SAINT VALENTINE, the martyr, whose feast day is celebrated on the 14th of February, bears a curious lack of relationship to the lover's holiday that bears his name. He is reputed to have restored sight to a blind girl-but this is not so much a lover's miracle as something that happens when a love affair comes to an end. Another Saint Valentine, Bishop of Terni, was also martyred in 270 or thereabouts, and may indeed be the same person. Neither of these saints is recorded as having done anything of an amatory nature. Aside from bestowing their names, they seem only accidentally associated with the custom of exchanging gifts, flowers and cards between lovers.

The tradition of choosing a sweetheart on this day is from antiquity associated with the mating season of birds. Chaucer refers to this in his Assembly of Fowls:

For this was on Saint Valentine's Day,

When ev'ry fowl cometh to choose her mate.

Shakespeare, too, in his Midsummer Night's Dream, refers to the mating of birds as beginning on February 14:

Good morrow, friends! St. Valentine is past; Begin these wood-birds but to couple now?

Valentine's Day may further be a relic of two yet more ancient fertility festivals, associated with the god Faunus and overlaid with additional ceremonies.

One of the oldest and most popular deities, Faunus was equated in early times with the Greek god Pan. He gave fruitfulness to the cattle, and was also a god of prophesy, revealing the future in strange dreams. Two festivals, called the Faunalia, were celebrated in his honor, one on the 13th of February, in the temple on the island in the Tiber, and the other on the 5th of December. Peasants brought rustic offerings, and amused themselves with dancing.

The Roman festival of Lupercalia, held from time immemorial on the 15th of February, was also in honor of the god Faunus. Celebrated in the Lupercal, a grotto in the Palatine Mount, the object of the festival was, by expiation and purification, to give new life to fields, flocks and people.

After the sacrifice of goats and a dog, two youths-called luperci-were touched on the forehead with a knife and smeared with the blood of the goats. The blood was then immediately wiped off with wool dipped in milk, whereupon they were bound to laugh. After the sacrificial feast, the youths were crowned and anointed, and except for girdles of goatskin, ran naked around the ancient city on the Palatine. They carried thongs cut from the sacrificed goats, and women placed themselves in the way of the running youths to receive blows from the thongs, which were a charm against barrenness. The name for the youths also suggests aversion of wolves or propitiation of a wolf god, and the whole ceremony reflects the needs of a small pastoral community. The fertility magic is combined with the ritual beating of the boundaries, and with rites of purification.

Called februa, from the word februare, to purify, among the Romans the day became the day of purification, and the whole month februarius, the month of purification. The festival was observed until 494 AD, in which year the Bishop Gelasius I changed it into the Feast of the Purification.

Thus in pureness of heart, arms filled with flowers, we bestow and beseech love on this day above all others. Amor omnia vincit: love conquers all.

Saint Valentine's Day, 1995

Lupus in Latin means "wolf."

The tradition of beating the bounds is still kept up in a few English parishes. Celebrated on Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day, schoolchildren accompanied by clergymen and parish officers walk around the boundaries, which the boys struck with peeled willow wands. The boys themselves were sometimes whipped at intervals, and water was poured on them from house windows to "make them remember" the boundaries. In Scotland, beating the bounds was called "riding the Marches." (Brewer's)

In the United States, there persists in some places an annual tradition of walking the boundaries of your land with the neighbor whose land it adjoins, taking note of markers and making clear whose land is whose. I recollect my grandfather doing just that with one of his neighbors in the early 1950s.


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