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MIKE KEELER: Happy Lupercus . . . er, Valentines Day!

Remember the good old days, when we’d get drunk, slaughter wild animals, butcher them into strips, dip the thongs in blood and run through the streets whipping maidens?

Oh wait, that wasn’t us. That was the Romans. Those knuckleheads knew how to party. They grabbed an old Athenian tradition, a month-long feast known as Gamelion, the “month of fertility” in honor of the marriage of Zeus and Hera, which lasted from January 15th to February 15th. And then, being Romans, they cranked things up a bit, and decided that Gamelion should go out with a bang. (Nudge, nudge.) They dedicated the last day of the feast to Lupercus, who was a half-naked goat-man. (Wink, wink.) On Lupercus’ day, the Roman priests would slaughter goats, walk the streets and touch citizens with the bloody pieces. Young women came forward eagerly, hoping to ensure their fertility and an easy childbirth. (Like an early Beatles concert, only bloodier.) At the end of the event, single men and women would draw names out of an urn, to be paired up and pledged to each other for, um…well…you know.

But then the Christian kill-joys showed up. In 313, Emperor Constantine issued the edict of Milan, which was intended to increase religious tolerance for splinter groups like Christians. But since Constantine WAS a Christian, the effect was to put the Christians in charge, and they turned around and persecuted their former persecutors. Paganism, Schmaganism! All the good old debauchery started to decline. Eventually, in 496, Pope Gelasius – who found such things salacious – put the official kibosh on Lupercus, on the grounds that all this sexual activity was sapping the strength of Rome’s young fighting men.

But Gelasius also realized that folks may resent the change, so he gave the Romans a parting gift to replace Lupercus. He declared a special feast day on the day BEFORE, the 14th. And, in true Christian Roman fashion, he took the bloody aspects of Lupercus, and co-opted them. From that point on, the final day of the month of fertility would represent…wait for it…sacrifice.

And so we get “Valentine’s Day.” It is a testament to a Christian martyr of that name, but interestingly, in the passage of time, Rome has kind of lost track of which Valentine is being honored. Was it a priest from Rome, a bishop from Terni, Italy, or a simple pilgrim from Africa? No one knows for sure, but what the heck, the more martyred Valentines the better.

But it’s hard to keep a goat-man down. Gamelion may be history, and Zeus and Hera are nowhere to be found. But – two millenia onwards – on the 14th of February, Lupercus still gets us all in a bit of a tizzy. Romance is in the air.

Now, you may not want to slaughter a goat. But go for the chocolates, buy the flowers, send the cards. And if all else fails, throw some names in a hat…

Have a bloody nice Valentine’s Day.

Mike Keeler

– Mike Keeler

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