Happy Valentine… er Wolf-entines Day?

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Every year the same thing happens: the evergreens come down, the hearts go up. Time to party with the wolves!
The 14th of February marked the celebration of Lupercalia, “The Day of the Wolf,” an important festival in ancient Rome.
Most folks have heard the phrase, “Beware the ides of March.” In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, this line warns of impending doom that will strike mid-month. Before Valentine’s Day was a thought, the ides of February (the 14th) was a day to honor Juno Febrato, for whom the month was named. She was the queen of the Roman gods, and the goddess of marriage (see some connections forming here?). The ides also marked the “Day of the Wolf.” Lupercalia celebrated the legend of Romulus and Remus—the legendary twin founders of Rome who were nursed as infants by a mother wolf.
Photo by Alois Staudacher via Flickr Creative Commons
In the ritual for Lupercalia, a goat would be sacrificed (later the meat would be cooked and served to those who were celebrating; many rituals that involved sacrifice included the use of the animal as food). Men would put on the goat skin, which would transform them symbolically into the fertility god Faunus or Pan. Then they would whip the women celebrants–a playful tap, not a beating–as a blessing to encourage fertility. A shade of this ritual can be seen today in the Valentine’s tradition of “Cupid,” the mythical son of Venus (the Roman goddess of love). If you were struck (touched) by one of his arrows, you’d fall in love ♥. Lupercalia celebrations ended with the women writing their names on slips of parchment called “billets,” and placing them in a box. The men would pick the billets from the box; the name of the woman they drew would be their partner for the next year, although some sources say that the unions had the potential to last longer. It was also customary to give chosen partners gifts of sweets and flowers to encourage love.
Like other Pagan festivals, Lupercalia was adopted by the church, but how it was celebrated was changed thanks to a guy called Valentine. There are several legends about his identity. One has him as a Christian priest who performed forbidden marriages in secret. When he was found out, he was sentenced to death. The couples that he helped wrote him notes of encouragement while he was in prison—Valentines! Another tale makes him an imprisoned priest who fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. He would write her secret love notes—more Valentines! Gift and card exchanges like what we see today got their start during the Renaissance; when a man had a sweetheart, he would wear the image of a heart on his sleeve to show his affection. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that exchanging Valentine cards became a tradition. In addition to the heart, you could expect a lovey-dovey sentimental verse, or something more fun:
I ♥ vintage Valentines!

And speaking of hearts–where does that shape come from? The red heart that we’ve come to associate with love doesn’t look much like a human heart, unless you squint at it the right way. Like Valentine’s Day, there are several stories behind why hearts are shaped… like that. The back wings of a dove–a bird sacred to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love–form a heart when they’re folded together. 

An ancient coin with a heart-shaped silphium seed.

Another origin of the heart shape comes from the ancient North African city of Cyrene. Coins from Cyrene bear the image of a silphium seed, which is heart-shaped. Silphium is an extinct species of fennel, but it must have been an important plant if people put the image on their money–and it was. Silphium supposedly cured warts, fever, leprosy, and indigestion. Pass the chocolate!

Happy Valentine’s Day! ♥

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