Who was or were Valentine?; History: Little is known about the patron saint of lovers, but historical links to events in ancient Rome this time of year abound.


There are three Saints Valentine -- or possibly only one. And there was Valentinus, who wasn't a saint at all, but founded a sect later judged heretical. There was even a Pope Valentine for 40 days in the late summer of 827.

The 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia lists two Valentines who were beheaded Feb. 14, about A.D. 269, in or near Rome, and a third martyred in Africa. Stories about the first two, the book says, are "of relatively late date and of no historical value." Of the third, "nothing further is known."

The most recent version of the Catholic Encyclopedia doesn't mention the African Valentine at all, and suggests that the two Roman ones may have been one saint with two sets of followers. Valentine's feast day was dropped from the liturgical calendar in 1969, but at least he appears to have been man, not myth: Archaeologists have turned up churches and inscriptions dedicated to Valentine dating from as early as 318.

As for Valentine as the patron of lovers, the Catholic Encyclopedia is dismissive: "The late medieval custom of sending love notes on Valentine's Day probably stems from the belief that it marked the mating season of birds."

So ends the search for the historical Valentine, not having turned up much to hang a multibillion-dollar holiday on.

Yet there is a historical connection between the hearts and flowers of today and the goings-on in ancient Rome about this time of year. It is the Feast of Lupercus, sacred in pagan antiquity to a deity who protected livestock from the wolves that once roamed Rome.

By A.D. 269, when Valentine (or the Valentines) met martyrdom, Lupercus had pretty well dropped out of the festival named for him. The honoree now was Juno Februata, goddess of "feverish" (febris) love. The holiday was celebrated Feb. 15 with a drawing of names by which young men and women were paired off for feasting and erotic games.

Christianity, not yet the state religion, disapproved of the Lupercalia and encouraged its followers to put saints' names into the lottery jar and spend the ensuing year contemplating the virtue of the martyrs.

As Christianity became dominant in the Roman Empire, Pope Gelasius in 496 sanitized the Lupercalia by attaching it to the nearest feast day, St. Valentine's, on the eve of the pagan holiday. Christianity had done the same thing with other pagan celebrations; many of today's Christmas traditions are built on the foundation of ancient winter-solstice rites, and the eggs and rabbits of Easter derive from the fertility cult of Astarte.

Retroactively, Valentine became remembered as a sponsor of lovers. It appears to be a matter of record that the Roman emperor of the time, Claudius the Goth, tried to forbid his soldiers to marry, lest the comforts of home soften them for battle. So Valentine is said to have performed clandestine marriages.

Imprisoned for that defiance, he is said to have healed his jailer's daughter of blindness, causing the jailer and his extensive family, 46 people, to convert and be baptized. Going to his death, the saint is said to have left a last missive for the guard's daughter, signing it, "From your Valentine."

The custom of young men and women pairing off on Feb. 14 persisted, and that birds did the same in 14th-century England was attested by Geoffrey Chaucer:

For this was sent on Saint Valentine's day

When every fowl comes there to choose his mate.

The first written valentine is often attributed to Charles, Duke of Orleans. From prison in 1415, he wrote romantic verses for his wife. A century later, written valentines were so popular in England that St. Francis de Sales, fearing for the souls of his flock, sermonized against them.

In the "Paston Letters," the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia relates, a woman writes to the suitor she seeks for her daughter: "And, cousin mine, upon Monday is Saint Valentine's Day and every bird chooses himself a mate, and if it like you to come on Thursday night, and make provision that you may abide till then, I trust to God that ye shall speak to my husband and I shall pray that we may bring the matter to a conclusion."

Her prayers were answered. Shortly after, the young woman addressed a letter "Unto my right-well beloved Valentine, John Paston Esquire."

But what of the other, nonsainted historical Valentines -- the pope and the spawner of gnostic heresy?

Pope Valentine's papacy may have lasted only 40 days, but in that time, the encyclopedia tells us, he was "noted for his piety, clemency and liberality." Interestingly, in contrast to present popes, who are chosen by the cardinals of the church, laymen participated in the selection of Valentine.

As for Valentinus the gnostic, he almost became pope, too, in 143. If he had been chosen, it's a safe bet that his followers wouldn't be classified today as heretics.

Most of what is known of Valentinianism comes from writings by enemies who condemned it, but it seems that Valentinus taught that special knowledge (gnosis, in the Greek) is required for human salvation. This knowledge he said he had from his teacher, who had it directly from the Apostle Paul. Jesus had withheld the complete teaching from the common people, who were not spiritually mature enough to benefit by it.

Valentinus' system distinguished a physical world from a spiritual wholeness, the Pleroma. Valentinians believed that God is androgynous and so is the Son sent to redeem fallen humanity. Both God and the Son were frequently depicted as male-female dyads. Sacraments included a "bridal chamber" ceremony, symbolizing the unification of opposites.

By the time of Pope Valentine in the ninth century, Valentinianism, condemned as a heresy, had died out. But in its day, the sect was one of several contending Christian schools, with a large following, as shown by the fact that its founder was a serious candidate for the papacy.

If Valentinus had become pope, Christianity would be very different -- and we might have no St. Valentine to commemorate today.

Pub Date: 2/14/99

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