Blame the Romans

Tomorrow is one of those days you either love or hate. There is no in-between when it comes to Valentine’s Day.

I love Valentine’s Day–despite my perpetual single existence–because Valentine’s Day happens to be my birthday. I basically consider myself the sacred keeper of this day.

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Me, on Valentine’s Day

Every year, I hear the same complaint about Valentine’s Day: that it is a fake, made-up, commercial holiday. To which I always respond, “If by ‘fake’ you mean made up by the Romans around 753 BC, then yes.”

Lupercalia

The Romans celebrated a holiday called Lupercalia, which started today on the Ides of February* and ended on the fifteenth. If the “Lup” party of Lupercalia made you think of the word for wolf, “Lupus,” then you’re not wrong! Lupercalia basically translates to “Wolf Festival,” and the holiday was in honor of Lupa, the wolf who myth claimed suckled the founders of Rome: Romulus and Remus. (Yes, Rome was founded by a guy who was literally raised by wolves.)

Lupa, in many ways, was considered the mother of Rome, so it makes sense on this day honoring the mother of their great city and (later) empire, Romans would turn their thoughts to fertility. Thus Lupercalia became a festival of fertility.

Granted, Lupercalia didn’t work the same way Valentine’s Day does. No one was buying their significant other roses or writing bad poetry. Instead, they started off their celebration by sacrificing goats and dogs. Then young men–clothed in the skin of the sacrificed goats–would run around the city hitting women with little whips. Women used to line up to be hit, because it was supposed to make them fertile and make childbirth easier.

Can you imagine: standing in the cold Roman winter hoping that a young man would hit you with a whip? No matter what you have to do/suffer through tomorrow, take solace in the fact that at least you don’t have to do that.

Same Song Second Verse

It’s strange and strangely comforting–at least for me–to imagine that for over 2,500 years women have been stressing about this day. For modern women it’s the stress of romance. That can manifest itself in the stress over not having a romantic partner or manifest itself in the stress of having an ideal romance. For women in the past, it was the stress of fertility–the need to have a child and thus prove her worth. (The Romans did have other ways and avenues for a woman to distinguish herself, but much of a woman’s worth was still wrapped up in her ability to provide her husband with children.)

Lupercalia is very much the same story as Valentine’s Day, but also very different. One could imagine a Roman girl, sitting in front of her mirror, worrying if her lover will think she’s pretty. Except instead of going out for a date, she’s going out onto the street with her friends–the other women her age–hoping against hope that she might get hit by that whip so that she can conceive a child and meet the expectations placed on her by her husband, family, and society.

Just as every year modern girls stress and worry over having a date on this day so that they might meet the expectations placed on them by their family, friends, and society.

It’s the same story. A story of expectations, love, romance. It could even be a similar character. But it’s in vastly different cultures and time periods.

And this is what makes every story new and fresh.

They say there is nothing new under the sun, that every story has been told, and that is true. Roman girls have experienced the same sense of failed expectations: striving to meet some extreme goal and just not making it. But they didn’t do it with cell phones and valentine’s. And that’s what makes a story new.

A new circumstance, a new setting, a new atmosphere, a new perspective.

Nothing is new, and everything is new. Every story is the same and it is different.

It’s Lupercalia versus Valentine’s Day.

And I hope you have a very happy Valentine’s Day.

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*You’ve probably heard the phrase “the Ides of March” in reference to Julius Caesar. Without getting into a long drawn-out conversation on the Roman calendar, basically the Ides means either the 13th or 15th of the month, depending on which month it is. So in March the Ides is the 15th, and in February the Ides is the 13th.

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5 thoughts on “Blame the Romans

  1. Shauna Granger

    I was going to say, “I’ve totally had this argument before!” And then I saw your Hiddleston gif and I forgot how to person.

  2. Whipping someone to ensure fertility has to be symbolic of something, and I wonder if it’s related to being shot by Cupid’s arrow. Both are fairly violent acts, toned down in celebration of life and renewal – because what are fertility and romance about if not renewal?
    Hmm…I should have studied harder in college…

    (Oh, and the TomH gif? Totally teaching me about lip reading.)

  3. Pingback: The Holiday of Imagination | Spellbound Scribes

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