As the seasonal wheel revolved toward spring, nature’s re-emerging fertility was occasion for wild celebration. In Rome, a festival honored Faunus, a pastoral deity derived from Pan, the goat-footed Greek god of desire. At a cave called the Lupercal, where Rome’s founders Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf, goats were sacrificed. Youths ran through the streets flicking strips of hide at women to make them fertile. And all-night banquets featured foods whose look or legend promised heightened desire: asparagus, cucumbers, garlic, onions, mushrooms, figs, pomegranates, eggs, roe, lobster, and the notoriously prolific rabbit.
The day preceding Lupercalia, February 14th, was cause for another kind of festivity. In honor of Juno Februata (The Pure), wife of Jupiter and patroness of marriage, girls’ names were put into a box and drawn out by blindfolded youths. These couples paired by the Wife-goddess herself then tested their potential for married bliss through the next year – or at least until the festival ended.
During a third century Lupercalia festival, the name Valentine became forever linked with the ancient spring fertility rites. The new faith, Christianity, had been forbidden and those found preaching it were executed. A priest named Valentine was accused of abetting Christians and brought before Emperor Claudius II. Refusing to denounce his faith, the priest was imprisoned and while awaiting execution, miraculously restored the sight of his jailer’s blind daughter. On the eve of his death, Valentine sent her a note encouraging her to practice Christianity’s selfless love and signed it “From your Valentine”.
Not many years later, the Christian church set February 14th aside to remember the kindly priest’s martyrdom. With his feast day the same as the celebration of Juno Februata, Valentine became the patron saint of engaged persons. Those hoping to find love prayed for his blessing, and lovers who had quarreled prayed for his intercession.
As Christianity spread through Rome and then Europe, zealous prelates tried to abolish the pagan practice of pairing couples by random drawing. Early Christians were encouraged to choose saints’ names instead and practice pious virtues for a year. But picking a sweetheart was always more fun than emulating a saint, so the older custom survived.
Society, though Christianized, still depended on nature’s seasonal cycle for survival. And the days just before spring were still considered prime time for courtship and mating. In fact, by the fourteenth century most of Europe believed that birds began their billing and cooing rituals precisely on St. Valentine’s Day.