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The pagan roots of Valentine's Day

Lupercalia | Andrea Camassei | Wikimedia | Public Domain

Every year on February 14, the world marks Valentine’s Day. Millions send messages and gifts of love to the people most important in their lives.

You’d be forgiven for thinking the fourteenth has its roots in the Christian faith, with the day seemingly named after Saint Valentine, a priest who lived during the third century AD. However, many historians believe the day originated from the Roman pagan festival of fertility called Lupercalia, an event filled with animal sacrifice, random coupling and the whipping of women; not quite the romantic chocolate and roses day that we celebrate today.


Lupercalia was a major festival on the Roman calendar and was commemorated every year on February 15. It was held in honour of the gods Faunus and Lupercus, the gods of agriculture and fertility. It also honoured the mythological founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus.

In the morning the priests of Lupercus, known as Luperci, gathered at Lupercal cave, the place where Romulus and Remus were said to have been cared for as babies by a she-wolf. The cave lay at the foot of the Palantine Hill, the spot at which the brothers were believed to have founded Rome.

In a representation of fertility and because Lupercus was a god of shepherds, two males goats were sacrificed in the cave. This was followed by the sacrifice of a dog to represent purification and because dogs often guard the flocks. Blood taken from the sacrificial knife was then smeared across the foreheads of two naked Luperci. The knife was then wiped clean with a piece of milk-soaked wool. Historians have suggested this ritual is the reason why Valentine’s Day is associated with the colours red and white; red represents the blood from the sacrifice whilst white represents the milk on the wool that wipes the knife clean, signifying new life.

Lupercalia festivities
The Lupercalian Festival in Rome (ca. 1578–1610), drawing by the circle of Adam Elsheimer,

Feasting followed this ritual and after stomachs were full the Luperci cut strips from the sacrificed goats called ‘thongs’ and dipped them in the sacrificial blood. The Luperci then ran naked through the streets of Rome and whipped any woman within striking distance. Many welcomed the lashings, often revealing bare skin for the thongs to strike. The Romans believed that the thongs would make childless women more fertile whilst blessing pregnant women with the gift of an easy birth.

Another custom during Lupercalia was the pairing of young Roman boys and girls. At some point during the festival, the names of young girls were written on bits of paper and slipped into a jar. Every young man would then pull out a girl’s name from the jar; the pair would then be coupled together for the duration of Lupercalia. Many stayed together until the following year’s festival, some even fell in love and married.

As Christianity swept across the globe, many pagan traditions were absorbed and adapted into the Christian faith. ‘Lupercalia was clearly a very popular thing, even in an environment where the [ancient] Christians are trying to close it down,’ Noel Lenski, Professor of Classics and History at Yale said in an interview with NPR. ‘So there's reason to think that the Christians might instead have said, OK, we'll just call this a Christian festival.’

Saint Valentine

In the fifth century AD, Pope Gelasius I banned Lupercalia and in 496 AD the Catholic Church declared February 14 a day to feast and celebrate the life of the martyred Saint Valentine, said to have been executed on 14 February 269 AD.

With over 10,800 saints and multiple Valentine’s, it’s not officially known whether the stories about Saint Valentine were about one man or multiple men merged together. The most popular belief states he was a priest in the Roman Empire during the third century AD, executed under the command of Claudius II for conducting marriages in secret after the Emperor had outlawed them.

The story goes that whilst awaiting his fate in prison he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. After his sentence finally came through, Valentine supposedly left a farewell note to the young lady and signed it ‘from your Valentine’.

He then exited the jail and walked towards the most unromantic of ends - death by beating and decapitation.

Whilst we may never know the full truth about Saint Valentine’s origins, the stories about him all emphasise his attributes as a heroic and potentially romantic figure. ‘It may be a convenient explanation for a Christian version of what happened at Lupercalia,’ Lenski states.

Geoffrey Chaucer

However, the direct association of February 14 with overt romanticism and declarations of love doesn’t seem to have started until over a thousand years later during the Middle Ages. The famed fourteenth-century English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, author of ‘The Canterbury Tales’, is often credited as the man who made the link. At that time it was believed that European birds began to pair up in mid-February, specifically around the fourteenth.

For this was on seynt Volantynys day. Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make,’ Chaucer wrote in his poem ‘Parlement of Foules’, making one of the earliest references about St. Valentine’s Day being a day for those in love.

Other poets followed his lead, including Shakespeare. The romantics retold history, converting the day into one about devotion, love and courtship. From then on it seems that budding lovers began to send romantic notes to their sweethearts on the Valentine’s Day.

Industrialisation during the eighteenth century made things even easier for smitten couples with the mass-production of illustrated romantic cards. The day’s pagan roots were still very much on display with images of Cupid, the Roman god of desire and love, often adorning the cards. From there the day gradually grew into the billion-pound industry that it is today.