Valentine's Day - A peep into history

Valentines Day today is all about Declarations. Someone is someone else's Valentine. If someone is not, then someone is depressed. If someone is NOT depressed, society reacts in such a way, that someone has no recourse, except to get depressed, thanks to things like Hallmark etc.

What is this big hype all about?

Actually there are several stories. Some have to do with the Romans and the wolves, some have to do with priests, and then some have bishops involved.

It turns out that the ancient Romans had a festival called Lupercalia. The name has something to do with "lupus" or wolves. Far from being soft and romantic, this particular festival was, well, pretty drastic.

First of all, it was in honor of a deity which was connected with the she-wolf that is supposed to have protected and reared Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. This deity was also supposed to protect the goat herds and shepherds from the wolves. Where do the shepherds and goatherds come in, in Rome, you might ask.

Well, those were NOT the days of Global Warming, Inconvenient Truths etc, and Rome, as such, was surrounded by virgin wilderness and forests, where packs of wolves simply ran wild. But there was a price to be paid for all this environmental bliss....

The Lupercalia festival began with a sacrifice of, inexplicably, 2 goats; and a dog. Two priests were led up to the sacrificial place, and (no, they did not follow in the goats footsteps), blood from the sacrificial mess was anointed on their foreheads. This was followed by a grand feast and since no one was interested in the goats skin, they simply made stuff out of it, which they then ran around Rome, waving. Any woman, who crossed their path, simply got whacked with it.

Just in case you think someone then took up cudgels on behalf of the women, NO. The women were told and presumably they actually believed that a whack from these guys waving the goat skin stuff bestowed fertility on them.

Interestingly, these goat skin lashing weapons were called "februa" and the business of lashing was called "februatio". In Latin, both words meant something similar to "purification".

So that’s how the month got its name. February.

Later on Rome became a walled city and a powerful empire, throughout the tumultuous years the Lupercalia continued to be followed.

It’s very clear that this killing and waving of goats skin and whacking women into fertility must have been on the approved list of hobbies for most Roman emperors and their noblemen or whoever. When Roman armies invaded France and Britain, they took their R and R habits with them.

They took the Lupercalia customs there. One of these is believed to be a lottery where the names of Roman maidens were placed in a box and drawn out by the young men. Each man accepted the girl whose name he drew as his love - for a year or longer. (I suppose after running trying to avoid a whack, and then having to give in, the women didn’t have much of a choice. Nor were there any Goddess etc, who could have a complementary festival, where say, maidens rode around on horses etc, whipping guys who crossed their paths, convincing them that it was good for their war training and strength.)

In the slightly less violent and dramatic stories about Valentines, there are actually, according to the Catholic encyclopedia, three guys, or should I say, saints, vying for the honor. One was a priest in Rome, the second was a Bishop of Interrama (now called Terni), and the third, lived and died somewhere in Africa.

Some say the priest and Bishop is actually the same person. Well, same or not, they too had to face some dramatic events, from a Roman king called Claudius, the (what else) Cruel. (We have come such a long way; we just say, Mr. Bush, the President; Mr. Blair, the PM, and Queen Elizabeth (followed by like n titles, none of them having to do with cruelty).

The priest used to preside over a wonderful temple near the palace. A permanent Holy fire burned there and the citizens came there to seek the priest's blessings and hear his sermons. In the meanwhile, Claudius, true to his name, kept waging wars here and there, and got the idea of the Draft. All young men were supposed to join up, married or not. Well, the young guys had girlfriends they didn’t want to leave, and so they went to the priest and secretly got married to their girls. Seeing that folks were not joining up, Claudius declared that the priest would do no more marriages or celebrate engagements and that all the guys needed to report to boot camp.

Well, this priest was what we call a "conscientious objector". He sort of defied Claudius the cruel, and kept performing the marriages and stuff. What happened was not surprising. Claudius decided to be really cruel, and sent his soldiers to arrest the priest and threw him into the dungeon, where he stayed till he died on February 14, AD 270. Pope Gelasius put a Christian Spin on this by saying that this day was to honor St Valentine, who was killed by Claudius while pursuing Christianity.

Claudius had a thing about persecuting Christians, so according to another story, he threw a guy named Valentine in jail for following and propagating Christianity. This guy was very smart. He converted the jailor and his entire family to Christianity; in addition, he fell in love with Julia, the jailor's daughter who was blind, and restored her eyesight. The jailor was ecstatic but Claudius was furious. He sentenced Valentine to be executed. History says, that on the morning of his execution, Valentine sent a message to the daughter, saying, (what else) , "From your Valentine !"

The nations in Europe all have their competitive hang-ups with each other. Just like in case the Romans thought they had a copyright over Valentine, the Norse had a saint by the name of St Galantin, which means, "lover of women”. The G in Norse is not pronounced like "ga" (like in, eg. garbage), but more like a "V". So Galantin simply became St Valentine.

(And we don’t say anything about the French, who insist that the word comes from "galantine" which translates to gallant and/or lover.)

It so happened, that the Christian officialdom did their best to counter all the excitement about the wolves, and whacking, fertility rituals, drawing names of women from baskets, and going around with them for a year, fighting against Claudius etc. etc. It ruled against folks following pagan rituals. Finally, they found that it made better sense to officially redefine the day as their own, instead of declaring bans.

And so we have Valentine’s Day, being celebrated on February 14th, dedicated to a Christian Saint. King Charles the II, officially restored Valentine’s Day to British Society. Notwithstanding the fact that folks called Puritans came over to the New World in 1629, Valentine’s Day in America went through the same opposition as it did from the Church in England. It took another 100 years for Valentine’s Day to be firmly established in the American scheme of things.

The first U.S. maker of valentines, to succeed on a commercial basis was Esther A. Howland, of Worcester, Massachusetts, In 1847, after seeing a British valentine, she decided to make some of her own. She made samples, took orders from stores, hired staff of young women and set up an assembly line to produce the cards. Howland expanded her business into a $100,000-a-year enterprise. (Oprah, eat your heart out)

In all this romance, adulation, beauty and other exalted stuff, there did creep in some some folks, who thought things needed to be normalised a bit. Everyone was not the epitome of beauty, fashions changed, some people were downright mean, though pretty, folks had fights, and so we had what were called the Penny Dreadfuls. A nice normal American version designed to warm the cockles of the hearts of all little boys in America, who can’t stand girls....

In the last part of the 19th and beginning of 20th century, some decided to tell it like it is. They sent these "Penny Dreadfuls”, (cards that cost a penny) , saying stuff as below, and then sat back and enjoyed......

'Tis all in vain your simpering looks,
You never can incline,
With all your bustles, stays, and curls,
To find a valentine.

I shudder to think what would have happened if the goat skin stuff was still prevalent then. Maybe this time the guys would have got whacked?

An Article by Suranga Date aka Ugich Konitari who blogs at Gappa

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