The Ancient Origins of Valentines Day: Lupercalia, where whips excite.

With Valentine’s Day coming up I thought there was no better time to start writing again than on my favorite historical holiday. Let me start by saying I hate Valentine’s Day for a number of reasons, but I love the story of its origins and of course its origins go back to Ancient Rome. The Ancient Roman festival was known as Lupercalia and took place February 13-15. As with many holidays, which are all great stories, Valentine’s Day was originally established around a pagan holiday in order to transition people seamlessly to Christianity. The reason I love the history of this holiday is the drastic change that has occurred through time.

Lupercalia was a fertility festival according to Plutarch who claims that the festival helped pregnant women with their delivery and barren women become pregnant. This is not that much unlike the modern Valentine’s Day; I’m sure some would say it has similar function today (wink wink), although others I’m sure would prefer that it not help with fertility. The interesting part however is the difference in practice. Valentine’s Day is all about love and gentle caring. Its predecessor, Lupercalia, was about naked men running through the streets whipping women.

The festival began with a sacrifice. After the sacrifice, young men cut pieces of the hide off of the animal (usually 2 goats). With these pieces of hide they fashioned whips and ran through the streets naked whipping the people gathered in the crowd. Women, even noble women, would actually purposely get in the way of the men in order to be whipped. This at first seems shocking, but when we remember that the whipping was believed to lead to fertility it is a little less outrageous. The Romans were up for pleasing the gods in anyway necessary. And somehow through history and Christianity this ritual turns into our Valentine’s Day of chocolate, flowers, and romance (maybe for some who read 50 Shades of Grey the whipping will carry on). 

For primary reference on Lupercalia see Horace’s Ode book 3 poem 18 and Plutarch’s Life of Romulus

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2 thoughts on “The Ancient Origins of Valentines Day: Lupercalia, where whips excite.

  1. Faith says:

    Thanks Alex! Nw when do we bring Lupercalia back to Valentine’s day? 🙂

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