Cults, Babies & Priests: The Origins of Valentine’s Day

Words: Robyn Samuels

There’s much speculation about the origins of Valentine’s Day, who St. Valentine actually was and how the fat naked baby (cherub) fits into the story. The origins of Valentine’s Day are somewhat dark and blurry. Many tales surrounding Valentine’s Day exist, the better-known association with the Cupid actually derives from Roman mythology…

Cupid – The God of Love

According to Roman mythology, Cupid is the god of love, desire and affection. He is often depicted as a cherub – a handsome, winged, unearthly/angelic being (usually a baby), but cherubs can take on different forms. Cupid usually carries a bow and arrow; it’s believed that darting people with his arrow made them fall in love – even the gods called on this matchmaking assassin. Both versions have slight variations, but are similar for the most part since Roman mythology was translated into Latin from Greek mythology.

Cupid Valentine's Day
In the Greek mythology version, Cupid is likened to Eros, the Greek god of love. He’s described as a primordial god having existed since the beginning of time. Eros is thus referred to as a man, a young male or a baby in many stories. Most texts suggest that Aphrodite is Eros’ mother – being the Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty, the father’s identity is not quite clear, but it could be a toss-up between Chaos, Zeus and Ares. As for Saint Valentine, there are a couple of tales linked to Valentine’s Day’s origins…

The Legends of St. Valentine

The festival of Lupercalia was an ode to Juno Februata, the goddess of feverish love. During this celebration, men sacrificed animals – mostly goats and dogs – to perform fertility rituals; the story gets more grim… after sacrificing and slaughtering the animals, men would use the hide to violently whip women in a ‘fertility ritual’.

Valentine's Day origins
The barbaric festival also involved picking women’s names out of a jar in an unlucky draw. If they were compatible, the women were paired (more like ‘stuck’) with the men for the duration of the festival. Christian believers denounced the festival, as it conflicted with their beliefs. A different way of celebrating Lupercalia was proposed, but this was denied.

Who is St. Valentine? One of the more popular legends suggests that Valentine’s Day was named after two men murdered at the hands of Roman Emperor Claudius II during the third century (circa 270 C.E.). Sadly, these men were ordered to be executed on the fourteenth of February, but in different years. Both men also shared the name ‘Valentine’, one of whom was a priest.

The Emperor apparently opposed marriage – he believed it ‘made men weak’, as soldiers were required to be physically and mentally fit for battle and thus banned all marriages. However, this didn’t stop the Roman priest, St. Valentine from secretly officiating weddings. The Emperor learned about this and subsequently jailed and sentenced the priest to death. In 496 C.E., Pope Gelasius and the Catholic Church decided to honour the Christian martyrs for their saintly love and acts of bravery, and so the holiday became Valentine’s Day.

The Evolution of Valentine’s Day

Valentine's Day origins

What once was a barbaric festival has become a holiday synonymous with love. Today, Valentine’s Day is celebrated by people all over the world and is ultimately a day to express love through gifting chocolates, roses, personalised presents, and other romantic gestures.

Although traditionally observed by those in romantic relationships, modern society has made this holiday more inclusive by recognising that platonic love is also worth celebrating – this is known as Galentine’s Day. Children also show their love to parents with handmade crafts, similar to Valentine’s Day traditions in Estonia and Finland.

Some people don’t celebrate it and choose not to buy into the commercialisation of this holiday for personal reasons. Whether you celebrate this Valentine’s Day or not, it doesn’t hurt to spread a little love.

Learn all about these Valentine’s Day traditions from around the world

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