Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Brief History of Valentine's Day

Disclaimer: I am an artist, not a historian.

Benjamin West - Venus Consoling Cupid Stung by a Bee

Valentine's Day is often associated with Cupid, the God of Desire, whose Greek name Eros demonstrates his erotic nature. Cupid is the son of Venus (Aphrodite), Goddess of Love and Beauty. He carries a bow with a sling of magical arrows that will cause anyone pricked by one to fall instantly and madly in love with the first person they see. This is an interesting mythical explanation for the common phenomenon that we call "love at first sight".

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Cupidon

Commercially, Cupid has been Christianized, and is usually depicted as a child (in the common interpretation of a "cherub" - an angelic, winged infant - which is actually more accurately a "putto"). The more traditional representation of Cupid is as a male adolescent in the sexual prime of youth. Obviously, the forces of chastity prefer the infanticized representation of love, which de-emphasizes the role of sex in the course of erotic desire, while at the same time acting as a reminder that the end goal of romantic coupling (in their eyes) is the production of children (never mind the details of how you'll produce those children).

Annie Louisa Swynnerton - Cupid and Psyche

In Greek mythology, the fate of Eros is guided by his encounter with Psyche, a mortal girl so beautiful that even Aphrodite herself becomes jealous of her. Eros "accidentally" pricks himself with one of his own arrows while gazing upon Psyche, and instantly falls in love. Following that is a convoluted tale of danger and woe (as is the nature of Greek mythology), but in the end, Psyche is granted immortality by Jupiter (Zeus), and marries Eros. They have a daughter named Hedone (or Voluptas) who is the Goddess of Sensual Pleasures (imagine the trouble she would get into in our erotophobic society!).

Jacques-Louis David - Cupid and Psyche

The modern conception of Valentine's Day is obviously inspired by the legend of one or more Christian saints, but I'm far more interested in the pagan traditions that may have inspired in part or otherwise been co-opted by the Christians in the service of the holiday. The historical link between Valentine's Day and the Roman fertility festival of Lupercalia may be somewhat stretched, but I nevertheless like to use it as a model for what a newly envisioned, modern Valentine's Day could be.

Feast of Lupercalia

The festivities of Lupercalia are rather antiquated, but involve naked youths running through the streets, seeking out women who would present themselves to be ritualistically whipped in a blessing of fertility. I would do away with the animal sacrifices, of course, and I'm not one for the strict observance of long-outdated practices (which is one of the prime faults of the Christian church, as with most other religions), but we could certainly use a modern holiday that encourages the public to loosen their chastity belts and have a little naughty fun out in the streets for at least one day out of the year.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau - The Youth of Bacchus

I can just imagine it now. All the virile males would gather in the center of town, strip naked, then march down main street while the women lined up and bared their asses for a fly-by spanking. That would be a lot more fun than trading heart-shaped cards with people you don't really care about, wouldn't you say? I wish we still had festivals like this. That's the kind of world I want to live in. One that celebrates eroticism as a part of life to be embraced publicly, not hidden behind locked doors and feared as a destructive impulse.

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