Although a classic heart is probably the symbol most associate with Valentines Day, it might surprise people that the wolf can also lay claim to this day!
Believe it or not, the wolf is one of the basis for this ancient pre-Christian festival which was later named after a number of Saints.
However, as with many of the ancient Pagan feast days, we have a variety of different rites which merged over time.
For example the Lupercalia was a Roman purification festival dedicated to new life and fertility and, based on today’s Gregorian calendar, took place on between February the 13th and the 15th.
Not by chance, the word February comes from the Roman ‘Februarius’ which means ‘to purify’, and a very interesting Irish connection arises here.
February is associated with various Irish Pagan Goddesses of new life including Lasair and Brighid, who is strongly linked to the wolf herself.
This period was known as Faoilleach, literally the end of winter, in folk etymology meaning ‘the wolfs time’, and it was said to encompass the last three weeks of January and the first three weeks of February.
The term ‘Na Faoiltich’ is an intriguing variation which links the wolf to the Spring Equinox, but this is another story!
Well, in 2008, it was discovered that Mount Lykaion, Wolf Mountain, in Arcadia was the site of wolf veneration dating back to at least 3’000 BCE, and this brings the ritual right back to the Neolithic.
This site celebrated the transformation of men from wolves. There are a number of different variations and interpretations of this story, and various Gods and Goddesses were venerated including Pan, Apollo, and some variants of Cybelle and Zeus.
These rites were then said to have been brought to Rome by Euandros, the son of Hermes, where they became the Lupercalia.
So, what about the Valentines day connections?
The priests of the Lupercalia were known Luperci, literally “The Brothers of the Wolf” and were said to have existed even before civilisation and laws.
The link to the rites at Mount Lykaion are most noticeable when the priests would smear blood upon the young men of Rome, symbolising their initiation into adulthood and the acknowledgement of their fertility. It was then seen as a blessing for women to be touched by these men carrying ‘februa’, thongs made from the skin of sacrificed goats.
Being marked by this ritual blood was said to help with conception and pregnancy.
At the same time, February was also sacred to Juno, the Roman Goddess of marriage and love, amongst others. Something familiar?
One rite which continued into the Christian incarnation of the celebration was when men drew lots with the names of young women upon them. Whoever they picked remained their partner for the duration of the festival or, according to other sources, for one whole year.
As Christianity took hold, it began to either ban or transform the old Pagan feast dates.
In 496AD Pope Gelasius I decided to change the celebration of Lupercalia to the celebration of the Valentine martyrs, as there was more than one Valentine considered worthy.
In fact, even today there is debate about the identity and historicity of our St. Valentine, just to be clear.
For Pope Gelasius, though, keeping the same date made the transition from Pagan feast day to Christian celebration all the easier.
In any case, a relatively recent tradition in Ireland is that of climbing Wicklow’s Tonelagee Mountain on Valentines weekend in order to view the heart shaped Lough Ouler.
The name Lough Ouler seems to have been an mistranslation of Lough Iolar which would mean ‘eagle lake’ and, certainly, the height and terrain would lend itself to that explanation.
A perfect Valentines view!
There is also a beautiful standing stone on Tonelagee’s summit, as well as a very unusual and apparently natural rock formation, not listed on the monuments database.
However, we are still unaware of the ancient real roots of Valentines Day.
The symbolism of blood ritual and the celebration of fertility and life have instead become heart-shaped gifts and boxes of chocolates.
Maybe we will, in the future, discover even earlier variants of these springtime rituals and celebrations.
In the meantime, have a Happy Wolf Day!
Images from web – Google Research