Valentine’s Day: bring back the whips?

Although Valentine’s Day has traditionally been a day for couples, families, and friends to celebrate their relationships, the origin of the holiday that we know today is likely not what you were expecting.

Lupercalia was a very important Roman festival that was celebrated from about the third century BCE to the fifth century CE and took place annually from February 13 through February 15.

The priests who performed the Lupercalia traditions were much younger than everyday priests and were often in their early twenties.

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To kick off the Roman holiday, the priests would sacrifice a goat or dog and use their hides to create long whips.

Dr. Mont Allen is an assistant professor in SIU’s School of Art and Design in art history and classics. In his research, Allen studies Late Antique religions, Greek mythology, Greek and also specializes in Roman sarcophagi.

“We are told that these priests would then run around the Palatine Hill, and we are told that they would run around either naked or semi-naked and another source says that they would wear goatskins, perhaps from the goat that they had slaughtered,” Allen said.

Palatine Hill is one of the Seven Hills of Rome and was the hill on which the city was founded on. It was also known as one of the most sacred places in the city.

Allen said that due to the confusion in whether the priests were naked or semi-naked, that he tends “to imagine is these young priests running around wearing only the skins of goats, so they’re essentially naked from the front but perhaps with the skin of a goat around their shoulders or around their chest.”

 With the whips made from the sacrificed goat, they would run in circles counterclockwise and whip people as they walked by. It was thought that getting hit by the whips would ensure good health.

 “Above all, we are told that newly married women would sometimes walk out into the street to put themselves in the way of the lash to purposefully get hit because it was believed that being struck by this lash would help those that are infertile gain fertility. If a woman was pregnant, it was claimed that the touch of the lash would make their pregnancy and their birthing easier,” Allen said.

In 291 A.D. on February 14, Saint Valentine, or San Valentino, was killed by the Roman government because he didn’t renounce his faith and thus became a martyr.

It was normal in Roman culture to have an annual feast for the early Christian martyrs which would have taken place on the date of their martyrdom.

 In the beginning, Christians did not associate Saint Valentine with Lupercalia. It just so happened that he died at the same time as the Lupercalia festival.

 “It was first noticed by Chaucer in the fourteenth century who seemed to draw the two together. He knew that they both took place at the same time and so he combined them thematically. He is the first one to express the notion of romantic love being celebrated on the day that St. Valentine died,” Allen said, “For the first fourteen centuries of Christianity, nobody associated that saint with love.”

 The British were the first to adopt the new meaning of Saint Valentine’s martyrdom. The Europeans soon followed and began to associate the feast of St. Valentine with the day of romantic love that originated with the Lupercalia festival.

Photo Editor Leah Sutton can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @LeahSutton_

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