When February comes around, you’d be hard-pressed not to notice the approach of Valentine’s Day. Walking down the high street or surfing the internet, you’ll no doubt be bombarded with a set of easily identifiable symbols – often in an attempt to goad you into a kind of lustrous consumption. Hearts, ribbons, cupid and the color red all feature prominently in February’s symbolic palate, but where did these symbols come from? What is the mythology behind the day on which we celebrate love?
In truth, the evolution of Valentine’s Day is a story of how popular mythology and consumerism can become intertwined. Regardless of your opinion on the day itself, it isn’t hard to admit that it has a fascinating history, as outlined in this article.
Whilst most people associate Valentine’s Day with the Christian figure of St Valentine, the origins of the celebration are older than European monotheism. In some parts of the pre-Cristian Roman Empire, pagan priests and citizens celebrated Lupercalia in mid-February. Lupercalia was a festival dedicated to the harvest god, but also a celebration of fertility. Many scholars consider Lupercalia to be the originator of a spring festival celebrating love with European traditions. Thankfully, the tradition of slapping women with raw animal hides to promote fertility hasn’t carried over into the modern celebration for the vast majority of people!
There are three candidates for the title of St Valentine that spawned our modern festival of love. All three were martyred saints of the Catholic Church. The most likely candidate lived in third-century Rome. He was beheaded by the Emperor Claudius II for continuing to perform marriage rites, despite the temporary ban on young men marrying that the Emperor had signed in order to try and convince youths to be better soldiers.
This act of defiance in the name of love has been interpreted as the root of our modern celebration by some scholars, who differentiate the celebration of love from earlier fertility-based rituals. Pope Gelasius outlawed Lupercalia in the fifth century and declared 14th February to be Saint St Valentine’s day. A coincidence, perhaps?
One of the most enduring symbols associated with Valentine’s Day is the angelic figure of Cupid, often pictured wielding a bow and arrow. Cupid’s association with love can be traced back to his Ancient Greek predecessor – Eros, the god of love. Eros wielded a magical bow in many myths. When Eros struck a god or mortal with his arrow, they would be overwhelmed with desire.
Valentine’s Day as a commercially connected celebration took off in the England of the eighteenth century. The tradition of giving personalised Valentine’s Day gifts to partners (current or prospective) is thought to have originated during this time. An estimated 145 million Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year. How many of these have the desired effect is, unfortunately, unknown. Religion and mythology are rarely present on the surface of modern Valentine’s Day celebrations, but it lingers on in the symbols and traditions used to celebrate love each February.
And there you have it – a brief overview of how the intriguing history and traditions of Valentine’s Day have evolved over the centuries.