Thursday, February 13, 2014

On St. Valentine from Rome (a re-post from 2012)

On February 14th this year I took in a panoramic view of Rome at dusk on the Janiculum hill with my two little Valentines and reflected how this "Day of Love" celebrated around the world is yet another example of how the roots of so many now-global traditions can be traced back to Roman cults, cults both pagan and Christian.

On February 14th the Church celebrates the life of one of the several saints named Valentine.
 Here is an interesting history of the different Valentines.

The Roman Valentine celebrated on February 14th was a priest and herbalist or doctor. My introduction to his story began with a children's book by Robert Sabuda,, colorfully illustrated with paper mosaics to imitate early Christian art in Rome.

The most we know about this Valentine is that he was executed on February 14 for ministering to Christians under the reign of Claudius II (the Goth). The legend is that he was a very charismatic individual who succeeded in converting many of his jailers but whose luck finally ran out when he attempted to convert the emperor himself. He was beheaded at the Porta Flaminia and buried on the via Flaminia. The saint's relics can be found in Santa Prassede and Santa Maria in Cosmedin (one of my favorites, a Melkite church) in Rome, and elsewhere around the world.

A great cult must have grown around his memory, for he became the patron saint of many seemingly unrelated things, such as love and marriage, beekeeping (because love is sweet like honey?), epilepsy, travelers, and the plague. Hmm.

The connection between Valentine's name and love letters stems from the legend that is the basis of Sabuda's story-- the healing of the blind daughter of one of his jailers. Before being led off to his execution, he wrote her a note with his signature, "From your Valentine", which she was miraculously able to see for the first time.

But the official day for writing notes that express love is February 15, the ancient Roman feast of Lupercalia, in which maidens would write love notes for suitors to draw at random from an urn. As with the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6 and the association of "Santa Claus" with Christmas, St. Valentine has been associated with love letters by the mere proximity of his feast day with a popular tradition of ancient Rome, though the author of this Wikipedia entry claims Chaucer made the whole love connection up, which complicates the issue even more but makes for fascinating reading.

Lupercalia coincided with or perhaps replaced the February 15 ritual in honor of the goddess of Spring-cleaning, Februata Juno, the origin of the month of February. The rite of the god Lupercus (from the Latin for wolf, lupus, but more commonly known by his Greek name Pan) took place in the "lupercal", the cave of the wolf-mother of the twin brothers she suckled, Remus and Romulus.

For other Roman name origins, look back at the cold month now blessed behind us-- January is named after the two-headed god that bids farewell to the old year and looks ahead to the new, Janus. The hill upon which we now reside, the Janiculum, is also named after Janus, as explained in a previous post. Additionally, the month of May is named after the goddess Maia, the harbinger of Spring, the etymological origin of the name of my daughter Maya, born on May 1 (which also means Mary, who is the "Queen of May"), and so on and so forth. There is seemingly no end to Rome's influence on the world!

No comments:

Post a Comment