In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s Valentine’s Day. While most of us associate the holiday with Hallmark and florists and guilt, the roots of today’s festivities, like so many of our modern holidays, stretch back to ancient times. Here’s a short article from National Geographic that briefly explains how St. Valentine’s Day may have grown out of the Roman tradition of the Lupercalia, in which naked young men who were members of an association called the Luperci (from Latin word for “wolf”) ran around the Palatine hill in Rome striking young women with whips made from goat skin. The event, which took place on February 15, was a purification rite and was also designed to promote fertility in the women. The purification aspect of the rite was the oldest part, a very ancient tradition called the Februa, from which we take the name of our month. At some point, it was combined with the Lupercalia.
What the Nat Geo article does not address is that the goat skin came from sacrifices performed earlier that day. A dog and some goats were slaughtered in the Lupercal, the cave at the foot of the Palatine hill in which Roman tradition said that a she-wolf reared the twins Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome.
The association of the cave with the wolf suckling the twins, a popular motif in Roman art, explains the fertility aspect of the Lupercalia. Following the sacrifice, the bloody knife was wiped on the foreheads of two laughing youths (they were required to laugh), then cleaned with a piece of wool dipped in milk – another reference to the wolf nursing the twins. Only then did the Luperci make their naked way around the Palatine with their whips.
The last year in which we know the Lupercalia was celebrated was 494 AD, after which the Church banned Christians from participating. The fact that the Church had to make such a law tells us, of course, that up until then Christians were involved. The bishop of Rome at the time, Gelasius I, transformed the Lupercalia into the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, thereby turning the fertility aspect of the rite completely on its head while retaining echoes of the older original purification rituals.
That’s the story of the Roman Lupercalia and its association with modern Valentine’s day. But I’d also like to share with you today another aspect of ancient “romantic” life. Many of us are familiar with the beautiful love poems of Roman authors like Ovid or the delightfully off-color (but still deeply romantic) Catullus; if you have never read any of their poetry, do yourself a favor and find some. But many people are less aware of another type of love writing from the Greek and Roman world: romantic spells.
Many ancient magic spells, which were engraved on lead tablets, aimed to do harm to others – to spoil their crops or cause them bodily harm, for instance. But some spells enlisted the aid of outside powers to ensnare or otherwise control an object of desire. For example, one ancient spell issues commands to Myrrh. Myrrh was a spice strongly associated with lovemaking in the ancient world, and it was often burned to “set the mood” for an amorous encounter. It is addressed as a magical force here. The spell reads (in Greek): “Myrrh, as you burn, so also will you burn her…arouse yourself, Myrrh, and go…” (PGM 36 333-60). Whoever wrote the spell told Myrrh to “arouse” itself. He (or she) likely intended a double meaning. The command is that Myrrh should get a move on and get the job done, but the phrase is also probably a reference to the known quality of myrrh as a sexually arousing scent. This lovesick individual orders Myrrh to physically enter the body of their beloved, to take them over completely, to infect their very bones. I leave it up to my readers to decide whether or not such a controlling, consuming passion is romantic.