Where did Valentine's Day start? Lupercalia: Rome's most bizarre spring rite

Where does Valentine's Day come from? Let us introduce you to the festival of Lupercalia, a festival when naked young men and women ran around whipping one another with animal hides.

A young man dressed in sheepskin leather whipping a girl for fun, Lupercalia pastoral festival, drawing, Roman civilization, 2nd-1st century BC. (Getty Images)

Valentine’s Day is a weird holiday when you think about it. On a usually cold day—February 14—we eat chocolate, give greeting cards, celebrate romance, and find the need to make a big deal out of it in schools. While the modern holiday is, often correctly, viewed as a “Hallmark Holiday” the origins of the festival go back more than two thousand years to a Pagan ritual with strange customs and festivities that would make a modern romantic blush.

The Roman festival of Lupercalia is that Pagan ritual, and a very good candidate to be the original Valentine’s Day celebration. The origins of the holiday are a touch obscure, though it seems likely that many elements were pre-Roman. Lupercalia does seem to have inherited some of its activities from the earlier festival of Februa, which was dedicated to springtime purification. The name of February is derived from this festival. 

What did people do during the Roman festival of Lupercalia?

A cult of priests known as the Luperci offered sacrifices of goats and dogs to the goddess Juno. This ceremony was carried out in the cave where the legendary founders of the city, Romulus and Remus, were saved by the she-wolf who nursed them. After the sacrifice, a feast was held. The hides of the sacrificed animals were then cut into strips by the priests.


Cool, huh? Well, now it gets strange.

Fertility rites were performed, in which naked women were struck with the hides of the sacrificed animals as the priests ran around Palatine hill counter-clockwise. This was intended to make the women more fertile and aid in childbirth. After this, a matchmaking lottery was held. All of this took place with the help of a lot of drinking. Clothing was optional for members of the public, and people rarely wore it as a result.

Plutarch, the great Roman historian, described it as such:

..many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.

Others agree with Plutarch, telling us that the city was filled with naked young men and women who ran around whipping one another with animal hides.

Some of the activities that we know about have meanings that are lost to us. For example, after the sacrifice of the goats and dogs, two Luperci would have their foreheads anointed in blood from the sacrificial knife. They would then have the blood wiped off with wool that had been soaked in milk. They were then expected to laugh or smile that this turn of events.

The exact meaning of their expressions is lost to time.

The Luperci seeking out targets to whip as depicted by Adam Elsheimer. (Getty Images)

Lupercalia wasn’t a one-off thing either.

After the Romans added the month of February to their calendar, Lupercalia was placed on the fifteenth day of that month. The festival was popular. This was known and used by Julius Caesar when he publicly denied a crown during the festival, which added to his cult of personality. Lupercalia was celebrated continuously until around 500 C.E when regulations designed to stamp out Pagan rituals helped bring it to an end.

A member of the public armed with a whip to bring forth fertility. Was this the start of Valentine's Day? (Getty Images)

Some researchers argue that Lupercalia was mostly done away with by Pope Gelasius I, who may have placed a feast of purification on that day. Others say that the festival was allowed to continue, with Christian overtones and clothing added. In any case, Valentine’s Day, named after a saint killed by the Romans, retains the approximate date and many of the romantic themes of the Roman Lupercalia.

While the evidence for the exact fate of the holiday remains fuzzy, it is true that many Pagan festivals were co-opted by the Christian church rather than abolished. This makes it not only possible but likely that the holidays are related. Some historians, however, still reject the notion that Valentine’s Day was purposefully created to push out Lupercalia.


How did we go from Lupercalia to St. Valentine's Day?

Since the Middle Ages, Valentine’s Day has gotten progressively sweeter. This phenomenon was largely promoted by writers like Chaucer and Shakespeare who romanticized the courtly love aspects of the holiday. The first Valentine’s card was sent in 1415 by a French nobleman. Americans sent handwritten cards to one another as the holiday gained traction during the revolution. In the 1900’s the cards started to be mass produced.

This collection of Valentine's gifts in Cambodia suggests that the mass production goes much further than ever before. (Getty Images)

It all seems a far cry from the drunken revelry in Rome. Today, we would hardly suppose that there was much of a relationship at all between the drunken Pagan fertility rites of Rome and Valentine’s Day if we were to watch both take place.

While Valentine’s Day has become a fun, commercialized, slightly silly holiday dedicated to candy, cheesy TV specials, cards, and overpriced romantic dinners, the origins may be wilder than anything we would imagine. It is inevitable that holidays evolve, and customs change, but how severely they may do so is variable. The story of Lupercalia and Valentine's Day may show how a holiday can retain the same themes over 2,000 years and do a complete 180-degree turn on how those themes are expressed and celebrated.  

So go out and have a nice Valentine’s Day, and maybe be thankful that you don’t have to dodge naked people with whips on your way to the store. 



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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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