Two names are most associated with Valentine’s Day: Valentine and Cupid. Of the two, I prefer Valentine.
Valentine the Christian Martyr
Valentius was a very common Roman name. Until 1969, the Catholic Church observed feasts for eleven different Saint Valentines, three of which were honored on February 14. One was a priest in Rome who was martyred ca. 269. Another was a bishop in Terni in northern Italy who was also martyred in Rome, possibly ca. 197. The third was a martyr in North Africa, about whom virtually nothing is known.
Very little is known about any of these men. It is even possible that the two Italian Valentines are one in the same person. Numerous legends exist about Valentine of Rome and Valentine of Terni, but the truth of the matter is beyond our reach. The historical truth is so unclear that the Roman Catholic church removed the feast of Saint Valentine from its calendar in 1969.
There is ancient archaeological evidence of a church and catacomb dedicated to Valentine’s memory, so it is likely that a Christian named Valentine gave his life out of devotion to Christ and his church. His life is obscure to us, but he was an important witness and role model to the Christians of his age.
The legends contained in the old lives of the saints are themselves are windows into the thinking of an earlier generation of Christians. Valentine of Rome is said to have been a priest imprisoned, tortured and ultimately martyred for aiding jailed Christians. While there, he is said to have proclaimed his faith to his jailer and successfully prayed for the jailer’s blind daughter to recover her sight. He is also said to have proclaimed his faith boldly to the emperor.
Valentine of Terni is said to have preached the gospel as an evangelist and worked miracles of healing for the sick. He, too, is said to have been imprisoned, tortured, and murdered.
Valentine, then, was a model of courage, compassion, faithfulness. The story of Valentine celebrates love, to be sure, but it is a Christ-like, sacrificial love of God and neighbor.
Roman Fertility Rites
Some have claimed that the ancient church adopted and transformed pagan fertility rites that occurred in mid-February. The feast of Juno Februa, for example, is said to have occurred in February (although there is some doubt about that) as was the celebration of Lupercalia. Of Lupercalia, Plutarch said:
Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time 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. 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.
Unfortunately, there’s virtually no evidence of that Valentine’s Day had any romantic or fertility connotations for over a thousand years following Valentine’s death.
From the Middle Ages Onward
The earliest association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love appears to come from the late middle ages. Fourteenth and fifteenth century literature from England and France allude to this practice. The earliest association is found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1382).
For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day
Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate.
A Wikipedia entry offers the following explanation (as of 2/14/08):
This poem was written to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. A treaty providing for a marriage was signed on May 2, 1381 (When they were married eight months later, he was 13 or 14. She was 14.) On the liturgical calendar, May 2 is the saints’ day for Valentine of Genoa. This St. Valentine was an early bishop of Genoa who died around AD 307. Readers incorrectly assumed that Chaucer was referring to February 14 as Valentine’s Day.
One might trace the evolution of romantic love through the medieval concept of courtly love to the development of romantic themes in the 19th century. Even so, a number of the Valentine’s Day legends (or embellishments of legends) are really no older than the last century: a melding of 19th century ideals with neo-classical themes. What made Valentine’s Day really take off in the 19th century, however was the greeting card industry. The contemporary holiday more a commercial product of the last two centuries than an ancient tradition of any sort.
The cultural observance of Valentines Day, then, has little to do with the historical saint(s) Valentius (or Valentiusi – would that be plural?) of the Roman era. As a holiday, Valentines Day has much greater connections with a Roman god than a Roman saint.
Cupid is the Roman god of desire, sexual attraction and romantic affection. You can read the Roman myth of Cupid here. The Latin word cupido itself means “to desire.” Cupid is also known by the Latin name Amor, a word for love that has carried into the modern languages derived from Latin. Cupid is the Roman equivalent of Eros, whose connotations are obvious in the English language. (Actually, in Greek erao didn’t always mean sexual love, but by analogy any kind of strong emotional attachment to or admiration of an object worthy of such devotion. Some quality of the object itself drew forth eros from the one who loved it. Eros can be pure and chaste or it can be vile and twisted. Nevertheless, eros is not a word that any of the New Testament authors ever chose to use for “love.” Only agapao and phileo are found in the New Testament.)
Not that there’s anything wrong with physical desire, attraction and intimacy – in the right context. The author of Genesis says,
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they both really liked it. (Genesis 2:24-25)
Well, actually it says “they were not ashamed,” but you get the idea. In God’s creation, within the permanent union of a husband and a wife, human sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of. An entire book of the Bible – the Song of Songs – is a celebration of physical desire and beauty.
Of course that’s not the entire Biblical story of physical desire. Throughout the Old Testament, those who distorted or ignored God’s purpose in sexuality brought tragedy on themselves and their community.
Omnia vincit amor wrote the Latin poet Virgil. Love conquers all. The saying is true, but not in the sense that some intend. The ancient legend of Cupid and Psyche is a story of egocentric desire, emotional neediness, jealousy, possessiveness and manipulation. Our culture does Cupid very well – too well. It doesn’t need another dose of Cupid. It needs a dose of Valentine. True love requires courage, compassion, commitment, faithfulness and sacrifice.
Gods, Love and Eternal Life