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Unveiling the Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day: From Lupercalia to Modern Romance

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Delve into the eerie roots of Valentine’s Day, where the seemingly sweet celebration of love and romance emerges from the grim shadows of history. From Lupercalia’s blood-soaked rituals to the sombre martyrdom of early Christian saints, explore the macabre past lurking beneath the saccharine surface of February 14th.

Valentine’s Day, with its modern connotations of love and romance, harbours a darker history lurking beneath the saccharine surface. The origins of the phrase ‘from your Valentine’ evoke images not of romantic walks along San Francisco Bay, but rather the grim confines of Guantanamo Bay. The first known usage of the phrase was penned in a letter by an early Christian Saint to a jailer’s daughter, moments before his martyrdom. This sombre beginning sets the tone for a day that has seen its fair share of macabre celebrations.

For those seeking a truly authentic, albeit pagan, Valentine’s Day experience, the ancient Romans offer a startling precedent. Instead of exchanging bouquets and chocolates, Romans commemorated February 14th with Lupercalia, a festival where participants ran through the streets clad in bloody strips of freshly shredded goat skin. This ritualistic display, meant to purify and ensure fertility, starkly contrasts with modern Valentine’s Day traditions, reminding us of the eerie roots entwined with this ostensibly romantic holiday.

Lupercalia was an ancient pagan festival held each year in Rome on February 15. Although Valentine’s Day shares its name with a martyred Christian saint, some historians believe the holiday is actually an offshoot of Lupercalia. Unlike Valentine’s Day, however, Lupercalia was a bloody, violent and sexually charged celebration awash with animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and coupling in the hopes of warding off evil spirits and infertility.

(Lupercalia, oil on canvas, 1635 Public Domain)

No one knows the exact origin of Lupercalia, but it has been traced back as far as the 6th century B.C. According to Roman legend, the ancient King Amulius ordered Romulus and Remus—his twin nephews and founders of Rome—to be thrown into the Tiber River to drown in retribution for their mother’s broken vow of celibacy. A servant took pity on them, however, and placed them inside a basket on the river instead. The river-god carried the basket and the brothers downriver to a wild fig tree where it became caught in the branches. The brothers were then rescued and cared for by a she-wolf in a den at the base of Palatine Hill where Rome was founded. The twins were later adopted by a shepherd and his wife and learned their father’s trade. After killing the uncle who’d ordered their death, they found the cave den of the she-wolf who’d nurtured them and named it Lupercal. It’s thought Lupercalia took place to honour the she-wolf and please the Roman fertility god Lupercus.

Lupercalia rituals took place in a few places: Lupercal cave, on Palatine Hill and within the Roman open-air, public meeting place called the Comitium. The festival began at Lupercal cave with the sacrifice of one or more male goats—a representation of sexuality—and a dog. The sacrifices were performed by Luperci, a group of Roman priests. Afterwards, the foreheads of two naked Luperci were smeared with the animals’ blood using the bloody, sacrificial knife. The blood was then removed with a piece of milk-soaked wool as the Luperci laughed.

In Ancient Rome, feasting began after the ritual sacrifice. When the feast of Lupercal was over, the Luperci cut strips, also called thongs or februa, of goat hide from the newly sacrificed goats. They then ran naked—or nearly naked—around Palantine, whipping any woman within striking distance with the thongs. During Lupercalia, the men randomly chose a woman’s name from a jar to be coupled with them for the duration of the festival. Often, the couple stayed together until the following year’s festival. Many fell in love and married. Over time, nakedness during Lupercalia lost popularity. The festival became more chaste, if still undignified, and women were whipped on their hands by fully clothed men.

As we exchange cards and roses, let us not forget the shadowy past that underpins this day of love. From papal decrees condemning kissing to tales of werewolf rituals, the annals of history paint Valentine’s Day in hues darker than the deepest red roses. Whether it’s the bones of the saint safeguarded in Glasgow or the Spanish Inquisition’s dalliance with chocolate-fueled seduction, the tapestry of Valentine’s Day history is woven with threads of superstition, passion, and occasionally, terror.

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Michelle Fisher
Michelle Fisher is a teacher living in Oxfordshire in England. With a lifelong passion and interest in the paranormal Michelle created Haunted History Chronicles Podcast in October 2020 to combine and share some of her passions and connect with other like minded individuals.

Unveiling the Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day: From Lupercalia to Modern Romance

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