The most original and enduring symbol of Valentine’s Day is a heart pierced by the arrow of Cupid, Eros in ancient Greece. It is not obvious, however, what this pagan image and the mythology that lies behind it should have to do with the third-century CE Christian martyr St. Valentine. The road from Eros to the Saint and then on to our holiday that bears his name is as tortuous as it is fascinating. As we shall see, at all points along the road – except for Valentine himself! – the ultimate idea has been about celebrating the spring season and the various themes that it has evoked in myth, literature, philosophy, and art, love being not the only such theme.
In Greek myth Eros was not originally the cute cherub that people visualize today. In fact, originally he could not be visualized at all because he was not even a deity, and so at first was represented simply by a herm (Harrison, p. 630). According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Eros self-generated into existence once Chaos and Earth came into being (lines 116-23). Eros was the driving force behind the universe responsible for every other created thing, the motor of generation and procreation. Eros is usually translated as “Love” because Eros as a force manifests itself in humans as the passionate desire that drives physical love, and hence procreation. Eros was thought to strike our hearts because in the ancient world the heart was considered the repository of thought as well as of the affective powers (e.g., emotions, intuition, wisdom), as evidenced by our heart pounding when we are excited and inspired. The primal power of Eros was overwhelming and could not be resisted by humans, gods or goddesses, or anything else. The result is what we see in nature: fertility, life, and the seasons.
Eventually Eros came to be represented as an Erote, a type of winged sprite (ker) that both symbolizes and mediates the coming of life, and so also spring. Hence Theognis (Eleg. 1275) wrote:
Love [Eros] comes at this hour, comes with the flowers of spring, . .
Love comes, scattering seed for man upon earth.
Indeed, Eros as an Erote was usually depicted holding sprigs of foliage or sprays of flowers, and also could be seen watering flowers in a garden (Harrison, pp. 633-35). Eros later evolved from an Erote into a fully formed, handsome youth (ephebos) with golden wings, and his power was then represented by the arrows that he sent into the hearts of humans and gods alike.
The Greek philosophers also got ahold of Eros, making him the inspiration of lofty philosophical ideas. The most famous example is the discussion about the nature of Love (Eros) in Plato’s Symposium. To understand that dialogue properly we must put aside our contemporary notions of love and appreciate that Plato’s symposiasts were debating the question against the traditional mythological background of Love as Eros; Hesiod’s above-mentioned creation myth is even quoted at near the beginning (178b). At the end of the dialogue, the prevailing idea emerged that the primal power of Eros can serve as a starting point to inspire and guide a person in realizing beauty in earthly nature, and from there shed these illusions and eventually realize pure, heavenly beauty – “beauty’s very self” – so that when such person “has brought forth and reared this perfect virtue, he shall be called the friend of god, and, and if ever it is given to man to put on immortality, it shall be given to him” (211e-212a). Somewhat analogously, in the Orphic tradition (where Eros had similarly self-generated, but from the cosmic egg), Eros as a fertility figure played a key role in Orphic mysteries, mediating the initiations (Harrison, pp. 640-45).
Having discussed Eros as leading to an experience of God, we can turn to that man of God said to lead to love, St. Valentine. In fact we know almost nothing reliable about this murky figure. Most probably he was a bishop in Terni, Italy, who was martyred about 269 CE, supposedly on February 14. Catholic tradition also posits a second St. Valentine, a priest in Rome who also was martyred the same year, also on February 14. The prevailing view among scholars today is that the bishop of Terni is the real historical personage, but that his figure was then cloned in Rome and mythologized onto that of the nonexistent Roman priest. The stories about this priest were then attributed back to the bishop, which explains why the oldest stories about them are so similar (Kelly; Oruch; OCY, p. 77). (Both were said to heal people, whom they converted, thus arousing the ire of Roman authorities, as a result of which they were beheaded, both on February 14, which became the Saint’s feast day.) But none of the earliest stories, nor those of the next thousand years or so, contained or even prefigured any of the love and matchmaking themes and customs that we now associate with Valentine’s Day. We had to await the genius of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), who has been called “the original mythmaker” in this instance (Oruch, p. 565), to make the connection and put us back on the path to Eros.
Chaucer put Valentine’s Day on the map in his poem, Parliament of Fowls, in which birds gather on February 14 to choose their mates:
You well know how on Saint Valentine’s day,
By my statute and through my ordinance,
You come to choose your mates,
As I prick you with sweet pain,
And then fly on your way. [Lines 386-90]
Scholars over the centuries have tried long and hard to figure out how Chaucer got the idea to link the Saint with the coming of spring, but they have never been able to find an earlier tradition that he could have relied upon (Kelly; Oruch). The troubadours, for instance, wrote about love, birds, and the spring, but never mentioned or made a connection with St. Valentine. Rather, it seems that Chaucer’s creative genius simply combined existing bird lore and traditions of spring with the coincidence of St. Valentine’s feast day falling on the appropriate date of February 14. As mentioned in my last post, there was already a tradition of spring beginning on February 1, while other medieval calendars and sources marked the beginning of spring in mid-February when the sun moved into Pisces (Oruch, p. 550). Indeed, by then signs of spring were appearing, not only birds singing and mating but also some spring flowers, and some farming activity such as the pruning and grafting of trees. An observant poet like Chaucer would not miss this.
Once Chaucer had penned his poem, a cascade of other literature followed connecting the Saint with love. John Gower (1330-1408) and John Lydgate (1370-1451) both wrote that birds choose their mates on Valentine’s Day, Lydgate also making Valentine a type of poem. Sir John Clanvowe (1341-91) wrote The Book of Cupid. Soon members of the aristocracy in England and France started writing love notes on Valentine’s Day, and the custom had reached the commoners by the mid-to late 17th century. From the outset these valentines were decorated, most commonly with hearts and cupids.
Once Valentine’s Day had become a holiday and tradition, further mythmaking about the Saint followed. For example, while an old 5th or 6th century account told that the Saint had healed the blind daughter of his jailer and then converted the whole family to Christianity, now a detail was added that on the eve of his martyrdom the Saint wrote a farewell note to the young lady (implying that he was in love with her), thus accounting for the origin of Valentine notes (Kelly, pp. 49-50, 59). As another example, the idea of connecting the origin of some Valentine’s Day traditions (matchmaking and love-notes) with the Roman pagan mid-February festival of Lupercalia also surfaced, beginning in a 1756 century book by Alban Butler and embellished in 1807 by Francis Douce, a notion that scholars disproved long ago (Kelly, pp. 59-62; Oruch, p. 539-40) but which nevertheless persists in contemporary books and on the Internet (e.g., Aveni, p. 39-40; Santino, p. 70).
Quite apart from what Saint Valentine really did, today we have an image and dynamic of Valentine’s Day that harks back in important ways to the Greek concept of Eros. The occasion of this holiday can encourage us not only to celebrate our bond with our beloved but also to turn the force of our love and compassion toward the highest spiritual ends. At the same time, and quite apart from themes of romance, history shows us that the holiday is also a celebration of the coming of spring, like Groundhog Day and (as we shall see in my next post) Carnival.
Having said these things, this post would not be complete without my paying tribute to my own Valentine, my own lovely wife Elena. Below are some vintage photos from about 30 years ago. We are still going strong!
Sources and Bibliography
Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Blackburn, Bonnie and Holford-Strevens, Leofranc, eds. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999 (cited as “OCY”).
Calame, Claude. The Poetics of Eros in Ancient Greece. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Kelly, Henry. Chaucer and the Cult of Saint Valentine. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1986
Oruch, Jack. “St. Valentine, Chaucer, and Spring in February,” Speculum 56.3:534-65 (1981).
Plato. The Symposium.
Most, Glenn. “Eros in Hesiod,” in Sanders, Ed, et al, eds., Erôs in Ancient Greece. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Santino, Jack. All Around the Year. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1995.