Wolves, Sacrifices & Saints: The Dark History of Valentine’s Day


Veronika Lee, écrivaine

Valentine’s Day is typically a holiday begrudged by those who are not in relationships, and by those who are in a romance yet don’t want to celebrate what may be considered by some to be a “Hallmark holiday.” Little do individuals consider that the Christianized holiday, the feast day of St. Valentine, a 3rd Century saint who is affiliated with courtly love, is actually linked to dark pagan blood-drenched festivals.


According to Dr. Alice V. Clark, Professor of Music History and Specialist in Medieval Studies at Loyola University New Orleans, the historic figure may or may not have died a martyr. 


“Given how long ago that was, it’s not surprising that there is no documentation from the time–and perhaps it shouldn’t surprise that there may even have been two early martyrs by that name in or near Rome who were conflated into one.  There is evidence of veneration of the saint by the fourth century, and remnants of a church in his honor have been excavated,” she explains. 


What may be of interest to lovers of the macabre and New Orleanians in general, with our proclivities for the dark side, Clark says medieval and later saints are honored not on their birthdays but rather their death days, which she explains are a sort of birth into eternal life.


“This may be in part because reliable birth records weren’t always kept (perhaps in part because infant mortality was quite high), but more importantly because, in the eyes of the medieval world, this second birth was the one that mattered most to the Church.  It says something about the difference between the medieval world and our own that they celebrated natales, while we celebrate birthdays.”


The date of Valentinus’ natales remains a mystery but Clark says that it is possible “the celebration of this Roman saint was layered onto the earlier pagan holiday–there’s reason to see something similar happening with other elements of the Christian calendar, down to Christmas and Easter themselves. It’s not unlike the way Christian churches were built on the ruins of the sites of pagan ritual sites, or the Great Mosque of Cordoba was renovated into a cathedral after the city was conquered by the Christians in the thirteenth century. In each case what’s happening is a kind of appropriation of earlier religious practice by a new dominant faith.”


The natales (death date) of Valentinus lines up with Lupercalia – and could signify a clash of anti-Christian titans slaughtering those who tried to reverse pagan Rome. Lupercalia is widely considered to have been celebrated in ancient times, dating back to a pastoral pre-Roman world. It is associated with the Greek festival of Lykaia, which loosely can be summed up as an evening spent on a mountain top practicing rituals to ensure the population was not transformed to werewolves. Apparently, this used to be a top priority. The Greek festivities paved the way for the Roman celebrations known as Februara – better known as “the purgings” and now serves as the root of today’s name of February. According to Plato, it was required that humans devour the proper entrails of human flesh so that they could avoid being subjects to lycanthropy. Basically, if you did not eat the proper parts of your fellow human, you and those closest to you could risk the chance of becoming werewolves.


It should be noted that the founding of the city of Rome is attributed to the brothers Romulus and Remus, who were suckled allegedly by the she-wolf, Capitoline. The twin brothers were born in an ancient city that would become the future site of Rome and allegedly, their mother was a virgin. This is important because of this pagan tales associations with Christianized tales of Mary, a Virgin who birthed the son of God, Jesus Christ. Allegedly the father of Romulus and Remus as the god of war, Mars, and the two were on Earth descended from the nobles of ancient Greek. Much like biblical stories that would follow, Romulus and Remus were ordered to be executed by the then ruler, King Amulius. Ironically, the two brothers suckled by wolf milk would end up as shepherds, tending to large flocks of sheep. Naturally, they rebelled and Romulus would go on, with the support of his brother, to be the first king of Rome.


New Orleanians may recognize the name Dionysus and rightfully so – as he was the Greek god associated with wine, pleasure, festivities and madness. Some of the literary texts documenting the god’s mystical encounters with humans attach the twins into the equation.


St. Valentine is merely a victim of happenstance. Some Christian martyrology texts claim the Christian saint was busy defending newly minted Christians from being forced into participating in the practices of pagan antiquity when he was brutally slaughtered. However, his attachments to “courtly love” do not appear until the time of Geoffrey Chaucer and the High Middle Ages. The concept of love in this sense, on a quest to find a partner who was spiritually,  emotionally and romantically fulfilling did not appear until around this time. While many medieval citizens made treks and pilgrimages across Europe in hopes of touching the relics of saints for causes such as health and material wealth, ventures in pursuit of Saint Valentine were quite different. That said, the origins of Valentine are dubious at best. As aforementioned, the martyrdom is not necessarily equated with just one individual. 


Some historians point to Pope Galasius I, the third and final bishop of Rome, who would utilize the popularity of the commemorative Lupercalia feast Feb. 13-15 to incorporate a day celebrating the newly minted Christian martyr. Galasius had grown up feeling similarly about the Lupercalia tradition that many feel now towards the Valentine’s holiday – resentful and dubious of its origins.


One way in which the holiday was celebrated was in caves with the sacrifice of multiple goats (a symbol of sexuality) and a dog and/or wolf. Individuals chosen by a sacred order of wolf       would be smeared in the blood of the animal sacrifices. According to sources from The History Channel, “They then ran naked or nearly-naked around Palantine whipping any woman within striking distance with the thongs. Many women welcomed the lashes and even bared their skin to receive the fertility rite; it’s open to speculation what the lashes represented. During Lupercalia, the men randomly chose a woman’s name from a jar to be coupled with them for the duration of the festival. Often, the couple stayed together until the following year’s festival. Many fell in love and married.” Some may recall that Lupercalia is the inciting incident in the first Act, Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” 


Allegedly, the man who went on who came to be revered as Saint Valentine used this debaucherous feast to aid his fellow Christians in need. Many were in love, regardless of having no affiliation with divination or paranormal, and wanted their unions to be recognized in the eyes of a mono Deity. Saint Valentine was the one to unite them, even though he would be killed for it under Emperor Claudius II. 


Some of Lupercalia’s symbols that remain with us today are the colors red and white. The gory origins of red are those of the blood ritual sacrifices. White remains a timeless symbol of purity. The canine connection to wolves, though, seems entirely forgotten. 


As of 2018, CNN reports that Americans spend an estimated $19.6 billion on Valentine’s Day – dinners, teddy bears, lingerie, chocolates, all included. So the next time you have a friend hormoaning that they don’t believe there is any merit to the holiday, throw that figure at them. And let them know their fears about Hallmark setting the precedent predate the American greeting card company – people have feared being alone and infertile since ancient times. The only difference now is that people probably wouldn’t sacrifice dogs in hopes of finding “the right one.”