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Imbolc Regained: The Tale of Valentine's Day

Author: Cynthia
Posted: February 14th. 2007
Times Viewed: 2,658

The Romans celebrated the Lupercalia on February fourteenth or fifteenth which is the festival observing the blessing of women with fertility (Plutarch). The story behind the Lupercalia is quite interesting. Pretending to make peace by inviting the Sabine men and women to a feast, the Romans instead slew the men and raped the women, according, presumably, to the Sabine fathers. According to the Romans, Romulus, needing more men to build his city of Rome had granted Roman citizenship to the cast-outs and outlaws of other Italian areas. Thus Rome had a vigorous male population but not enough women for the men to marry. So the Romans politely asked for the hands in marriage of the Sabine women, but the Sabine fathers said no. The Romans then held a feast, invited the Sabines, and then absconded with the women (Plutarch). The Sabine men were furious, but eventually accepted the marriages with the provision that the Sabine women do no work for their Roman husbands other than spin (Plutarch).

However, according to one myth, the Sabine women were infertile. No matter what religious rituals the Romans performed their Sabine wives could not conceive. Finally, in desperation they consulted an Etruscan priest for the Etruscans were held to be adepts at rituals (Bonfanta, 1986, p. 262). The Etruscan priest consulted his auguries and learned that the Sabine women must make love to goats in order please the Goat God. Naturally the Sabine women objected to this. Not to be daunted, the Etruscan Priest devised a ritual that would please the Goat God and the Sabine women. While this myth accounts for why the Lupercalia was held, it is only a myth. It is only known for sure that the Lupercalia was a pre-Roman rite, therefore Etruscan, and which God it celebrated is a matter of conjecture even to the Romans (Peck, Web site; Grout, Web Site).

Two of the most handsome of patrician youths were to be representatives of the Goat God, and on the appointed day (February fifteenth) rose to be anointed on the forehead by the blood and milk (milk used to wipe away the blood) of a sacrificed goat. The youths ritually laughed out loud, partook of goat meat, dressed in only a goatskin loincloth, and took up scourges made of goat hide strips. Then they ran, circumnavigating the oldest part of the city of Rome, and whipped everyone they saw, particularly the naked Sabine women—the wives of the Romans (and so eventually all Roman women) who had lined up round the city just for that purpose. (Plutarch; Peck; Grout). Mark Anthony served in this capacity twice.

The evening before this rite, a lottery was held where all the names of the eligible young women of the Roman patrician classes were put into a jug to be drawn by the eligible bachelors (McGeheelt; “Let Valentine’s”; “Valentine’s Day” Web sites) to be courted for the year. This lottery is thought to be the origin of the custom of giving Valentine’s Day cards (McGeheelt; etc.). Scholars think that when the lottery re-emerged in the 1300’s in Italy the lottery was to emulate the mating habits of birds—mid February being the time when the birds begin their spring migration for that region (Cohen and Coffin, 1982 p. 67), and this is why lovers are referred to as “love birds.”

This referral to birds reminds one of the Etruscan customs of using the auguries of birds to guide them in their actions (Bonfante, p. 262). The lottery rite was in celebration of Juno, and thought to be the culmination of rites to Juno to celebrate women and their arts (McGeheelt; etc.) Nevertheless, I think the Lupercalai must have been the climax of the rites for Juno; first the young women are given lovers, and then they are made fertile through the invocation of the Goat God. Today some wits suggest the traditional emblem of Valentine’s Day, the red heart, is a symbol of a women’s reddened bottom. The rite of the Lupercalia indicates this joke may have its truth.
Another practice of the Lupercalia was that the Roman women circumnavigated the city bearing candles (McGeheelt; etc.) and this practice is thought to have been adopted by the Catholic Church and called by the Christians Candlemas (McGeheelt; etc.). Imagine the sight of the city’s young women processing with their candles the evening of February fourteenth, ringing the oldest part of the city of Rome to wait for their names to be called in the romantic lottery.

Similarly, the Finns celebrated Laskiainen which falls around February seventh and honors women and their handiwork (Nelson, 1999, p. 123). The weaving of the year was to begin on Laskiainen, and it was also a ritual time for enjoying the sauna (Nelson, p. 123). While the Finnish and Roman celebrations seem at first quite different, they both honor women and women’s sexuality—the Finnish ritual use of the sauna for the Laskiainen suggests a sexual, or at least sensual, component to the festival. The ancient Irish Celtic festival of Imbolc, around February 2nd, was also a celebration of the female in that it honors the ancient Irish goddess Brigid. “Brigit [sic] watched over childbirth and brought plenty to the houses she visited, leaving her footprint in the ashes of the hearth. She was also the goddess of poetry” (Scherman, p. 53). However little is known to academic scholars about the festival of Imbolc (Scherman, p. 60). “As the foundation for the American Groundhog Day, Brigid's snake comes out of its mound in which it hibernates and its behavior is said to determine the length of the remaining Winter” (Spindler, January. 19, 2004).

Apparently Slovakian Celts also celebrated womanhood and the womanly art of spinning. \"‘Her [Brigid’s] symbol was a protective knot, which was tied with straw and affixed above a house's entrance as a protective omen. Part of the holiday celebration included setting small fires in front of a house's entrance. It was believed that they have a symbolic power that protects the house from sleet and lightning strikes. The first tillage of the spring was also performed around this time, in the ceremonial way—ploughs were decorated with colorful ribbons, baptized with homemade alcohol, and accompanied by young girls. Symbolic gifts to gods—pieces of bread and cheese—were inserted into the tracks, ’ Šiška explained” (Slavak Specator, 12/26/03).

Many modern Witches celebrate the Celtic Irish goddess Brigid on Imbolc and to many of them it is the fire of light, such as candle light, rather the fire of heat, such as bonfires give (Farrar, p.). Indeed “The name Brigit means ‘the Shining One’” and Imbolc is dedicated to Her, according to scholar John King (1998, p. 59). Thus, among some Witches it is customary to fill one’s house with candlelight to light the way of the Lady, Brigid, as She approaches. This translation of Brigid’s name and the modern day practice of filling one’s home with candlelight on Imbolc is intriguing in light of the ancient Roman, probably Etruscan, practice of the women processing round the city bearing candles. The Etruscans and the Celts had a great deal of commerce with each other (Turfa, 1986, p. 75), and the Celts expelled the Etruscans from the Po Valley, Italy in 400 BC (King, p. 67). So, it is possible this is something done by the Celts, either borrowed from the Etruscans or borrowed by the Etruscans from the Celts.

There is another hint of how the ancient Irish may have celebrated Imbolc. The ancient Irish had several large festivals that were held in different parts of Ireland. They were held on Samhain, Beltaine, and Lughnassadh, but we know there were four great festivals. Imbolc was also an important festival, but a mentioned before, scholars do not know much of how that festival was celebrated. Two festivals are known to have specific purposes: the festivals at Emain Macha (on Beltane) and at Cruachan. At these two festivals were “the selection and examination of candidates for the various crafts, and the certificating [sic] of the successful ones” (MacManus, p. 58). Further, there are at least two tales that suggest Cruachan was where the poets and druids were examined. Irish mythology and legend strongly suggests that this festival was held on Imbolc.

For instance, there is the description of how “Maine, the son of Ailill and Medh” sets out “to seek the hand of the beautiful Ferb of Ulster” (MacManus, p. 308): “‘Three druids also went in front of them, who wore minda (diadems [sic]) of silver upon their heads and speckled cloaks over their dresses...Three Cruitire (harpers) accompanied them; each of kingly aspect, and arrayed in a crimson cloak. It was so they arrived on the green at Cruachan’” (found in MacManus, p. 308). This passage of druids arrayed in sparkling crowns and sparkling cloaks and harpers cloaked in crimson arriving “on the green” is a metaphorical image of the poet goddess Brigid arriving to bring the green to the world. That Maine is traveling with druids to meet the beautiful Ferb is a statement that she is like the goddess Brigid and so must be met with equal splendor.

The next tale that suggests that Cruachan was the location of the Imbolc festival is the story of St. Patrick outdoing the magic of two druids and their two beautiful female students, Ethni the Fair and Fedelm the Ruddy. Here is the imagery of white and red associated with beautiful young women, indicating that the season is Imbolc. There are two young women because there are two aspects of druidic poetry—praising and cursing (Scherman, pp. 34-35). The young women are clearly the two aspects of Brigid, disguised in the story as students to the druids when they actually represent the Goddess inspiring the druids. It is also possible that the women were not students but the higher-ranking druids. Patrick, being from Rome would not conceive of women holding higher rank and the druid men would not be wont to enlighten him so that the women might be preserved as mere “students” if things turned violent. The two druids and the two young women managed to hide their mountain top castle of Cruachan for three days and three nights, but St. Patrick with a prayer to Christ lifted the darkness and then from that very mountain top commanded all the vipers into the ocean, ridding all of Ireland of “viperous things forever” (found in MacManus, p. 117), the “viperous things” being, of course, the druids. So much for Brigid’s snake coming out of its hole to warn of the length of winter. There would be no point to St. Patrick conducting such a feat of magic against the druids and two representatives or votives of Brigid unless there were plenty of people around to witness it. That he commands all of the “vipers” means that all of the “vipers”—all of the druidic poets—are assembled there, which they would be if they were gathered for seasonal examinations. To the Witch, the fact that there are two males—the druids, and two females—the “students, ” suggests that the compliment of male and female of the four quarters and of the four elements were called upon by the assembly of druidic poets to hide themselves from the Christians.

The tale of Valentine’s Day, then, is the story of how the celebration of Pagan holidays of the Lupercalia, Laskiainen, and Imbolc honoring women and the Lady were ended or undermined. In Her aspect of Fertility, the Lady’s rite of Her joining with the Goat God was ended with only hints of celebration extant today in a symbol of a red heart, the exchange of cards between lovers, and the term of “love birds.” In her aspect of Poet, the light of the Lady was also dimmed into dark, by the glare of St. Patrick’s style of Christianity—Her words and revelations silenced for centuries in the shadows of secrecy. Only Her aspect of Craft managed to survive by the determination of the Finns, known as a country of Wizards who fought Christianity’s encroachment in their lands longer and more fiercely than any other Pagan people (Nelson, 1999, p. 18). We Pagans and Witches of this new millennium are again lighting our candles to light the way of our Lady and light the candles of romance of our modern day version of the Lupercalia, “Valentine’s” Day.

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