The heART of Ritual

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The ancient roots of 'Valentine's Day'


Although the heart is probably the symbol most associate with Valentines Day, it might surprise people that the wolf can also lay claim to this distinction. Believe it or not, the wolf is the basis for this ancient pre-Christian festival which was later named after a number of Saints. However, as with many of the ancient Pagan feast days, we have an overlay of different rites which merged over time.


The Lupercalia, as one example, was a Roman purification festival dedicated to new life and fertility and, based on today’s Gregorian calendar, took place on between February the 13th and the 15th. In fact, the word February comes from the Roman ‘Februarius’ which means ‘to purify’.

A very interesting Irish connection arises here. As I mentioned in a previous post, February is associated with various Irish Pagan Goddesses of new life including Lasair and Brighid, who is strongly linked to the wolf herself. This period was known as Faoilleach, in folk etymology, meaning ‘the wolfs time’, and was said to encompass the last three weeks of January and the first three weeks of February. The term ‘Na Faoiltich’ is an intriguing variation which links the wolf to the Spring Equinox. But more on that another time!

Recently, in 2008, it was discovered that Mount Lykaion (Wolf Mountain) in Arcadia was the site of wolf veneration dating back to at least 3’000 BCE. This brings the ritual right back to the Neolithic. This site celebrated the transformation of men from wolves. There are a number of different variations and interpretations of the Lykaia and it goes beyond the scope of this short piece to cover them all here but I would direct anyone interested in further information to Google the term and run from there. Various Gods and Goddesses were venerated including Pan, Apollo, variants of Cybelle and Zeus. These rites were then said to have been brought to Rome by Euandros, the son of Hermes, where they became the Lupercalia. So, what about the Valentines day connections?


The priests of the Lupercalia were known as ‘The Brothers of the Wolf’ and were said to have existed even “…before civilisation and laws”. The link to the rites at Mount Lykaion are most noticeable when the priests would smear blood upon the young men of Rome, symbolising their initiation into adulthood and the acknowledgement of their fertility. It was then seen as a blessing for women to be touched by these men carrying ‘februa’, which were thongs made from the skin of sacrificed goats. Being marked by this ritual blood was said to help with conception and pregnancy.


At the same time, February was also sacred to Juno, the Roman Goddess of marriage and love, amongst other attributes. One rite which continued into the Christian incarnation of the celebration was when men drew lots with the names of young women upon them. Whoever they picked remained their partner for the duration of the festival or, according to other sources, for one whole year.


As Christianity took hold, it began to either ban or transform the old Pagan feast dates. In 496AD Pope Gelasius I decided to change the celebration of Lupercalia to the celebration of the Valentine martyrs, as there was more than one Valentine considered worthy. In fact, even today there is debate about the identity and historicity of ‘St. Valentine’. For Pope Gelasius, though, keeping the same date made the transition from Pagan feast day to Christian celebration all the easier.


A relatively recent tradition here in Ireland is that of climbing Wicklow's Tonelagee Mountain on Valentines weekend in order to view the heart shaped Lough Ouler. The name Lough Ouler seems to have been an mistranslation of Lough Iolar which would mean 'eagle lake'. Certainly, the height and terrain would lend itself to that explanation. This heart-shaped lake has become a huge attraction for climbers and hikers each Valentines weekend but, unfortunately, due to our current restrictions, it will be hard for many to make the climb this year.


There is also a beautiful standing stone on Tonelagee's summit, as well as a very unusual and apparently natural rock formation. Although not listed on the monuments database it would be interesting to have a good photographer examine the table-type slab for potentially eroded rock art. The similarity to the nearby Djouce Mountain portal stone is striking.


Many people are still unaware of the ancient roots of 'Valentines Day'. The symbolism of blood ritual and the celebration of fertility and life have instead become Hallmark cards and boxes of chocolates. The associations with the cycle of life have been celebrated for thousands of years, though, as the Mount Lykaion discoveries have shown. Perhaps we will, in the future, discover even earlier variants of these springtime rituals and celebrations. (C.) Written by David Halpin


Artist Joette Snyder