In ancient Greece, the period around the middle of February celebrated the Hieros Gamos (sacred marriage) of the Deities, Hera and Zeus. Not to be outdone, the Romans had Lupercalia, a fertility festival in honor of the Goddess-wolf Lupa, and Lupercus, the God of wolves and shepherds, which was observed around the 13th to 15th of February each year. Other parts of Italy celebrated ‘Juno Februa’, a month long festival dedicated to Juno, the Goddess of marriage.
When the Holy Roman Empire adopted Catholicism as its official religion in 313AD, many of the pseudo converted Pagans continued to celebrate Lupercalia, the Hieros Gamos and Juno Februa in secret. To combat this, in 496 AD, Pope Gelasius established Saint Valentine’s Day as a kind of compromise.
Still, the strong romantic, rather than fertility and marriage, based connections to the day were more or less unknown. So, why do we associate love and romance with this day in modern times?
We can thank poet Geoffrey Chaucer for that. His 1382 ‘Parlement of Foules’ (the Parliament of Fowls) is the earliest existing evidence that links Valentine’s Day with romance, courtship and the Deities of love:
“For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there his mate to take . . .
I will not serve fair Venus nor Cupid,
In truth, as yet, in no manner of way . . .”
As to why Chaucer made this connection, nobody knows for certain, though there has been plenty of speculation.
The next, and arguably most famous, reference to a romantic Valentine’s Day after this is over two hundred years later in William Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, where it states:
“Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day . . . and I a maid at your window, to be your Valentine”.
By the 1800’s the exchange of love notes and cards on Valentine’s Day was the norm. From here, the day continued to gain popularity, along with the link to romance, until it became the celebration of fuzzy teddy bears, helium-filled balloons and chocolate roses that we observe today.
However you decide to mark Valentine’s Day, whether the old way, the new way, or not at all, I wish you a happy one.