The month of February is here. It is the birth month of historic presidents and martyrs, while for lovers around the world, it is celebrated as the month of Valentine’s Day. While the former may be mere coincidences of time, that is not so in the celebration of love. To determine the source, one must search back many centuries in time. To arrive at St. Valentine’s Day, there is not one story, but three that make up the complicated tale and that does not even include the story of St. Valentine himself!
The month of February, like every month of our calendar, was named by the Romans. Their term was Februarius, but its origins went back to hundreds of years earlier. Rome is said to have been founded in the eighth century BC, but the Etruscans actually thrived well before the famed civilization. The name of the month is derived from a god and goddess in the religion of the Etruscans, which is the first story. In their religion, the god of purification was named Februus and the goddess of fever was named Febris.
On the Italian peninsula, the month of February is the time that precedes spring. The Etruscans honored Februus and Febris during the month with purification ceremonies, which they believed were necessary before the arrival of spring and all of the new growth that is associated with the season. As much as the Etruscans were known for making wine and having feasts, the month was a solemn time.
A far more peaceful people, over time the Etruscan civilization was absorbed into the Roman civilization. Their native land is the area now known as Tuscany and Umbria; the former’s name is derived from the ancient people.
The second story is about the legend of the founding of Rome. It begins in an ancient city called Alba Longo, about twelve miles to the south of the Eternal City. The city’s King Numitor was ousted by his evil brother Amulius. To remove any challenges, Amulius killed Numitor’s son Lausus and made the deposed King’s daughter, Rhea Silvia, a vestal virgin to prevent her from marrying and having children. She was quite beautiful, according to legend, so much so that the god of war, Mars seduced her. Much to the evil King’s dismay, Rhea Silvia bore twin sons and since their father was the god of war, Amulius was in a tough spot. If he killed the boys he would surely incur the wrath of Mars, so he decided to make the twins named Romulus and Remus disappear. He cast them into the flooded Tiber River in a basket and set them adrift.
During this period, the area where Rome was founded was a wild land. Wolves roamed the woods attacking, mauling and sometimes devouring people. Another pagan god was Lupercus, the god of wolves and he was especially important. His favor could mean the difference between life and death for many, especially people such as sheep herders.
In the legend, Romulus and Remus were found by a mother wolf who nurtured the two as if they were her own pups. Later the boys were found and raised by shepherds who were amazed and grateful for the immunity to wolf attacks on their flocks. The shepherds became even more devoted to Lupercus for the protection of their sheep, which thrived and multiplied. They were also impressed with the twin boys, who had a special relationship with the wolves.
As men, Romulus and Remus became the leaders of the shepherds who followed them in a revolt against Amulius. They slew the evil king and restored the throne to their grandfather. The young men were mesmerized by the idea of building a city at the very spot that the she wolf had saved them. This dream was to become the city of Rome. The den or grotto of the she wolf lay at the base of a hill, which in time would be known as the Palatine Hill.
In the centuries that followed, the month of Februarius, became a rather dull time for the citizens of Rome. An entire month devoted to purification was a long time, so a new feast was created to break up the monotony. They called it Lupercalia to honor Lupercus, Faunus and other gods and goddesses of fertility and protection. It was to be three days of joyous celebration beginning on the Ides of Februarius (the 13th) and ending on the 15th day of the month.
The fertility rite involved two young men, representing Romulus and Remus, who would conduct the slaying of a dog and a goat at the grotto on Palatine Hill. They would be ritualistically smeared with the blood, but then would be purified by having the blood wiped off with goat’s milk soaked in wool. The skin of the goat would be made into loin cloths for the two men and into flails called februa. These would be blessed and then the men would run into city to purify the citizens in preparation for the fertility of spring. Any woman who was with child or wished to conceive, would hold out her hands. To be touched by the februa was believed to ensure a safe pregnancy or to provide fertility to women seeking to have children.
All in all, Lupercalia was a very popular feast and became one of the highlights of the Roman year. For centuries, the people of Rome looked forward to the three days of celebration and many of the most notable young men of the city sought to be selected as the symbolic Romulus and Remus. The famous Roman general Mark Antony was one of the symbolic founders during one year’s celebration and the Shakespeare play “Julius Caesar” actually begins during the celebration.
More than 300 years after the death of Caesar, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity. For two more centuries, Lupercalia remained an important festival and leads to the third story. The enjoyment of a pagan blood fertility ritual by the masses did not sit well with Pope Saint Gelasius I. In 494 AD, he transformed Lupercalia into the Feast of the Purification of The Virgin Mary in an attempt to instill the immensely popular holiday with Christian virtue. The Feast Day of Saint Valentine, with the date of February 14, further distanced the Church from Lupercalia, while still acknowledging the significance of love, but within the acceptable morality of Christianity. It took some time, but Lupercalia finally faded away. It was no longer a month punctuated by a pagan fertility rite, but February has still maintained a very special meaning due to St. Valentine’s Day. This year, why not celebrate the day in style by blending present day traditions with much older ones and woo your love with some goat’s cheese and chocolate.