February, St. Valentine, and Goat Skins

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

The Roman priests called Luperci celebrated the Lupercalia, a fertility and purification festival on February 15 by striking women with goatskin strips called februa. This word gives us the name of our shortest month, as well as its odd spelling and challenging pronunciation.

Why hit women with goat hide? (Considering the treatment of women throughout history, you might also ask, why not?) You strike them with februa to increase their fertility. Why else?

The feast has its roots in the legendary founding of Rome. Twin boys named Romulus and Remus were cast out by their uncle, King Amulius, who feared that the boys would one day overthrow him. They were rescued by a she-wolf, who nursed them in a cave called the Lupercal. A shepherd and his family eventually found and adopted the boys. When they grew up, the fulfilled their fates and overthrew their evil uncle. Then Romulus killed Remus and founded the great civilization of Rome.

That’s a condensed version.

The Lupercalia celebrated the twin boys and the wolf who nurtured them. It involved sacrificing goats, whipping women, and probably a fair amount of drinking and sex. During the festival, men picked women’s names from a jar and were paired off with them for the duration. So mid-February already had a tenuous connection to “romance.”

Later in the Empire, Claudius forbade young soldiers to marry, believing that they would be less enthusiastic about going off to war if they had a wife and family. A priest named Valentine was executed in 270 AD for marrying Christian couples against the emperor’s commands. He was decreed a saint in the late 5th century. February 14 is his feast day.

In another version of the story, while Valentine was imprisoned, he tutored the blind daughter of his jailer. He and the girl, Julia, prayed together that her sight be restored, and God answered their prayers. As Valentine was led to his execution, the (soon-to-be) saint slipped a note to Julia that said “from your Valentine.”

Some Christians frown on Valentine’s Day because of its pagan origins. Maybe we should also, then, change the name of the month? In Old English, February was Solmonath, or mud month, and Kale-monath, named for cabbage. What do you think?

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2 Responses to February, St. Valentine, and Goat Skins

  1. Kathy says:

    Sarah–I know. Kale Month would be great for our time.

  2. Sarah Becker says:

    Love Kale-monath. Apparently nowadays chefs massage their kale (presumably to make it palatable). So, flog your women and massage your vegetables!

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