Tuesday, February 09, 2010


by Christopher Nyerges

Valentine’s Day. Hearts. Chocolates. Flowers. Pretty cards to your sweetheart. The newspaper advertisements tell us what Valentine’s Day is all about: jewelry for your loved one, chocolates, and sexy underwear for your wife or girlfriend. So this is nothing more than a day to flirt and arouse passions in your loved ones, right?

Hold on! At least one of the newspaper advertisements says “Saint” Valentine’s Day. What’s that all about?

That’s right. February 14 is the day set aside to commemorate a real historical person named Valentinus. With just a little bit of research, we learn that this Valentinus person was stoned, clubbed, and beheaded in about the year 270 A.D. He was violently killed by an unruly mob. That’s the meaning buried there in that word “martyr.” But why? And how have we come to associate Valentinus with chocolates and hearts and lovers?

It turns out that there were at least two people called Valentinus – possibly more – who lived in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries. One – who the Catholic Church now called Saint Valentine – was beheaded in 270 A.D.

Another Valentinus lived about a century earlier and founded one of the most important sects of Gnosticism. He was born in Egypt and educated in Alexandria. He settled in Rome during the reign of Pope Hyginus and taught there for more than 20 years. He attracted a large following to his beliefs, due in part to his intelligence, his eloquence of speech, and his forceful arguments.

But the teachings of this Valentinus differed in some ways from the Christian church of that time, and thus he was not selected for the office of Bishop. So Valentinus broke off from the Christian church, left Rome, and continued to develop his doctrines.

There are no original surviving documents from the teachings of Valentinus. So, if you want to discover what he actually believed and taught, you have to study fragmentary quotations found in the writings of his orthodox Christian opponents. Through research, we learn that Valentinus was influenced by Plato (the main source of the teachings of Socrates), Zoroastrianism, and Christianity. Valentinus also spoke of a spiritual realm which he called Pleroma, which consisted of a succession of aeons, or “emanations,” evolving from an original divine being. These aeons have been described as the layers of an onion, with each layer being a wholly complete reality.

The term Gnosticism came from the word “gnosis,” defined as spiritual knowledge. Those who followed this line of study were called the Gnostics, and many were referred to as Christian Gnostics. But by the third century, the more orthodox Christian church (and the political power of the day), decided to oppose and persecute the Gnostics. By the end of the third century, Gnosticism as a distinct movement had largely disapppeared.

Now, here’s the quiz: Where in all this did you hear anything about chocolates, hearts, greeting cards, bunnies, jewelry, roses, or lace underwear? Plus, there doesn’t appear to be any historical connection with any of the individuals named Valentinus with the date of February 14.

It turns out that in the pre-Christian days, there was a celebration in honor of Lupercus, a pastoral god, sometimes identified with Faunus or Pan. Faunus is depicted as having the body of a man but the horns, pointed ears, tail, and hind legs of a goat. That is, Faunus is more or less identical with the satyr, who was said to be lecherous, lustful, and always ready to party.

The pre-Christian observance of this day was called Lupercalia, which fell on February 15. Most of what people do today in the name of “celebrating St. Valentine’s Day” has its roots in the ancient feast of Lupercalia. On Lupercalia, cards were given (often with subtle or overt sexual overtones), and men reportedly chased women through the streets (sounds somewhat like Mardi Gras).

It is difficult to ascertain why the commemoration of Valentinus was used to supplant, uplift, and supercede the already-existing commemoration of Lupercus, but that’s what happened. Yet, very little of the trappings of modern St. Valentine’s Day have anything to do with the historical Valentinus.

And that’s really a shame, since Valentinus was as important as perhaps Socrates or Pythagoras, and yet most of us only associate him with the silly commercialism of Lupercalia’s remnants.

Certainly it’s possible that the Church engineered this substitution so that people would elevate their practices on this day, though there is no evidence that that has happened.

So rather than waste money and time on chocolates and red cards, why not take the time to study something meaningful about the great teacher Valentinus. Do this with your loved ones, and your family. You may discover that much of what he taught is very much relevant today.

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