Long before Hallmark, long before the young and the restless had to take out a small loan to finance the day’s dealings, the roads to love started in – yes you guessed it, Rome! The early Romans celebrated Lupercalia on the Ides of February, roughly the 13th, a day dedicated to Lupercus, their god of fertility, crops and herds who also happened to be good at killing wolves. If you remember, Rome always had a problem with wolves. In fact the city was said to have been founded by the twins Romulus and Remus who were suckled by a she-wolf. But the ungrateful Romans forgot all about that, as people generally do, and began worshipping a god who was some kind of a super wolf killer.
During the day, groups of Luperci or priests walked to the top of the Palatine Hill where the twins had once been hidden by their wolf mother inside the Lupercal cave. There they cut the throats of one or more goats and one unfortunate dog. The blood trickled down the hill to the base where the rest of the pagan Romans waited to smear their faces with it. The priests then dressed in the bloody goat skins and cut themselves strips of goat hide before rushing down the slope and indiscriminately whacking women with these. These goat hide whips were called Februa and were thought to purify women and enhance their fertility and make child birth easy for them. (It would seem women were being subjected to strange gynecological methods from time immemorial, just ask one of them how comforting modern stirrups are!)
But that boys and girls is not the only reason why the Romans loved February. The month was also the time they worshipped Juno Februata, the goddess of febris (fever), love, women and marriage. Again, men seem to have fared better on the day. Names of girls were written on pieces of hide, dried this time, and teenage boys pulled them out of jars. This allowed them to go off with the girl they had picked and do what we generally hope teenagers are not doing for the rest of the year. When the early Christians arrived, they were horrified to see this sort of bacchanalia and promptly changed the names in the jars to the names of their saints. One can only imagine how the Roman youths felt about that. Imagine, pulling out the name of a mummified saint with a bent spine instead of that of the curvy young thing you have been eyeing in hopes of a little R and R!
It took the same Christians to make Lupercalia their own and give it a glossy coating. In AD 270 there was a bishop called Valentine who was imprisoned by the Roman emperor Claudius for helping young soldiers get married before they were sent off to far corners of the Empire. Claudius was so strict about this vow of celibacy being good for soldiering that he jailed the romantically inclined Valentine when he found out. Valentine promptly fell in love with his jailer’s daughter and wrote her notes signing them as Your Valentine. After he was beheaded at the emperor’s orders he became known as a friend to lovers. Much, much later, in AD 496 he was made a saint and the once pagan custom of wolves, bloody goat hide whips and woman beating became the quaint Christian custom of St Valentine’s Day.