Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Wings for a Paper Saint: Valentine

Love is in the air like a brace of lepidoptera, iridescent membranes flapping like the beat of a thousand paper-thin hearts. What'd they morph from, these insects d'amour, and who's to disparage their larval stage in favor of the flighted form, to shun the worm yet woo the wings? 

All things change, of course, and love no less than others and more than most. A time of infatuation may be the only hour that never stretches, the emotions shifting swiftly along a course less straight than that of Cupid's drunkest arrow toward some far terminus of romance. And the day that celebrates this multihued passion, the day named in honor of St. Valentine? What are its origins? 

February 14, fast approaching here, was originally the feast day of Juno Februata, the Roman Goddess of the Fever of Love. In celebrating this goddess, whose day fell within the festival of Lupercus, a box was provided from which single men could draw a small piece of paper that was inscribed with a woman's name. The couple thus formed would participate in the erotic games that followed, would remain partners for the subsequent 12 months, and would sometimes even get married. This is what passed for reality programming in pagan times ... 

Jump ahead to the advent, so to speak, of Christianity, and to the repression of all things erotic. Juno's rantum-scantum lottery couldn't cut the ecclesiastical mustard, and something had to be done. One something was: replacing the women's names with the names of saints or with short sermons. Young men and women were expected to emulate the life of the saint whose name was on the billet they'd drawn; you can imagine what a box of chuckles that turned out to be. So, to assist those of the partying public who still preferred forming the two-person tortoise to sitting around in a hairshirt, the church decided a little revisionism would be just the thing: Out with the old gods and in with the new. Juno, man, she was yesterday's news, and quicker'n you could say Quod erat demonstrandum, all mention of her or of Lupercus was repressed. The happenin' kid on the block was a saint, went the official word. A saint, um, let's see now ... Valentine? Yeah, that's the ticket: St. Valentine! One of ours! And, listen, old Val is why all this celebrating started in the first place, capisce

His day was officially set as February 14 by Pope Gelasius I in 494 C.E. 

But ... wait just one fucking minute. Was this saint the Bishop of Interamna who was martyred circa 271 C.E.? Or was he the priest that Emperor Claudius had executed for marrying couples in secret? Or was he a different priest who'd been subjected to much chin music and a little beheading for having dissed Jupiter and Mercury in the still-mostly-pagan days? 

One source claims there were as many as seven different Valentines. 

It didn't really matter: The papal instrumentality simply threw together a fake bio and set their propaganda loose and their soldiers onward and extinguished the public spark of Juno for good. However, the human spirit being resilient and love conquering all & so on, people eventually returned to using women's names instead of saints. At least there was that. And soon thereafter ~ well, in the 14th century ~ the custom of sending love letters on St. Valentine's Day began in England and France. By the 17th century, it was handmade cards; followed, in the 18th century, by commercially made cards. 

Decades passed, and the celebration grew increasingly secular; 
the festival was finally dropped from the 1969 Roman Church Calendar. 

These days, it's a largely Hallmark time for many of us, and heart-bedecked cards lie in piles ~ for the lucky ones ~ like so many paper butterflies resting their polychrome wings. But you know that even the blue morpho's got a flightless past, and you know those cards began life as nothing more than points of affection worming their way deep into the hearts of your loved ones. And you know that the transformation's not complete, nor will it ever be, and that over time what we call love may move from the fragility of a swallowtail's wing to a strength beyond the history of insects on this world. 

Of course, yes, that sort of love does require a bit of work. 

It's just a little easier than flying.