Monday, March 7, 2011
It is mid February, and I stumbled upon the earthly remains of a Saint Valentine in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin here in Roma. I wondered if it was him. I started to search and found out that there were at least 3 (and possibly as many as 14) St Valentines with remains in reliquaries across Europe. The legend of the St Valentine - the focal point of our annual Hallmark hysteria, (which is totally absent here in Rome... I guess when you are surrounded by putti and erotes 24/7 you dont feel the need to hang red paper ones on February 14), is mired in the murkiness of legend and myth. He was actually removed from the official Catholic Calendar of Saints back in 1969. Valentine's feast day was originally placed on that Calendar by Pope Galasius I in 496 to supersede the suppressed festival of Lupercalia.
Lupercalia? OK, my interest was piqued. Could this have anything to do with Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome? The Lupercal was, after all, the sacred spot marking the cave where the twins were suckled by the she-wolf. The short answer is yes. But by the late 5th century AD, Lupercalia probably had about as much to do with Romulus and Remus and Rome as Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Rio de Janiero has to do with Lent. Digging deeper (and a few more google searches) I found that the festival of the Lupercalia originally involved a sacrifice of 2 goats and a dog, then 2 young men, annointed, wearing the skins of said goats ran around the Palatine hill, tracing the original walls of the city, ceremoniously striking bystanders (esp women and girls) with strips of goat skin (also from the above mentioned goats) called februa. The meaning of all this is up for discussion. Naked young men in goatskin loincloths aside, was it a purification ritual? A fertility rite? A commemoration of the founding of the city of Rome? A celebration of the civilising force (control) of the City over a hunter-gatherer society? Some, or all of the above? Nobody really knows.
In the end, I returned to Santa Maria in Cosmedin and lit a candle in front of that box of bones. (When in Rome...). I'm a sucker for a good myth.