On February 14, as we all know, the feast of lovers is celebrated, in memory of the martyrdom of Saint Valentino da Terni.
The hagiographic sources narrate that the martyr, born in Terni (Italy) from a noble family, converted to Christianity becoming a bishop in his early twenties. He was later arrested under the roman emperor Aureliano and executed by beheading on February 14th 273.
According to another legend, Valentino was executed for having celebrated an illegal marriage between a christian woman named Serapia and a Roman legionary, Sabino. Thus he became the patron saint of lovers.
However, the origin of this festival, which has become more commercial than religious today, dates back to pre-Christian celebrations, known by the name of Lupercalia and celebrated on February 15th in the religious calendar of ancient Rome.
The feast was held between purification ceremonies and propitiatory rites of symbolic fertilization. Very ancient customs that seem to date back to a cult for Faunus Lupercus, an oracular divinity with a disordered and wild character, invoked to protect fields, forests and shepherds, who ended up being identified with Pan, the god depicted in art as a faun.
It is interesting to note the etymology of the name Lupercalia which, deriving from Lupercus, is linked to the Latin lupus (wolf), confirming the wild nature of the festival, closely linked to archaic agro-pastoral culture.
According to other sources, the Lupercalia derive instead from the cult of a female divinity: Juno Februata (or purified Juno), once invoked by women in case of fever or to seek protection during pregnancy, especially in the critical moment of childbirth.
Also interesting is the description of the Lupercalia made by Plutarch, who describes in detail the development of these celebrations, calling them “ritual actions difficult to explain”.
Two young adolescent males, belonging to patrician families – the so-called Luperci – were led into the cave consecrated to the god who was at the foot of the Palatine hill.
After sacrificing a goat, the two were marked on the forehead with a knife soaked in goat blood, then were cleaned with a white woolen cloth soaked in milk.
Then, at the end of the cleansing ritual, the two young men had to laugh and striped the skin of the sacrificed goat, they had to run naked around the hill, taunting spectators and passers-by and hitting anyone they met during the wild race with leather strips.The matrons of Rome and the young brides wishing to have children met the blows inflicted by the Luperci, rather than avoiding them, believing that by such symbolic gestures they would have obtained fertility and fertilization.
We can say that the Lupercalia were characterized by their twofold, and only apparently contradictory, character: on the one hand, joyful and unrestrained, on the other, expiatory and propitiatory, a typical character, moreover, of the feasts of January and February which, as winter months, came considered a period of transition and therefore of preparation and purification, in view of the new season and the imminent spring rebirth of nature.
The festival took place in front of the Lupercale, a sacred cave at the foot of the Germalo hill on the Palatine, where, in the shade of a fig tree, the shepherd Faustolo would have found, according to the famous legend, the famous twins suckled by the he-wolf.
“Lupercalium enim mos a Romulo et Remo inchoatus est tunc, cum laetitia exultantes, quod his avus Numitor rex Albanorum eo loco, ubi educati erant, urbem condere permiserat sub monte Palatino, hortatu Faustoli educatoris suis, quem Evander Arcas consecraverat, facto sacrificio caesisque capris epularum hilaritate ac vino largiore provecti, divisa pastorali turba, cincti obvios pellibus immolatarum hostiarum iocantes petiverunt. Cuius hilaritatis memoria annuo circuitu feriarum repetitur.”
(Val. Max., II, 2, 9)
[In fact, the sacred feast of the Lupercali began by Romulus and Remus, when, exulting for the permission given by their ancestor Numitor, king of the Albans, to build a city in the place where they were born, under the Palatine hill, already made sacred by the arcade Evandro, they made a sacrifice by the exhortation of their master Faustolo and, killed of the goats, they let themselves go, made happy by the banquet and by the wine drunk in abundance. Then, divided into two groups, girded with the skins of the immolated victims, they teased those they met for fun. The memory of this playful chasing around has been repeated every year since.]
Afterwards, like all the religious institutions of Rome, during the glimpse of the republican era, it was restored by Augustus, who however forbade the still bearded young men to run there and he recruited from then on especially in the equestrian order, so that the Festa dei Lupercali, together with that of the Beavers, became almost a prerogative of the knights.
The party persisted tenaciously during the imperial era. We remember a celebration in the times of the western Roman emperor, Antemio (467-472), after which it must have been suspended until 494, when Senator Andromaco brought her back to life on the occasion of a plague that afflicted and depopulated the city. Pope Gelasius I, in a special invective “Adversus Andromachum senatorem”, launched himself against the exhumation of these celebrations, forbidding the faithful to participate in any way.
During the Lupercalia ceremony, the vestals offered focaccia made with wheat from the first ears of the past harvest.
The second phase of the ritual appears to be made up of two elements: the first is lustratory and consists in the circumambulation of the square city (Palatine), a ritual that originally had to be performed by the shepherds around the flock to close it in a magical circle, garrisoned by wolves ( Luperco da lupum arceo). In this primordial phase a magical, impersonal force is engaged, and this explains the uncertainty of tradition about the patron of the party: Fauno Luperco (Ovid., Fast., II, 361); Inuo (Lev., I, 15); Libero (Serv., Ad Aen., VIII, 343) …
The second element is initiatory and refers to the brotherhood of the Luperci, in which the new adepts were assimilated, compared, to the sacrificial victim both in death, receiving the blood on the forehead, and in the resurrection, coming asters with milk (which is the food of childhood) and having to smile, which ritually means fullness of life. Thus becoming capri-men and covering the animal’s skin, they provided women with fertility in accordance with the meaning of the goat, whose virtue they incorporated.
The association of the Luperci included 12 members elected by co-optation, headed by a magister, and this had noble origins. In Lupercale Fauno Luperco had its place of worship, of which the wolves were the priests.
Leaving aside the controversial identification of the Lupercale proposed in recent years, it must be underlined how the origin of the Lupercalia and the Luperci was attributed by some ancient authors to the Arcadi of Evandro who settled near the Palatine, and who founded the Lupercale itself, while from others are traced back to the youth of Romulus and Remus. In both cases the origin of the party was placed in an earlier period than the foundation of Rome, in an era, therefore, still not civilized.
The almost complete nudity that characterizes the Luperci, their race and the ritual itself held in the Lupercale, where the blood is used to mark the two young people, are further elements that bring the Lupercalia out of civil and adult life, rather attributing them to the sphere of wild and youthful, just as the two protagonists of the rite are young. It is therefore probable that the presence of the flamine (ancient Roman priest assigned to the cult of a particular divinity, in this case of Jupiter) to the rite of the Lupercalia carried out inside the homonymous cave, is to be attributed precisely to this wild aspect characteristic of this celebration : the intervention of the priest of Jupiter (exceptional in that one of the prohibitions to which he was subjected was that of not being able to be in the presence of goats), would serve to control and appease the young and non-civilian Luperci, who work under the guidance of the unrestrained and Silvestre Fauno Luperco.
Here the priests offered to the god some spelled mixed with salt prepared by the Vestal virgins, they sacrificed a goat (symbol of fertility) and a dog (symbol of purification) and therefore baptized the two children with the blood of the animals.
The priests continued the ritual by skinning the sacrificed animals, wearing their skins and eating the meat, and then leaving the cave half-naked, with only the sides covered by goat skin, the limbs smeared with fat and a mud mask on the face, running on the Via Sacra armed with februa (long leather whips made from goatskin) in search of young women to “fertilize”. All those affected by februa were “purified” and made fertile, both the land and individuals.
In addition to this very representative ritual, there was also a lottery with a love and sexual background where the names of the young virgins and those of the young wolf-man aspirants were placed in cards inside two special containers. The two children baptized with milk during the lupercal rite they fished the cards forming the couples, who had one year to provide the fertility of the whole community, with the blessing of all the gods. Lupercus was a faun, a figure never loved by Christians. He was associated with demons and devils for his animalistic appearance and his instinctive and erotic character, connected to the fertility cults.
Lupercus, god of wild nature, was the nightmare of the feared Christians, who banished any practice that emerged from the path dictated by the church. He, who let himself be carried away by the instincts and the most natural appeal that every human being can have, he who lived in uncontaminated and impenetrable nature, was considered diabolical and unnatural.
In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius I succeeded in suppressing this pagan feast, causing all its symbolism linked to nature to decay, to make it a simple feast for lovers.
AND VALENTINE’S DAY?
Valentino, as we said, was the bishop of Terni and as such he professed the Christian faith in the era of persecutions in the sacred Roman empire, pagan and polytheist. Not only did he convert a Roman philosopher named Craton to Christianity, but he also made the mistake of marrying a couple of young lovers, going against the edict of Emperor Claudius II, who had forbidden his legionaries to marry with Christian faithful. For this the bishop was executed. In 496 Pope Gelasius made him a saint on the day the lupercal feast was held.
Legend has it that just before being executed, Valentino performed a miracle: on February 14th he left a note to the blind daughter of his jailer, with whom he had platonically fallen in love, on which he wrote “from your Valentine”.
The girl regained her sight and read the ticket …
From this event seems to derive the custom of exchanging love messages using the form “your Valentine”.