Like most holidays, Valentine’s Day has age-old origins that might be surprising. The celebrations of St. Valentine’s Day are steeped in legend and mystery, and embrace a time of year that was long associated with love and fertility—millennia ago.
In Athens, the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera was honored. Later in classical history, there was the Roman festival of Lupercus, the god of fertility. And the winged Cupid with his bow and arrows derived from Greek and Roman mythology as well. A god in his own right, Cupid (Eros) was the son of Venus (Aphrodite), the goddess of love. His arrows were of lead or gold: If pieced through the heart by one of his arrows, the victim would either hate or love the first person he/she saw.
One popular belief is that the first official Saint Valentine’s Day was declared on the 14th of February by Pope Galasius in 496 CE, in memory of a 3rd-century martyred priest in Rome. According to legend, the young priest rose to distinction after betraying Emperor Claudius in 270 CE, by conducting illegitimate wedding ceremonies. Emperor Claudius claimed that married men made poor soldiers and consequently decreed that all marriages of younger citizens would be outlawed. Valentine, however, continued to conduct marriages in secret between young people in love.
His success gained him unwelcome notoriety, which became his downfall. He was jailed and ultimately beheaded, but not before he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. Legend says that on the evening of his execution, the priest passed her a note which read “from your Valentine.” This story of St. Valentine has become the defining tradition of Valentine’s Day—with a little Greek mythology thrown into the mix. Cupid (Eros) has evolved into a chubby infant, causing mischief, shooting his lead or golden arrows.
So, when you write that Valentine card, think of St. Valentine who wrote the first note from a jail cell, the night before his execution. And when you buy that red, heart-shaped box of chocolates, remember Cupid’s arrows of either lead or gold, and recall the changeable nature of attraction.
What is your favorite Valentine story or tradition?
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