Last week, we again celebrated Valentine but, amidst this time of love and romance, the news was heavily dominated by horrible events of violence against women. How does this culture of abuse against women continue to flourish despite all the romantic hype about love? Maybe the answer is to be found in history.
Digging into the history of this celebration we call Valentine’s day soon reveals that we got things really muddled along the way.
The roots of the celebration go back to an ancient Roman pagan celebration, which included lining up young naked girls to be spanked by near-naked young priests using bloody goat- or dog-skin whips.
This happened at the time of the celebration of the fertility festival known as Lupercalia. At purification rites, goats and a dog were sacrificed in the Lupercal cave on Palatine Hill where the Romans believed the twins Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome, had been sheltered and nursed by a she wolf.
Clothed in loincloths made from sacrificed animals and smeared in their blood, the priests would run about Rome, striking women with thongs made from skins of the sacrificed goats and dogs to purify them, improve their fertility and ease of childbirth.
And this all happened between 13 and 15 February, the month dedicated to Februata, the goddess of the 'febris' or fever of love and of women and marriage.
Even our modern tradition of Valentine cards dates back to these pagan festivities. On February 14 a kind of love lottery would take place. Billets bearing the names of teenaged girls were put into a container from which teenaged boys drew at random. The girl drawn then became that boy’s partner in erotic festival games, remaining his sexual partner for the rest of the year and, if things worked out, becoming his wife for life.
After Rome adopted Christianity as its official religion, Pope Gelasius in AD 494 renamed the festival 'The Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary'.
But the Romans would not let go of their festivals. Gelasius in AD 496, in an attempt to wean them off their pagan ways, again renamed the festival, this time St. Valentine’s Day after one of the church’s saints who, in AD 270, was executed by the emperor for his beliefs.
The name, Valentine, comes from the Latin Valentinus. This derives from the word, valens, which means strong, powerful or mighty. It also gave us words like valiant.
The church also banned the practice of conducting a sexual or 'love lottery'. But many would argue that it still lives on in the modern practice of men, and nowadays women as well, sending overt or covert messages to the objects of their desires with 'romantic' cards under the cover of St. Valentine’s name.
And, what are the roots of all those pictures of hearts, and often the character Cupid, that have become synonymous with Valentine cards?
In ancient Chaldean, the language of the Babylonians, the word bal meant heart and is said to also be where the pagan god mentioned in he Bible, Baal got his name. At least some theologians maintain that the heart symbol of today was originally the symbol for Baal.
The name Cupid, in turn, comes from the Latin verb cupere, which means to desire. Cupid, according to Roman mythology, was the son of Venus, the goddess of beauty and love. His Greek equivalent was known as Eros, the son of Aphrodite.
According to mythology he was responsible for impregnating numerous goddesses and mortals.
This child-like archer is described by mythology as having both a cruel and happy personality. His invisible arrows, tipped with gold, strike unsuspecting men and women, causing them to fall madly in love. His motive? To drive them crazy with intense passion, to make their lives miserable, and to laugh at the results.
And will we get rid of Valentine’s Day and its trimmings any time soon? I do not want to be cynical, but I very much doubt it.
This year it is exactly 100 years since Hallmark Cards of Kansas City in the United States started mass producing Valentine cards back in 1913. In 2009, in the US alone, $14.7-billion worth of Valentine cards was sold. By 2011 it rose to $17 billion and last year it was starting to close in on the $20-billion mark.
But it is not only with this Valentine business that we got things muddled up. I was totally surprised the other day when I discovered that the original meaning of the word 'bully' was 'sweetheart.
First recorded in English around 1530, it derived from the Dutch word boel, meaning lover or brother from broeder, meaning brother. It is also related to the Middle High German word buole for brother. This also spawned the word buhle, meaning lover.
Over time, the word, besides meaning sweetheart, also took on the meaning of protector and even came to mean afine fellow. Describing someone as a 'true bully' would have been praise then.
It is not entirely clear but it would seem that 'bully' arrived at its modern meaning due to the fact that it also became the name for the protectors or pimps of prostitutes.
It did, however, retain something of is original positivity in the expression, 'bully for you', meaning well done.