Lupercalia …NOTHING to do with Valentine’s Day

Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh. The older I get the less patience I have with this one … every year in the first couple of weeks of February, piles of journalists and/or their editors parade their stunning lack of critical thinking throughout the world (but mostly in the North American press) by claiming some sort of link between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day. This year, I had determined I was not going to comment on this idiocy, and indeed, was just complaining on Twitter t’other night that I had to wade through piles of such digital detritus. But then I found myself at a health and safety meeting, idly deleting similia and I came across this in a student newspaper called the Pine Log:

Valentine’s Day started off as a Roman festival where men stripped naked, grabbed goat- or dog-skin whips, and spanked young maidens in hopes of increasing their fertility, according to Noel Lenski, classics professor of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Say it ain’t so Dr Lenski! Then I poke around a bit and find an interesting little news item from U of C from back in 2002:

On a snowy February 15, Professor Noel Lenski sponsored a traditional Roman Lupercalia using students in his course on Paganism to Christianity as participants. Several students volunteered to play the role of Luperci, traditionally naked male priests who ran around the Capitoline Hill striking maidens with strips of goat hide every February 15.

Fun stuff! But then it went on:

The festival, designed to honor the god Pan and to ensure fertility for young maidens, forms the basis for the modern festival of St. Valentine.

Alas … I think it goes beyond salutory to point out something I also mentioned on the Classics list a few days ago. As noted above, Lupercalia was a festival held on February 15 … some newspaper sources also give February 13 as a date for Lupercalia, then connect it to Valentine’s day. It’s probably time that someone pointed out that THE DATE ISN’T THE SAME! It’s close, but no Romeo y Julieta Churchill. So let’s be charitable and ponder (briefly) what went on at Lupercalia … a bunch of folks sacrificed beasties, smeared themselves with blood, then ran a route where they went around whipping women. If we take the February 13 date, that’s the beginning of a long period where folks honoured their dead ancestors. I think most logical-thinking people (except, perhaps, sado-masochistic necrophiliacs) would be hard-pressed to make any connection between such activities and the romantic sort of love which is celebrated on Valentine’s day. What makes it worse is that we have a Classics professor (a department head, no less!) who appears do be promoting this — come on people!¬† Let’s take this to its illogical extreme and claim a Roman origin for St. Patrick’s day, where at least the date connection is bang on! The Romans celebrated Liberalia on March 17 and this was one of the days where it was common, we are told, for young Romans to don their toga virilis. OBVIOUSLY there must be a connection between that and holding big parades and drinking green beer. No … wait … April Fool’s Day must be Roman in origin because on April 1 Roman women would sacrifice to Fortuna Virilis , which clearly is connected to playing pranks on people (I know there are cynical women out there who might buy that).

Come on people (and Classics professors in particular) … our discipline is not so attention-deprived that we have to buy into this ‘ad hoc ergo propter hoc’ reasoning!