said that he performed a miraculous healing for the jailer's blind daughter, restoring her sight. The jailer's 46-member household of family and servants were said to have converted to Christianity after this miracle. This story was repeated in the Golden Legend which contained biographies of saints and was composed in the 13th century. Interestingly the name Valentine comes from the Latin word valeō, meaning 'I am strong, healthy.'
A shrine to Saint Valentine in Dublin, Ireland
An embellishment to this story was added in the 18th century - on the evening before he was due to be executed, Valentine wrote a card to the healed jailer's daughter and signed it 'Your Valentine' - it was considered to be the 'first' Valentine's card and this term was used in printed Valentine's cards which became very popular in the 19th century in the UK and had begun to be distributed in the 1700s. In the USA, the first mass-produced paper lace Valentine's cards were created in 1847 by Esther Howland who had taken inspiration from an English card she had received. It has now become a commercialised holiday - it is estimated that Britain spent £1.37 billion in 2022 on Valentine's Day celebrations and around 19-25 million cards are sent each year. It is estimated that around 190 million Valentine's cards are sent in the USA every year.
Spring and Mating of Birds
However, initially Saint Valentine's day was associated with spring and the coupling of birds - in Slovenia, Valentine was considered a saint of spring and it was thought that birds proposed to each other on Valentine's day. The first connection to 'romantic love' is thought to be from the 14th century poem Parlement of Foules by Geoffrey Chaucer in which the narrator pondered about love and received answers in his dreams and from an elder who appeared - he learnt that on Valentine's Day, the goddess Nature guides the birds in choosing their mates. However it could be argued that the poem is primarily an ode to nature and her harmony, particularly in the season of springtime:
"And when this task was all brought to an end,
Each fowl from Nature his mate did take
In full accord, and on their way they went.
And, Lord, the blissful scene they did make!
For each of them the other in wings did take,
And their necks round each other’s did wind,
Thanking the noble goddess, kind by kind....
Saint Valentine, who art full high aloft –
Thus sing the small fowls for your sake –
Now welcome summer, with your sun soft,
That this winter’s weather does off-shake.
Well have they cause to rejoice full oft,
Since each a marriage with its mate does make;
Full joyous may they sing when they wake;
Now welcome summer, with your sun soft,
That this wintry weather does off-shake,
And the long nights’ black away does take.’
And with the cries, when their song was done,
That the fowls made as they flew away,
I woke, and other books to read upon
I then took up, and still I read always..."
A pair of mandarin ducks
Birds do start breeding from January, with the majority of birds beginning to breed in early March - so Valentine's Day, like Imbolc, can signify the preparatory stages before spring truly begins. At a similar time as Chaucer, other writers connected Valentine's Day with the mating of birds as well as romantic love including John Gower who wrote the following in Cinkante Balades:
"Saint Valentine has under his governance
the love and the nature of all birds,
whereby each of them chooses a worthy partner
similar to its size, according to its desire,
entirely of one accord and one assent.
For that one alone it leaves alone
all others, for Nature teaches,
where the heart is, the body must obey.
My sweet lady, thus do I assure you
that I have chosen you similarly."
In 1400, the Charter of the Court of Love was issued in France by Charles VI which encouraged the celebration of love on February 14th with a feast, poetry, song and dance. In the UK, Valentine's Day poems and letters were being written from this time onwards and Valentine's Day was written about in Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The Faerie and Nature
The famous cliched Valentine's Day poem 'the rose is red, the violet's blue' was published in 1784 in a collection of nursery rhymes and it's thought to have been influenced by the famous lines from Edmund Spencer's epic poem Faerie Queene in Book 3, published in 1590:
"She bath'd with roses red, and violets blew,
And all the sweetest flowres [sic], that in the forrest grew."
This line described Chrysogone, who after bathing, slept on the grass and became miraculously pregnant after sun-beams entered her womb - again we can see the themes of purity, fertility and nature.
'Una and the Lion' by Briton Rivière (1880) - the painting depicts Una from the Faerie Queene
Yet it's thought that the festival had more ancient origins - the feast was observed on the 14th February when the ancient pagan ritual of Lupercalia occurred (13-15th February) as a purification rite for health and for purifying the city - it was also linked with promoting fertility. The festival was originally known as Februa meaning 'to cleanse' or purify and for the Romans, this was a month of purification and atonement. A god known as Lupercus was honoured during Lupercalia according to the Latin writer Justin - he was the god of farmers, harvests and wild animals and thought to bring fertility, particularly for breeding sheep. He was also identified with Pan, (the god of shepherds and wild nature) in Greek mythology. Yet in typical Roman style, the festival involved wild practises - the Luperci priests at Lupercal cave would perform ceremonies involving the sacrifice of goats and their foreheads would then be smeared with this blood. After the feast was finished, the Luperci priests would take strips of the goat hide and run around naked, whipping any women they passed by with the strips as a fertility rite. The Greek writer Plutarch wrote the following:
"The feast of the Lupercalia was being celebrated and at this time many of the magistrates and many young men of noble families run through the city naked, and, in their jesting and merrymaking, strike those whom they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of high rank purposely stand in their way and hold out their hands to be struck, like children at school. They believe that the effect will be to give an easy delivery to those who are pregnant, and to help the barren to become pregnant."
In later years, the celebration became more modest and the women were whipped on their hands by fully-clothed men. Unmarried men and women were also paired together during the festival by drawing lots and leaving trust to the forces of fate!
Transition to Saint Valentine's Day
The festival was eventually outlawed by Pope Gelasius and here we have the major clue of the transition from Lupercalia to Saint Valentine's Day, since it was Pope Gelasius who had added Valentine to the calendar of saints in 496 and the Feast of Saint Valentine was established at this time.
Researchers who have presented this theory have been criticised since there is a lack of historical proof. Yet it is quite clear that these kinds of patterns of one ritual evolving into another has happened frequently in our civilisations. Perhaps it is more pertinent to connect with the natural rhythms, astrology and cycles to identify the true natural energy behind the season which gave rise to the ceremonies in the first place.
Lupercalia oil painting, from a museum in Madrid, c.1635
Februa, February & Aquarius
It seems that the themes of connecting with nature and preparing for spring are an important part of this celebration - it might be valid to say that this is vitally what's needed in these times rather than cheesy commercial celebrations involving the processing of so many throw-away items. The Lupercalia celebrations were amorous and wild - the focus was on fertility particularly for women - Lupercus was believed to be the protector of sheep so there was also a clear association with lambing and springtime.
Yet despite the wildness of the festivities, they also had intentions to purify and atone during this time. As mentioned, Februa was the festival's original name which meant 'to cleanse' and February takes its name from this purification festival. This month is the season of Aquarius ruled by grandfather Uranus. Aquarius means the 'water-carrier' in Latin and this constellation often portrayed an older man pouring out blessings of purifying, healing water onto a river which is a beautiful image to contemplate.
Saint Valentine, it could be argued, personified sacred and pure unconditional love - despite being jailed and awaiting execution, he practised the principles of forgiveness and performed a healing for the jailer's daughter. He was courageous in testing times and kept his faith along with many others who died for their beliefs. Saint Valentine could symbolise unconditional love, forgiveness and faith and the need in society for everyone to feel safe for their beliefs and freewill and to live without persecution. Some countries have even banned the celebration of Valentine's Day - in 2014, five Saudi men in Saudi Arabia were arrested for celebrating by dancing with women they weren't married to - they were all sentenced to jail (with two sentenced for 10 years) and were given the lashes. This was changed in 2018 when a religious figure spoke up and said that celebrating love is universal. In Saudi Arabia, public displays of affection between men and women are banned and can lead to arrest however. Some Islamic countries fear that the day could encourage pre-marital sex or alcohol consumption. In Pakistan only married couples are permitted to celebrate Valentine's Day.
The Month of Purification & Divine Love
It is unfortunate that the pure essence of Valentine's Day has been lost by some - and that it can become associated with casual sex or Tinder dates. Freewill is of course important in society, yet remembering the true essence of what we celebrate is also important and to remember that love exists in everyone and is universal. It could be argued that there is a lot of conditioning in society which may make people feel incomplete if they do not have a romantic partner - they may seek for love outside of themselves and forget that this leads to us giving our power away, experiencing suffering and even becoming 'vampiric,' leading to messy energetic dynamics and objectification. We see this seductive archetype in many films, books, advertising and music and it is powerful programming which can influence the subconscious - see these recent music lyrics of an artist getting hundreds of millions of views as an example of this seductive archetype which can distract us from our path. Much of our 'love' is really neediness, control or lust - these are plasters to cover up deep-seated pains within - separation from our true Self. Wholeness truly begins within by bringing all parts of self back home - in finding sacred balance between our yin and yang and just being, content with what the earth brings each day. This is freedom from suffering, craving or longing.
One of the most best-selling books of all time, She, by H. Rider Haggard was published in 1887 and has now sold 83 million copies worldwide. At the time it was written, society was growing anxious about the ‘new woman’ (or true woman) rising and her growing independence and Rider Haggard’s book included powerful conditioning shaping people’s minds about feminine energy (yin) it could be argued and which cemented further the archetypal seductress who was unhappy on her own and needed a male’s energy. Tragedy prevailed after a man met a woman of unnatural life and beauty who misunderstood or misused her powers and failed to see the divine in all creation. For this “white sorceress,” feminine power was synonymous with terror, seduction, beauty and cruelty rather than self-realisation or compassion.
February & Aquarius
It may perhaps be significant to reflect on how far we have come since the testing times of Saint Valentine, and honour any past (or current) lives of persecution - to give thanks for that courage which has shaped who we are collectively today and what we are evolving towards, especially in recent times where many have needed to find courage and speak up against any coercive practises. Aquarius is also associated with themes of society, truth, freedom and individuality. These themes fit very well with Saint Valentine alongside Aquarius and grandfather Uranus.
Midsummer Eve by Edward Robert Hughes (c. 1908)
The Southern Hemisphere, around the south pole, will experience the opposite 'polarity' of Leo (end of summer,) yet these themes also work well with Saint Valentine. Leo is also connected with themes of society including leadership, being social and courage - it represents the lion-heart and the courage to follow our truth. These values are deeply needed in these times.
Saint Valentine was also associated with spring and the mating of birds which again brings us back to the connection with Mother Nature and the purification and fertility of the land. Now is a great time to share some bird seed, visit the forest and connect with nature and the earth (heart) - to remember the love of Mother Nature/Divinity that flows eternally through everyone and everything.