Nancy Sherer researches...

Valentine's Day Bloopers

When I'm researching ancient myths and traditions, I often have to sift through a lot of junk to find one or two simple facts. I have a couple of guidelines I use to decide if my sources are reliable. Valentine's Day lore is a good opportunity to demonstrate how I sort fact from fiction.

Valentine's Day is a sweet, trivial holiday, but the so-called histories of its origins and traditions are full of goofy disinformation. The first step of discerning what is possible history is to ask, "Could this be true?" I looked at several web sites to find the following information then I reworded it in the form of a question.

Did Roman teenagers put their names in a jar and then draw random names to select who their sweetheart would be for the next year?

According to mis-history, every year Romans put the names of eligible young people in a jar. The names were then drawn out and, by lottery, couples were selected. These couples were sweethearts, but only for a year. Is it possible that any teenager in any culture was willing to let random chance decide their potential mate? Would their parents allow it? On the Common Sense scale this rates a "Biggest Bonehead."

Yet, this rendition of history is written as fact in many modern accounts of Valentine's Day. Obviously, the author of this ritual knew less about teenagers than he did about the religion of Rome. The idea is so ludicrous that it could only have been fabricated in the bowels of a stony, cold, monastery of the Dark Ages.

Another example of errors stemming from cultural differences concern the familiar heart-shape. Several sources claim that Valentine's hearts got their shape because ancient people didn't know what a real heart looked like.

My guess is this myth might be fairly modern. Only someone who bought their meat in tidy, shrink wrap packages at the supermarket would believe that ancient peoples didn't know what innards looked like. Not only were ancient Chinese, Greeks, and Romans adept at sculpting the outsides of human bodies, they made clay and metal castings of human hearts along with other organs. They knew what hearts looked like.

I can only speculate what the real source of the heart-shape is, but my speculation is based on research. It might be the shape of the sacred winnowing fan that cradled Dionysus. Because Jane Harrison tied Dionysus so closely to the February festivals, this is an educated guess. But only a guess. Other equally reasonable theories could be based on how tiny new leaves look. And before I leave this subject, let me stick my neck out a little and point out that the heart could have been the shape of Pan's footprint. Pan was a goat-legged, lusty symbol of fertility. I know from research that fertility rituals were celebrated at the beginning of this Mardi Gras type festival, but for now it is only speculation.

Some statements presented as fact require some research. Sources such as Sir James Frazer, Jane Harrison, and Robert Graves state that February is an exceptionally unlucky month of the lunar calendar. Throughout the ancient world, the thirteenth moon was the end of the lunar year. In Rome, Olympic gods - those gods of the upper realms - were not honored. Their sanctuaries were closed. Underworld powers were sacrificed to and ancestral ghosts were placated. Dionysus had important holy days at this time.

Is it likely that a holiday on February 14th originated as a festival of Juno, Queen of Heaven? No, let's debunk this Boner.

Early calendars were based on cycles of the moon in conjunction with the sun. In Europe, Asia and North Africa, the unlucky 'thirteenth' moon was in February. The Romans, like the Greeks before them, held a year-end festival where drinking and lascivious behavior was followed by a time of penance and reflection of sins.

Some year-end festivals are still celebrated world round in the form of Chinese New Year, but most Westerners recognize and celebrate Mardi Gras. Like Ash Wednesday and Lent follow the Fat Tuesday excesses, the Romans' big party was followed by a period of somber self-sacrifice and mourning. This time of year was an important festival of "All Souls." This was Lupercalia, a time when ancestral ghosts were honored. This unlucky festival began on February 15th.

February 13th and 14th can be compared directly to modern Mardi Gras. Days of excessive, manic festivals would have been the last chance to woo a sweetheart for the year. In Greece, Garlands of flowers won in drinking games were presented to the priestesses of Dionysus.

As for Juno and the other Olympic gods, they sat this holiday out. Therefore, any information derived from sources that state otherwise must be scrutinized piece by piece or disregarded entirely.

The myth of St. Valentine is widely accepted even though there are several very different accounts of his identity. Was he put in jail for performing marriage ceremonies for soldiers? Or was he arrested for performing marriages during the Lupercalia? Did he perform the marriages on February 14th when Roman sanctuaries were closed? Or did he die on February 14th? Was Valentine a common name for men in that time and place? Is it reasonable to believe that any record would have been kept of such an insignificant miscreant? Too many questions regarding the source make all the information suspect.

This myth is difficult to untangle because if Valentine was a Christian monk, he might have been annoying enough to deserve jail time. During the Lupercalia which ran from Feb 15th to the 21st, temples were closed and marriages were not performed because it was the most unlucky time of the year. Ancestral ghosts were freed from their grave-jars. Who would want to get married under such ghastly auspices?

February 13th and 14th were days of excessive drinking. Promises of love were undoubtedly made, but did a Christian monk really turn trysts into marriages? Does that make him a saint? Just as likely, Valentine was an apocryphal monk in the same vein as Friar Tuck of the May Day festivals.

Because we have evidence that the Catholic monks so frequently wrote false histories and because we know the Catholic Church had a standard practice of slandering non-Catholic religions, Catholic sources can not be trusted. It would be impossible to sort out truth from lies. In the case of the alleged history of St. Valentine and the Romans, I am reasonably certain it is silly propaganda written by monks and priests of the Catholic Church to belittle romantic love.

Solving mysteries of the past requires skepticism, common sense, and judgment. Even reliable sources have their own prejudices and misunderstandings. Most documents are full of unintentional error. Religious documents are full of intentional error. Current Valentine's Day information is a good example of research, logic and reason ignored.

I do have a Valentine's Day present for you, though. At the time of the Chinese Festival of the Moon, if you write your secret desires on a piece of paper, roll it into a scroll, and hang it on a tree, your wish will come true.

Nancy Sherer

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