The Darker Side of Valentine's Day
The holiday wasn't always hearts and cards.
Most everyone knows about the origin of Valentine's Day. It is the feast day of St. Valentine, celebrated by the church to honor two men named Valentine who were executed on the fourteenth of February--though they were put to death in different years. It is also a celebration of love, in which people exchange cards, gifts, and flowers. But what about Lupercalia?
It sounds made up, but Lupercalia was a very real pagan festival. A whole episode of Netflix's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was built around it (season two, episode three). The main character Sabrina calls it 'witches Valentine's Day' because the date coincides with Valentine's Day and is seen as an ‘alternative’ to the holiday. Her Aunt Zelda goes on to describe it as a "lusty, pastoral festival started by the Roman witches under the reign of Caligula" and the Lupercal was "the cave where the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were suckled by the she-wolf." The festival was "instituted as a means to purify the city and increase health and fertility."
Not everything the character Zelda speaks about in regards to Lupercalia is exactly accurate and the details are up for debate--such as, no one is sure what year Lupercalia actually began or where the Lupercal cave is. It most definitely predates the reign of Caligula. The festival itself is traced back to the Romans, though historians believe it may even pre-date that era. So, sorry, Zelda, no Caligula.
It was started in a cave called Lupercal, but scholars are unsure of where that location is exactly. But the cave is associated with Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, so Zelda's right about that much. It's Roman myth that Romulus and Remus were to be put to death by their Uncle Amulius. They were meant to be drowned in the river Tiber, but instead were placed in a basket by a servant. The river waters, moved by the gods, caused it to drift into tree branches where the twins were rescued by a she-wolf. The she-wolf cared for the brothers until a couple adopted them. A few years later the brothers learned of their uncle who ordered their execution and killed him. The twins then returned to the cave in which they were raised and called it Lupercal.
It is suspected that Lupercalia is meant to honor the wolf that rescued the twins, and it occurs around Valentine's Day--February 15th. Zelda is correct about this part.
The rituals surrounding Lupercalia were strange. Men would go to the Lupercal cave and strip themselves bare, painting themselves with goats blood. The goats were the ritualistic sacrifice for the festival. (They also sacrificed a dog, as well.) Then the men would run out of the cave, brandishing 'whips' while they chased the female population. The whips were made of goat hides from the sacrifices and the 'whipping' was far from abusive and torturous, as it was believed to instead be fun and lighthearted. More along the lines of simple flirtations as the slaps would barely be felt.
If a woman was 'whipped' with one of these hides it was said that she would be fertile for the year. History also mentions that Lupercalia was also a sort of matchmaking ritual as well, where men would choose women's names out of a jar. Once paired, the two would stay together for the entire festival. Some remained together when the festival was over and married.
As the years progressed, Lupercalia became more tame. Clothes stayed on and 'whippings' were placed on the hands. It was still associated with vulgarity and soon the celebration faded as it fell out of favor with the population. The festival is not celebrated in our modern times and most have never even heard of it.
The Lupercalia festival in the The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is pretty tame in comparison to the real thing. Fiction is always easier to stomach than the real history behind it.
If one is feeling lonely on February 14th, there’s no need to feel like one is missing out. Valentine’s Day is just another day and can be celebrated in many ways, whether it be with family, friends, or lovers. Love doesn’t always have to be romantic.
It could be worse, after all. The world could still celebrate Lupercalia.