Friday, February 13, 2009

Hail Lupercus!

The other day I was restocking and generally cleaning up our selection of vintage greeting cards (the York Daily Record, in a piece a year or so ago, referred to them as “cheeky” greeting cards, and I thought that a little unfair. They’re from the 60s and 70s and some of them are a bit risqué and…well, OK, they are cheeky). Anyway, as I was looking at some of the sly Valentines I got to wondering about the holiday. I knew it was ancient, and certainly worthy of chocolate, but I wasn’t quite sure how sweet it really was.

First of all, according to the folks who keep track of such things, this is a pretty big deal for the greeting card industry. It ranks #2 for cards bought and sent (behind Christmas). I was a bit surprised to learn that women buy nearly 85% of all Valentine cards. There may be a deeper meaning here, but I am not sure I wish to pursue that line of inquiry. (I know that I have bought my share and always on time, as my sense of self-preservation is fairly well developed).

It turns out that the holiday has gone through a number of transformations over the years. The most recent is the shortening of the name, from “Saint Valentine’s Day” to just “Valentine’s Day.” We seem to have lost the connection with the saint and his feast day.

Actually, with the saints. There are (were?) three different saints with the same name and no one is really quite sure which is the one we’re celebrating. Most sources point to a priest who, about the year 270, was beaten to death upon the order of Roman Emperor Claudius II. The execution took place on February 14 (how they are able to set the exact date but not the year is a little fuzzy).

The story goes that the Emperor had banned all marriages that he hadn’t approved (and taxed). But this one, rather romantic, priest defied the edict and performed marriages in secret. True love, apparently, was more important than taxes (at least at the time). For his actions Valentine was sentenced to death. He died, therefore, in the cause of love. (Awwww……)

Well, maybe.

Frankly, it all seems a bit fishy to me. None of this was written down until the year 1493, some one thousand, two hundred and twenty three years after the fact. And those were not one thousand, two hundred twenty three years of happy enlightenment. I think the story may have gotten a bit garbled.

I also think it is no coincidence that the Romans also had a festival about this time every February in honor of the god Lupercus. Now, Lupercus was a minor diety who the Romans had co-opted from the Greeks. The Greeks called him Pan.

The Roman festival entailed an animal sacrifice after which the men who were inspired by their religion ran through the town, either naked or scantily clad, carrying whips that had been dipped in the sacrificial blood. The ladies of the city, also in a religious frame of mind, would accidentally-on-purpose get in their way. The men would sprinkle blood upon them as a way of furthering their fertility during the coming year.

(By the way, if you substitute beer for the blood and change a few other little details, it sounds like a Saturday night in York. But I digress.)

At the end of the running and sprinkling of blood (and, presumably, giggling), everyone wound up at a temple where two urns had been prepared. One held the names of the teenaged boys and the other held the names of the teenaged girls. A priest (not one of the Valentines, to be sure) would pull names at random and boys would be paired with girls. This pairing would remain in place for a year. Since teenaged boys and teenaged girls haven’t changed all that much in 2,000 years and since one had to appease the gods, the pairing would be, shall we say, total. And repeated. Often. Throughout the year.

To this day, there are those who maintain that this beats the heck out of a pot-luck supper after church.

When the Christian Church came to prominence, oh ‘long about the year 270 or so (does the date sound familiar?), a change was made. All this naked-sprinkling-while-giggling, not to mention repeated god appeasements, wouldn’t do. Hence, the appearance of a martyr to love. As an homage to the ancient ways, Cupid still seems to be hovering around. And rather than pull a name at random out of an urn, we now send cards. This is called progress.

I swear by the god Lupercus am not making any of this up.

Well, not much of it anyway.

Now…might I interest you in a vintage cheeky greeting card?

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