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St. Valentine’s Day: Ancient roots stained in the blood of goats and saints


By Eric Olsen, special to
on February 13, 2016 at 9:45 AM, updated February 13, 2016 at 5:31 PM

You just finish putting away all the Christmas and winter decorations and Valentine’s Day rolls around, a time for the showy expression of love, especially romantic love, in the form of mushy cards, a box of chocolate, flowers, a romantic meal, maybe jewelry – you know what you have to do.

But Valentine’s Day, formally St. Valentine’s Day, has weird ancient roots stained in blood and rites of spring.


Like many major Western holidays — Christmas, Easter, Halloween — Valentine’s Day has pre-Christian pagan roots, specifically in the ancient Roman celebration of Lupercalia, which was observed February 13-15 for over 1,000 years before being abolished at the end of the 5th century. Lupercalia was an odd blend of spring purification ritual, fertility rite, and tribute to Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome.

The festivities began solemnly enough near Lupa’s cave on Palatine Hill, where Rome was traditionally founded, and were directed by the Luperci, the “brothers of the wolf,” who were priests of Faunus, the Roman equivalent of Pan. The festival got down to business with the sacrifice of two male goats for fertility and a dog for purity by the Luperci, who were each dressed only in a goatskin.

Courtesy, Eric Olsen

Next, two young aristocratic Luperci were led to the altar and anointed with the sacrificial blood on their foreheads, which was wiped off the bloody knife with wool soaked in milk. A feast followed and then thongs were cut from the skin of the sacrificed animals and the Luperci, who were by then feeling quite festive, frolicked about the Palatine district.

In the 1st century, Greek historian Plutarch portrayed the scene. “Many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs,” he wrote. “And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.” Maybe a few of the lads took it upon themselves to help out with the latter, but one can only speculate.

By the 5th century, the festival had been abandoned to the “rabble” in what was by then Christian Rome, and was finally banned altogether at the end of the decade as an unseemly and licentious display. Not a lot of hearts and flowers per se, but the festival, at least originally, was a playful and flirty ode to fertility.