The Myths and Legends Behind
St. Valentine’s Day

by Tracey Couto

 

Lovers around the world have been exchanging Valentine cards, flowers and chocolate hearts with one another on the 14th of February for as long as we can remember. This is the day out of every year when we honor love and romance and find unique and special ways to show our loved ones just how much they mean to us. This is also the day when a shy secret admirer can find the courage to send a token of admiration to a special someone in hopes of sparking up a love connection. If you gaze into the star-filled sky on Valentine’s Day long enough, you just might catch a glimpse of Cupid’s legendary arrow of love and desire sailing through the air on its way to an unsuspecting target. A moment such as this could inspire one to ponder the question of when and how this day made for lovers first began.

According to legend, Valentine was a priest who lived in 3rd century Rome. The emperor at that time, Claudius II, was having a devil of a time recruiting soldiers to fight in his army. Few were eager to leave their wives and families and risk being massacred by barbarians. The emperor’s solution to that problem was to ban engagements and marriages, which resulted in people getting married on the sly. Valentine was one of the priests willing to defy the emperor’s decree and perform clandestine marriage ceremonies. When Valentine’s secret ceremonies were discovered, Claudius had him arrested and sentenced to death. While imprisoned, he received many flowers from people who wished him well, and he also enjoyed conversations with the jailer’s daughter. Before his execution on February 14 in the year 269, on the very day that Juno, goddess of women and marriage was honored, he sent the jailer’s daughter a note of thanks signed, “Love from your Valentine.”

Valentine was declared a saint in 496 by Pope Gelasius, and February 14 became his feast day. Also at that time, one of the customs of Lupercalia, a purification and fertility festival celebrated by Roman pagans on February 15, resurfaced. This festival honored Romulus and Remus, the infant founders of Rome, and also celebrated the goat-footed god of nature and agriculture, Faunus (also known as Lupercus). A pagan order of Roman priests, the Luperci, would gather at the cave of Romulus and Remus and sacrifice a goat for fertility and a dog for purification to Faunus. The goat’s hide was then sliced into strips and dipped in the sacrificial blood and then used to gently swat everyone the Luperci passed in the streets, as well as fields of crops, as a purification ritual. Women were gently slapped across their palms to promote fertility. Afterwards, participating girls would put their names in a huge urn. Each of the boys would choose a name, and the chosen girl would be his partner for the year. These pairings would oftentimes result in marriage. This custom was eventually abolished in Christianized Rome.

Valentine’s Day as we know it today, with the exchanging of flowers, small gifts and little love notes, didn’t become popular in Great Britain and the United States until the 18th century. By the end of the century, handwritten notes were replaced with printed cards, thanks to the improvements of the printing press. The first commercial Valentine’s Day card appeared in the United States in the 1840s and was elaborately decorated with lace and ribbons by Esther A. Howland, who is known as the “Mother of the Valentine.” The image often found on these cards isn’t that of the martyred St. Valentine, but that of a chubby winged cherub called Cupid who is the son of Venus, Goddess of Love.

The myth of Cupid, or Eros as he is known in the Greek version, and the stunningly beautiful Psyche with whom he fell deeply in love is a timeless tale of true unconditional love that cannot be denied. The story starts with Aphrodite, the Goddess of Beauty and Love, noticing that Psyche, a mere mortal, was receiving attention meant for her. This insulted the goddess and made her very jealous. Even though Psyche was not purposely diverting attention from Aphrodite, the goddess decided to punish her severely. She commanded her son Eros to make Psyche fall in love with the most horrendous and despicable thing on Earth. But once he set his eyes on her, he too was smitten by her beauty and charm and tried to think of a way to have her for himself without alerting his mother and risking her wrath.

He came up with a plan to take Psyche to an isolated palace that was to be her new home and told her she must wed an evil and ugly monster. Eros later came to her cloaked by the darkness of the night and whispered to her that he was her husband and that she must never under any circumstances gaze upon him or ever try to find out who he was. As much as she enjoyed her new life with her husband, she did grow homesick for her sisters. Eros, who could not deny his beloved anything her heart desired, invited her sisters to the palace for a visit. When her sisters saw the good fortune and opulent conditions Psyche was living in, they immediately became jealous. They began telling Psyche horrible stories about her husband, convincing her that he was dangerous and that she must leave him.

That night, the gullible and naïve Psyche took a lamp to bed with her and lit it when she was sure her husband was asleep. To her utter shock and amazement, the firelight revealed the exquisite and beautiful features of a divine god and not those of a hideous monster. Then a drop of oil fell from the lamp and awakened Eros. Once he realized what Psyche had done, he immediately disappeared, leaving Psyche devastated and alone in her grief. She searched for Eros, but to no avail. She tried enlisting the help of a couple of goddesses, but neither one wanted to defy or anger Aphrodite. With no other choice, Psyche decided to throw herself upon the mercy of Aphrodite herself.

Aphrodite took advantage of her opportunity and made a slave of Psyche, assigning her impossible tasks such as sorting an entire room full of seeds in one day, and ordering her to retrieve some beauty from Persephone, queen of the underworld, to put in a box. With some assistance and instruction, Psyche was able to complete all the tasks but one. She had been told not to open the box meant for Persephone’s beauty, but could not resist. Opening it, she was instantly overtaken by deadly slumber. Eros, who had been suffering during his separation from Psyche, found her lifeless body lying on the ground. He removed the lethal sleep from her body, placing it back into the box. Ultimately, Psyche was forgiven by both Eros and Aphrodite. The gods, moved by Psyche’s love for Eros, elevated her to the status of goddess. She was reunited with Eros, and the two were allowed to live happily ever after.

The gods appear to be smiling on this year’s Valentine’s Day, which features an astrological forecast full of very lovely energy. The Sun and Mercury will be joined in the sign of Aquarius, suggesting an exciting day full of unpredictable conversations and thrilling love notes. Venus teams up with the soft and dreamy Neptune, also in Aquarius, and both will be in harmony with generous Jupiter, making this the kind of special, romantic and fun-filled day made especially for lovers. The Moon in the luxury-loving sign of Taurus adds a sensual tone. And for the icing on the cake, passionate Mars will form a happy union with the wild and crazy Uranus, kick-starting the libido and taking you and your lover to amazing and exciting heights. We couldn’t have asked the gods for a more excellent day to celebrate our love and desire. Happy Valentine’s Day! Enjoy!