Collection Connection: Valentine's Day

What do Valentine’s Day and a Wolf have in common?!

[caption id="attachment_2412" align="alignright" width="400" caption="Amphora, 520-510 BC, Greek, Attic. Side B- Dionysos and Revelers. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund. Gallery 102b."]

Wolf-Head Barge Fixture. 1-200. Italy, Rome, 1st-2nd Century. Bronze. Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund. Gallery 103.

Ah, the dreaded Valentine’s Day swiftly approaches. Perhaps you’d feel less solemn about its approach if you thought about how the day is likely connected to ancient Roman practice.

You see in name at least, Valentine’s Day is a day in honor of an unknown Christian martyr who was buried on the Via Flaminia (north of Rome) on February 14th. Saint Valentine is not even recognized in the western Canon of saints; and this unknown martyr Valens had a common early Christian name meaning “strong, worthy, powerful.” How the date came to be associated with lovers and love probably comes from its convergence with an ancient Roman festival called the Lupercalia.

The Lupercalia was a purification festival observed on February 13th-15th . Its celebration involved having everyday normal Roman men strip down and run through the streets with leather-tipped staffs, which they could use to strike at the observing crowd! Women would intentionally get in their way, as receiving a blow from the staff was thought to bring fertility.

Getting wild in the name of honoring a god- in the case of the Lupercalia, probably Pan/ Faunus, god of the shepherds- is observed in Greek art too. A favorite “B-side” image for painted Greek pottery (in our collection at least) are depictions of Satyrs and Maenads.


Satyrs and Maenads were the followers of the god of wine, Dionysos. Wine and its consumption were key elements of ancient Greek culture, and there were often cautionary messages about its overuse. In fact, most Greeks drank their wine diluted so as to not unleash a more bestial side. The most hardcore followers of Dionysos were very much in touch with their bestial nature- Satyrs are depicted as having a tail, and while Maenads often look more subdued, they were said to tear living things apart when on a wine-fueled rampage. Other Greek myths mention how Dionysos could impose madness in men.

Oh yeah, so what do Valentine’s Day and a wolf have in common? Well the wolf is one of the root words of the Lupercalia- lupus in Latin meaning wolf- and now you know how the date of Valentine’s Day is right in line with that ancient Roman festival.

-- Alicia Hudson Garr


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