Guys, I took Warren Ellis at his word years ago when he blogged that Valentine’s Day was based on a Pagan ritual celebrating blood, werewolves, and sex. I was wrong to do so! Brilliant comics writers also lie. Brilliant comics writers also lie, guys.
The festival Mr. Ellis referred to was called Lupercalia, and even if we don’t use it to quietly sneer at Valentine’s day, we should probably bring it back. According to ancient Romans, Lupa was the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus(Etymology, guys! Every Latinate language uses some form of “Lupa” to mean “wolf” or “wolf-like,” as in “Lupine” or “Remus Lupin,” whose transformation surprised no one with even a tenuous grasp of Roman mythology. Anyway). There was a group of priests called “Luperci,” and the festivities were pretty much their job. On February 13, these guys would sacrifice two goats and a dog. Then, they would clean the sacrificial knife with some wool soaked in milk, which was then used to anoint two young Luperci. Probably a super-big honor, I guess, getting the bloody milk rag as a child. Listen, I played Joseph in like eight Christmas pageants when I was a kid. Anyway! Then there was a big party, and then the kids would put on the skins of the dead goats and use bits of it to make small, harmless lashes, and run around the walls of the city whipping people with them. Ladies would line up to get whipped, because it was supposed to make them more fertile and make giving birth less horrible and sometimes fatal.
I know what you’re thinking: this is totally Valentine’s day! Every year, my significant other and I have a nice dinner, then we paint each other with blood and milk and whip each other with leather straps. To which I say, good point. There’s also something to be said for ritualized foreplay, which I have to assume this also was, at a point nine months before prime birthing season, that is, late fall, when the harvest is mostly done and you’ve got all winter to teach the thing to be on its own for an hour or two at a time while you do farm stuff. Still, there’s no textual evidence to support the notion that Lupercalia is actually a direct forebear to Valentine’s.
St. Valentine’s story, which you are probably familiar with, although I wasn’t, has nothing to do with wolves or blood at all, but rather is standard Christian fare about standing up to the man, unless the man happens to be the pope. Emperor so and so outlawed marriage, Saint Valentine went ahead and married people anyway, and eventually he probably got fed or nailed to something, because otherwise, why even bother. It’s a celebration of marriage, guys! Hooray! Christianity being in many ways super lame, “celebration of marriage” was about as raunchy as anyone was willing to go until all around awesome Medieval dude Chaucer showed up.
Chaucer was big on using birds to talk about sex and also the seasons. In the prologue to Canterbury Tales, lines five through seven, and yes I knew that off the top of my head because I’ve got the first dozen or so lines memorized, he says, in reference to springtime, “And smale fowles maken melodye/that slepen al the nicht with open ye/So priketh hem natur in hir corages,” which translates roughly as “[When] small birds ‘make songs,’ that sleep all night with their eyes open, as nature bids them,” although “priketh” might well be as much of a dick joke as it sounds like. Basically, you know it’s Spring when birds start banging all night. The reason this is relevant is because in a different, shorter work, Chaucer is the first one to refer to Valentine’s Day as a romantic thing, or, in his words, “Whan every bryd cometh there to chese his make,” literally “When every bird goes there to choose his mate,” although “make” is also possibly a sex pun. Basically, Pagan, Christian, or awesome medieval Christian writer who calls it like it is and just don’t give a fuck, Valentine’s Day romance is actually super old and we should all feel like there’s something wrong with us because we’re single today. That’s what I learned.