Cupid, hearts, fertility: The origins of Valentine's Day
Valentine’s Day began as the Roman festival Lupercalia, which was a pagan fertility festival that occurred annually in Rome, said history professor Dr. Jennifer DeSilva.
Typically, fertility is associated with springtime, and in Rome, spring begins earlier than it does in Indiana. The Romans celebrated their holiday at the beginning of spring, which just so happened to be in February — Feb. 13-15 to be exact.
Lupercalia began to decline in 200-300 C.E. when pagan festivals were phased out by the Catholics.
So, where did the name Valentine come from?
It was around this time period, people named Valentine began to appear, said DeSilva.
There were three “Valentines” that historians can identify, but they are unsure if these three people are the same person, she said.
The first Valentine is identified as Valentine of Terni, around 270 C.E. He was from Northern Africa, and he was Christian.
The second Valentine appears on Pope Gregory I’s declaration of Feb. 14 as Valentine’s Day. He had a list of martyrs and saints, and Valentine appeared on this list.
The third Valentine had a church in Rome named after him. It was called St. Valentine’s Church — located on Via Flaminia, the road going north out of Rome — but DeSilva believes the church was named after him because he made a significant donation to it, rather than because he was an actual saint.
The way saints were described in those times are different than how they are now. In the time of Valentine, someone could become a saint simply by becoming a martyr. Now, saints are established with a sense of holiness.
In 1969, the Catholic Church went through their list of saints and removed Valentine because they lacked evidence to prove he existed, said DeSilva.
But Valentine had already become engraved in our culture, and Valentine’s Day became a day to spread love and friendship. Many different symbols became associated with Valentine’s Day, including hearts, cupid and some terms of endearment.
What about cupid, hearts and terms of endearment?
Cupid comes from Roman mythology. He was the son of the Venus, the goddess of beauty and love. He shoots people with an arrow to make them fall in love. This was how the Romans explained how people fell in love.
DeSilva says Cupid is depicted as a fat, male baby, which was the ideal outcome of pregnancy for Romans. If a baby was fat it was healthy, and the Romans preferred males over females.
Hearts, terms of endearment and candy became associated with Valentine’s Day in a similar way. During the industrial revolution, cards were being printed for cheap. Because they were cheap, and a lot of people were poor, they became really popular around holidays, such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Typically within these cards were hearts and terms of endearment.
The terms of endearment came from the middle ages, DeSilva said. The mottos and slogans used during the middle ages becomes this idea of being good, loving and sweet.
“Dulche, this idea of something being gentle or sweet — not a hardship, it’s not a pain to do — that sort of morphs into this idea of being good, of being loving, being sweet,” DeSilva said.
The heart became known as the central organ during the middle ages when doctors began performing more surgeries and dissections of the body, said DeSilva.
And really love is what this holiday is all about.
“Just because St. Valentine is not the person that we hope for, that we built him up to be, doesn’t mean that the event doesn’t fill a need in society,” DeSilva said. “You don’t have to spend a lot of money, it doesn’t have to be about romance or sex, but it says that we like an opportunity reliably, annually to tell people that we love them.”
Contact Hannah Gunnell with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.