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Ancient Greek and Roman Influences on St. Valentine’s Day

Valentine's Day Ancient Greece
Eros, the ancient Greek god of love. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of New York

St. Valentine’s Day on February 14th is celebrated among lovers and couples as a day of affection, romantic love and commitment to each other.

The chocolate and card industry flourishes on that day, with people around the world giving small gifts to their loved ones in the name of Cupid, the Roman deity of love and desire inspired by the ancient Greek winged deity of Eros.

But the origins of the celebration and St. Valentine are rather obscure, with many figures claiming to be the true inspiration behind the February feast.

The celebration of Saint Valentine did not have any romantic connotations until Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his poem about the Valentines in the 14th century when the tradition of courtly love began to flourish.

By the 15th century, it had evolved into an occasion in which lovers expressed their love for each other by presenting flowers, offering confectionery, and sending greeting cards known as valentines.

St. Valentine’s Day and the Roman Lupercalia celebration

Although there is no evidence linking Saint Valentine’s Day to the rites of the ancient Roman or ancient Greek cults,  popular modern sources claim links to the Roman Lupercalia celebration observed around February 13–15, a rite connected to fertility.

Lupercalia was a festival local to the city of Rome. The more general Festival of Juno Februa, meaning Juno the purifier or the chaste Juno, was celebrated on February 13–14.

Pope Gelasius I (492–496) abolished Lupercalia. Juno is the ancient Roman name for the goddess Hera, the spouse of ancient Greek father of the gods Zeus. In the ancient Athenian calendar, the period between mid-January and mid-February was the month of Gamelion, dedicated to the sacred marriage of the couple.

Cupid with his white wings, golden arrows and playful mood is a typical symbol of St. Valentine’s day, which straightly derives from the Roman god of desire and affection Cupid and his ancient Greek counterpart Eros.

Eros, god of desire and affection

Eros was the godly child of Aphrodite. Although Eros appears in Classical Greek art as a slender winged youth, during the Hellenistic period he was increasingly portrayed as a chubby boy.

During this time, his iconography acquired the bow and arrow that remains a distinguishing attribute; a person, or even a deity, who is shot by Cupid’s arrow is filled with uncontrollable desire.

The story of Eros and Psyche appears in Greek art as early as the 4th century BC, but the most extended literary source of the tale is the Latin novel The Golden Ass, also known as Metamorphoses, by Apuleius (2nd century AD).

Often presented as an allegory of love overcoming death, the myth was a frequent image on Roman sarcophagi. The novel itself is written in a picaresque Roman style, yet Psyche retains her Greek name. Eros and Aphrodite are called by their Latin names Cupid and Venus, and Cupid is depicted as a young adult, rather than a child.

The story tells of the struggle for love and trust between Eros and Psyche. Aphrodite was jealous of the beauty of mortal princess Psyche, as men were leaving her altars barren to worship a mere human woman instead, and so she commanded her son Eros, the god of love, to cause Psyche to fall in love with the vilest creature on earth.

Instead, Eros falls in love with Psyche himself and spirits her away to his home, where they mostly spend time together during the night. Their fragile peace is ruined by a visit from Psyche’s two jealous sisters, who cause Psyche to betray the trust of her husband by taking a look at him against his warnings to do so.

Wounded, Eros leaves his wife, and Psyche wanders the Earth, looking for her lost love.

Eventually, she approaches Aphrodite and asks for her help. Aphrodite imposes four difficult tasks on Psyche, which she can achieve by means of supernatural assistance.

During the last and most difficult task of descending to Hades, Psyche takes a look at what is inside of a box she had to deliver to Persephone, the spouse of the underworld god Hades.

Psyche’s curiosity got the best of her and she looked in the box. Hidden within it was eternal sleep placed there by Venus. Cupid with the intervention of Zeus brought Psyche back from the dead to Mount Olympus where she became immortal to live alongside her husband Eros.

Aphrodite relents, and the couple gives birth to a daughter, Voluptas or Hedone, meaning physical pleasure, and bliss.

But Eros was also described in antiquity as mischievous and boyish, arbitrary and petulant, often depicted blindfolded (explaining the love is blind phrase).

In one legend, Eros cursed the god of light Apollo after he had insulted the young Eros for playing with bow and arrows. Then Eros took two arrows, one of gold and one of lead. With the leaden shaft, to incite hatred, he shot the nymph Daphne and with the golden one, to incite love, he shot Apollo through the heart.

Apollo was seized with love for the maiden, and she in turn abhorred him and fled him all the time. They were evenly matched in the race until Eros intervened and helped Apollo gain upon Daphne. The nymph asked for her father’s help and soon turned into a tree, whose leaves would crown the heads of leaders ever since.

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