Valentine's Day with an Ancient Twist
Ancient Inspirations for Valentine’s Day with Three Acts of Love
Like many contemporary holidays of European origin, Valentine’s Day has ancient pre-Christian roots. Celebrated annually on February 14th, Valentine’s Day, also called St. Valentine’s Day, was once the Roman holiday Lupercalia. This festival marked the coming of spring and included fertility rites and courtship of women with men by lottery. The festival survived through the Rome Empire’s Christianization and only faced admonishment from Pope Gelasius I at the end of the 5th century.
The Luperci, a priestly association, reserved by Augustus for the equestrian class, led the festival. The rites included purifications rituals and the racing of the Luperci through the city, slapping the hands of noblewoman observers with leather straps. Purification was essential for the festival as it occurred in February. The Roman name of the month, Februarius, must have something to do with purification, speculates Plutarch, “…for this is nearest to the meaning of the word.” During the month, the Romans made offerings to the dead as well.
Was the Lupercalia as romantically inclined as today’s overtones of Valentine’s day? It is less likely the case that it was a festival sexual in orientation. Meaning, it was less about people’s fertility and instead focused on the fertility of the city’s fields and prosperity. Ancient societies prioritized the common/collective over the private/individual. Though correspondence between the fertility of the fields goes hand in hand with human fertility, it is never off the table as an essential element of any fertility-based festival. I think it safe to say that the festival sought to secure fertility for the future.
Plutarch tells us that the Lupercalia, which the Romans celebrated for the Greeks, is the Lykaia, the feast of wolves. The Greek festival took place on Mount Lykaion (Wolf Mountain) in Arkadia. The festival featured athletic competitions, including foot races, wrestling, and horse and chariot races. All of this may seem ‘off’ to you from the modern perspective; it must feel very alien to how Valentine’s Day is commonly thought of, the now secular commercialized holiday.
The main ancient holiday which I consider Valentine’s Day to be rooted in is the Greek festival of Theogamia. The festival occurred in the attic month of Gamelion (December 23rd – January 22nd), which celebrated the divine marriage of Zeus and Hera. Zeus and Hera, theologically are chief principles of cosmic creation. Their struggle in myth represented the struggle of creation and required harmony between the two principles. To honor the divine marriage at the human level, most marriages in the attic region were conducted at this time. It is for this reason I associate Valentine’s Day as the modern secular adaptation of the Theogamia, due to the romantic overtones in the marketing of the modern holiday.
Looking at this period of time from the perspectives of the ancient Greeks and Romans, following the winter solstice we pay tribute to the dead, conduct purifications, and celebrate the life-providing powers in the divine and human worlds. While I myself, being a Greek polytheist, do not celebrate Valentine’s day because of its Christian/secular expression in modern times, this holiday can be approached in a way that is meaningful to anyone in light of its ancient roots with three acts of love. For reasons of time constraints, I recommend you spread these three acts of love over three days between the 12th and 14th.
First, an act of love for the dead. Honoring loved ones who are no longer with us in this life can be done in any way you see fit. You may, if possible, visit a loved one’s grave, leave flowers, vocalize your love for them and talk to them as if they were present with you. You can do this as well at home. You could have flowers delivered to you ‘from’ a departed loved in their name, as an action to dedicated to them to make them feel present again. Whatever you decide to do, it should be focused on honoring the relationship between the departed and you.
Second, an act of love to yourself. This corresponds to purification. Depending on your inclinations, this element can be performed in a ritualistic spiritual or secular manner. From a ritualistic point of view, I recommend you do whatever purification rituals your tradition offers you. If you cannot think of one, you can take a salt bath and meditate, for starters. Of a less ritualistic purification, a day at the spa and other pampering services are perfect. Pampering yourself often feels purifying and is an act of self-love. The goal of this act of love is to revitalize yourself and restore harmony to the mind and soul.
The third and last is an act of love for others. This act would involve what you may typically do on Valentine’s day, expressing your love towards your significant other or affection for anyone in your life. This act of love can absolutely be platonic and asexual. For those who are single, you can still participate and conduct this holiday in light of the ancient festivities. Express love to your friends, pets, co-workers, or to humanity! The purpose of this act of love is to spread love around. A donation to a charity and volunteering are acts of love you can perform. If you are a gardener or have planets in the house, tell your plants you love them! Start preparing for gardening season.
One finale note. Because the ancient festivals dealt with fertility, during this time, across all three days, contemplate on what fertility is to you, think of it as cyclical abundance. You do not always have to be abundant across the year, but rather should experience abundance in a regular cycle like the seasons change. Think about what sort of abundance you wish to cultivate for the future, make your plans, say your prayers, and work on creating it!
 “Valentine’s Day,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed January 11, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Valentines-Day.
 Plutarch, Moralia, The Roman Questions.
 Plutarch, Lives, Numa.
 Fritz Graf, Roman Festivals in the Greek East: From the Early Empire to the Middle Byzantine Era (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 171.
 Plutarch, Lives, Romulus.