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When Valentine Met Cupid

The History of Valentine's Day

Saint Valentine

Being a historian, I was a little embarrassed that I didn’t know too much about Saint Valentine. He is patron of an entire holiday, and I know more about Saint Patrick and Saint Nicholas. Naturally, I conducted a Wikipedia search; interestingly, the results were as far as my knowledge told me: not much. His history is so obscure, that scholars have assumed a few different pseudonyms of Saint Valentine.

According to Roman Catholic history, he was a 3rd century saint born in 226 in Terni and died on February 14, 269 in Rome buried in Via Faminia. Like his colleague Saint Nicholas, he was commemorated on the day of his death (see “The Man Behind the Beard”). According to obscure Eastern Orthodox history though, Saint Valentine was commemorated on July 6th as the Presbyter of Rome and on July 30 as the Hieromartyr of Terni. Given the little known reliability of Saint Valentine, the Catholic Church actually removed his name from the General Roman Calendar in 1969; nonetheless, he is still recognized as a saint by Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox alike as the the February 14th entry of the Roman Martyrology.

Since the Middle Ages, Saint Valentine has been associated with a tradition of courtly love; but, no one really knows why. Like the Christmas story (see “The Man Behind the Beard”), the choosing to celebrate pagan traditions on dates specified to saints who may or may not even relate to those dates or traditions was part of the deal during the early conversion of pagans into Christians since the Middle Ages.

Christmas, based on Saint Nicholas who died on December 6th, is celebrated with pagan decorated trees and rearranged to accommodate the Winter Solstice. Further, the actual Christmas story of the Wise Men and the birth of Jesus Christ has nothing to do with Saint Nicholas nor the Winter Solstice (see “Bearing Gifts”); and, biblical scholars suggest that Jesus was not even born in December. Likewise, the commemoration of Saint Valentine on February 14th has nothing to do with the pagan celebration of love in hearts, flowers, and candy.

In order to convert the early pagans, the Catholic Church accommodated pagan worship traditions into their own traditions. Some scholars suggest it was for the sake of saving as many souls for the eternal kingdom, while others suggest it was a plot for evil world domination through confusion. Regardless of your school of thought, love has been in the Valentine’s Day picture since the Middle Ages.


Interestingly, I know a little more about Cupid than I do of Saint Valentine. The Valentine’s Day traditions that we celebrate on February 14th are more conducive to the pagan traditions than anything regarding the man the holiday is named after. In classical Roman tradition, Cupid is the god of desire and attraction often portrayed as the son of Venus (the Roman goddess of love) and Mars (the Roman god of war). This is the the Roman poet Ovid's version of Cupid, but like Saint Valentine, he had a couple different pseudonyms. The Roman version is “Cupid” and sometimes referred to as "Amor," but the Greek version is “Eros.” This leads to the varying context of how love falls in the picture, and how Cupid is iconographed in varying contexts as well.

The Hellenistic Cupid was shown as a slender winged youth, but later was increasingly portrayed as a chubby boy. Eros was classically portrayed as the son of Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of love) and Ares (the Greek god of war), but the Greek poet Hesiod’s version says he was the first of all gods to come into existence by chaos and earth. Roman philosopher Seneca describes Cupid as one god whose mother is Venus, but whose father is Vulcan. Roman statesman Cicero says that there are actually 3 different types of Cupids with 3 different Venus mothers and 3 different Mars fathers. How he was even born is a question of debate, as the Greek school says he came into existence asexually, the Roman school believes that he came to existence by separating male and female entities that were already contained within his being, and their new schools say he came to existence through a male and female union.

According to legend, the source of Cupid’s power was his bow and arrow. He actually had two types of arrows: sharp golden arrows and blunt lead arrows. Any human or deity shot by his golden arrow is filled with uncontrollable desire, and any human or deity shot by his lead arrow is filled with feelings of aversion. A famous Cupid tale involves Apollo, in which Cupid shot Apollo with a golden arrow so that he desired Daphne and shot Daphne with a lead arrow so that she averted from Apollo. Another Cupid tale involves Psyche, in which Cupid was accidentally wounded by his own golden arrow and experiences the ordeal that is love. The arrow was intended for Psyche herself so that she would fall in love with Cupid, as was his mother Venus’ wished; instead, Cupid fell in love with Psyche.


And so here we are, celebrating the meaning of love with our significant others, somewhere in between Valentine and Cupid. Programmed to find the meaning of love in chocolates, teddy bears, flowers, and jewelry decorated with hearts is so cute, isn't it? But when we don't give or get those things, are we not loved? Or if we do give or get those things, are we loved? These questions made me think of Chapter 13 in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, in which he addresses love as the greatest gift.

Though I speak with the tongue of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

So, no matter how many gifts we give on Valentine's Day, it is nothing if we don't love. No matter what we say or what we do on that day, or any other day, we are bankrupt without love. Paul goes on to define love in one of my most favorite biblical excerpts, ever.

Love suffers long, and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek it's own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

We must remember that the true spirit of Valentine's Day, the true spirit of God even, is love; and like the true spirit of Christmas, we must practice love for God first, and then for ourselves as for our neighbors, every day. Paul, indeed, sums it up pretty epically in a verse many of us know well.

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

Chocolates, teddy bears, flowers, and jewelry decorated with hearts are very cute, but they do not last forever. All of our words and our knowledge, our very prophecies, fail without love. Today, I encourage you to go out in love every day, for we were made in the very power of love.

© 2021 Marilyn Prado