21 Feb 2011

The very very very long history of Valentine's Day

I know this topic is sort of belated but then I do get a sick pleasure from being anti-fashionable. Over at Ancient Tides, Gregory LeFever talked about the history of Valentine's Day which is commonly known to be founded on the tradition of Lupercalia. As he points out, Lupercalia had come to take on a sadomasochistic flavour over time until those meddlesome Christians perverted it into something sterile and wholesome. What the blogger doesn't mention however is that this Roman festival was based in turn on Etruscan ritual and this is an interesting topic in itself that fails to be covered in much detail by historians. I find that historical gap quite sad and I hope you do too, fellow reader. So let's do something about that.

I delight in my niche knowledge that the very name of Lupercalia was undoubtedly influenced by not only the Latin word lupus 'wolf' but by the Etruscan word lupu 'passed on, dead'. If one ever wonders why the Etruscan version of Hades wears a wolf's head as a cap as pictured below, or why the wolf came to be a symbol of the dead, now you all know. In fact, if we push the connection far enough, we might ultimately thank the Etruscans for the popular sci-fi genre of werewolves today. Werewolves are in effect men whose spirits have "crossed over" through evil magic. They become "as wolves", taking on these cultural symbols of death as the embodiments of ol' Hades himself.

I can only imagine what the Etruscan term for Lupercalia was but we can at least trace this term back to Latin Lupercus, a byname of Faunus. Most Romanists, often knowing only Latin, simply take this name to mean 'He of the wolves'.

Yet, in light of the Etruscan connection, might Lupercus have been fashioned instead on Etruscan *lupver, the expected animate plural form of attested lupu? A hypothetical Etruscan name *Lupverχ would literally mean 'He of the dead'. I can only speculate that this seemingly bilingual wolf-death wordplay might have had cause to arise all the more if the Etruscan word for 'wolf' happened to be loaned from Latin, perhaps *luφ or *lupe.

It's hard to confirm any of this for certain, of course, but the speculation is still worth a ponder and being aware of the long, complex tradition of this festival adds depth to our understanding of history and our modern rituals.


Post a Comment