Modern Christians are often uneasy about holidays, especially in Protestant North America. The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, for instance, banned the celebration of Christmas and penalized those who were caught celebrating it. It was thought to be a “Popish” and “pagan” holiday, owing much too much to the Roman festival called Saturnalia (after the great Latin god, Saturn). True Christians, these Purists argued, only celebrated Easter.
Still later, the whole domestic and private edifice of trees and turkeys and elaborate gift-giving (in part imagined as a reaction against the public drinking and wassailing) were a creation of the 19th century. And the evolution of that alternative tradition has many Christians on guard these days, trying to “keep the Christ in Christmas.” Christ, it is feared may have been trumped by Saint Nicholas. And twelve magically mysterious reindeer.
These same concerns are often voiced about Halloween. And now with Saint Valentine’s Day as well. Is this a Christian or a pagan holiday?
If our starting point is the assumption that such a question is either/or, then we are almost sure to miss out on how interesting, and how lyrical, the subtle convergences between the Christian and the pagan could be in the ancient world.
And how lyrical they continue to be in a Romantic age such as ours.
Saint Valentinus. It was a common enough name in the Roman Empire, deriving as it did from the Latin word for worthiness (valens). There are no fewer than seven distinct saints bearing this name on various Christian saints and martyrs rolls, primarily Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox lists.
There was also an important early Christian teacher in Rome by the same name, a heretical teacher of Christian esoteric wisdom who left a movement called “Valentinian” behind; naturally enough, there is no feast day for this renegade. But recent scholars like Elaine Pagels have reminded us of his influence, and of his brilliance.
We might well wonder about this multiplication of saints with the same name (but, then, the New Testament itself is well aware of the confusion caused by the presence of multiple people with the same names—all those Johns and Simons and Marys to contend with).
The most relevant Valentinus related to this holiday was a Roman priest (literally called a presbyter) who was allegedly martyred under the Emperor Claudius Gothicus (the conqueror of Gaul) at some time between 269 and 273 CE. The legend suggests that he was arrested for performing secret marriages for Roman Christians, and that after his arrest, the emperor took a liking to him…until the young priest used his advantage to attempt a conversion of the emperor. That’s when Valentinus was condemned, first to clubbing and then to stoning. When that failed to finish him off, he was beheaded. The priest’s body was buried at the side of the Flaminian Way on February 14.
The second major Saint Valentinus was a bishop of Interamna (modern-day Terni), a high church official who was allegedly arrested, brought to Rome, and martyred there. His remains were later transferred back to Terni. In many of these various Valentinus legends, the most dramatic family resemblances concern the close attention that is paid to their violent death, coupled with an interest in the dramatic fate of the corpse.
It is this linkage of love and violent loss that bears thinking about. It is an interest and a romantic preoccupation that Greek Christians and Greek pagans shared.
More confusing still is the Greek Orthodox liturgical calendar, since in it, February 14 is the feast day for no fewer than four major saints.
The first is Saint Auxentius who was originally from Cappadocia in modern-day Turkey, and who was appointed as bishop of Milan in 355 CE despite the fact that he could not speak Latin, only Greek. Though was constantly harassed by accusations of heresy (Valentinianism, no less), he remained at his post until his death in 373 CE. The Ides of February seem to make it harder to draw a sharp line between orthodoxy and heterodoxy.
The second is Saint Maro, who was a close friend to John Chrysostom, the celebrated and “golden-tongued” bishop of Syrian Antioch. Saint Maro gave his name to the movement of “Maronite” Christians, a group that celebrates an eastern liturgy composed by Chrysostom but that recognizes the political leadership of the bishop of Rome. They are prominent still in parts of Lebanon, Syria, and Cyprus. The Ides of February seem to make it harder to draw a sharp line between Eastern and Western Christianity as well.
The third is Saint George of Mytilene, hailing from the Greek island of Lesbos. The erotic charge of that hometown calls the ancient Greek poet Sappho to mind, as well as the debates I have discussed previously about the meaning of the name “lesbian,” then and now. If Sappho was a passionate lover of women, and if she hailed from the island of Lesbos, then perhaps a Lesbian is a woman whose primary erotic attention is devoted to other women. And if a saint hailed from her hometown, well then Ides of February seem to make it harder to draw a sharp line between pagan and Christian, between homoerotic and heteroerotic forms of passionate romantic love.
How then—given this vast confusion of Greco-Roman and hagiography and martyrs’ lists—how has this day come to be celebrated as the global holiday for lovers, unmarried and married alike?
Geoffrey Chaucer seems to have been one of the first to write about Saint Valentine’s Day as if it were associated with the cult of romantic love. Chaucer, of course, was also the first great poet in the English vernacular, refusing to submit to the cultural domination of ecclesiastical Latin. And with this declaration of independence of the secular tongue, came the semi-secularization of the sacred Christian calendar.
To be sure, marriage had always been the most secular of the church’s seven sacraments.
Long before Juliet finally confessed it, the lover in the first blush of excitement was always thought to be dangerously distracted and already half a pagan. “You are the god of my idolatry,” Juliet gasps. Saint Paul had worried about this a long time earlier in several of his letters, urging those Christians who could not be celibate to get themselves married before real romantic passion entered the picture and threatened to unseat the soul.
These days, of course, and under the lingering pulse of Romanticism, we revel in that very unseating, are expected to thank our lover for it with all manner of gifts, ranging from chocolates to flowers to dinner to diamonds.
How have we gone from a beheaded priest to a giddy worldwide day of romantic love? In a word: the widespread conviction that love is a dizzying sacrifice.
If we ponder the primary Valentine’s Day symbol, a human heart pierced by an arrow, then the connection may be easier to see. Jesus himself had famously warned that if you wish to find your life you’ll need to lose it first. Many a Romantic artist has said the same: the self must clear out for the spirit of creativity to enter. Loss of self is perceived as fulfillment of self.
Now enter the lover in love, long venerated by poets and rhapsodes of all stripes, starting with the lyrical Lesbian, Sappho herself. The lover who tries to leave reason in control, she warns, does not follow her god to the end. It is the very chaos of love, the swirl of love, that may link our modern Romantic musings to the Greeks—mediated to us, ironically enough, by the martyr-rolls of the early churches.
There is also a Roman residue to this eminently modern holiday, the Roman festival of the Lupercalia, held on the Ides of February (February 13-15). Recall Shakespeare once again: it was during the Lupercalia, he imagined, that Julius Caesar [TK] it three times. Just one month later, during the Ides of March, he lost his life in a bloody hail of daggers. Loving is linked to dying.
While we know little about it, the Lupercalia seems to have been a curious Latin festival with mysterious Greek origins. Later Roman writers like Plutarch suggested that it originated in Arcadia in southern Greece, where Lykaian Pan was worshiped (lykos is the Greek word for wolf). The Roman poet Virgil would turn that same Arcadia into an ideal image of Paradise, a lost Golden Age of musical shepherds and right religion, in a marvelous cycle of poems called “The Eclogues” (or “The Bucolics”). Some later Christians felt that Virgil had predicted the birth of Christ in one of them; more likely it was a reference to the birth of Octavian, later Caesar Augustus.
In any case, this mysterious rural Greek festival took a more elaborate form in the city of Rome. The Greek god Lykaian Pan becomes Lupercus (lupos being the Latin term for wolf). A cave below the Palatine Hill was identified as the very spot where the twins, Romulus and Remus, were nursed by the she-wolf of Rome, one of the most famous of Rome’s founding myths and images. In mid-February, several patrician priests called “Luperci” would go to the Lupercal Cave and bring the half-naked statue of Lupercus into public view. They would sacrifice two goats and one dog, while the Vestal Virgins offered vegetarian cakes. After a feast the Luperci would run around the Palatine, dressed in the fresh skins and flagellating the crowds with the sacrificial sinews. Such a beating was believed to promote fertility in the women of Rome. This is all according to the report of an early Christian philosopher, Justin the Martyr, no great lover of pagan culture or pagan holidays.
Four centuries later, with Christianity established as the state religion of the empire, Christian emperors shut down all such pagan holidays and pagan shows.
So the romantic Greco-Roman party was over. Or was it? Was it really over? And was it really a party to begin with?
Important symbolic convergences suggest the opposite. Love and violence were always joined. This may help to explain the logic of this fascinating pagan-Christian juxtaposition of February 14. Pagans and Christians need not always be at war. Several of their images overlap in significant and interesting ways. Think of Mary the Mother of Sorrows, with her desperate look and bleeding heart. Is she grieving over the martyrdom of her son? Or is she a powerful image of the tragic element in all such loving attachment?
Love and loss: they were always thought together in Greece and Rome. Cupid’s Greek name is Eros, and he is armed with a bow and arrow; this was a real and lethal weapon in the ancient world. Romantic loving is linked to dying in tragedy even more than in comedy. The lover in love can be a martyr just as surely as a courageous priest or martyr. Eros and Agape are not two diametrically opposed forms of human loving. Those Renaissance artists in Italy who became fascinated with the juxtaposition of “Sacred and Profane Love” knew this well. Consider too their renewed fascination with a highly eroticized Saint Sebastian—now there’s an arrow in the heart.
To be sure, Saint Valentine’s Day is not a Christian holiday in any real sense, certainly not in a Protestant culture that has done away with saints and their feasts. But the lingering spiritual impulse of romantic love, an impulse given powerful new life by Romanticism, is visible and very close to the surface of our celebration. Self-giving love is self-giving whether it is framed as passionately romantic or self-sacrificial. There is a rich poetic tradition that speaks of the martyrdom of all romantic love. We are called to give ourselves to the lover as one gives oneself to the god. Loss of self and self-fulfillment are twinned gestures and composite experiences.
While often perceived simply as a holiday designed to serve the luxury market, and to remind those who are single of their lostness and isolation, I have never seen it so. It is a rich and sometimes lyrical reminder of the power and the danger and the rare mystery of love in all its forms.