Lower-Organ Ventricular Eruption on Radiograph
When I on love do think,
I know not whether I float or sink.
– Geoffrey Chaucer
“My Funny Valentine”
Ricky Nelson¹ and/or The Cramps²
1. “Lonesome Town”
2. “Lonesome Town”
Originally published on Instagram
February 15, 2023
In ancient Rome, February 15 was the date of Lupercalia, a purification and fertility festival marked by drunkenness, animal sacrifice, ritual flagellation and casual, wanton coupling. The festival is named for Lupercal, the cave where Romulus and Remus (twin brothers whose mythological exploits led to the founding of Rome) were suckled by a she-wolf that cared for them after they were abandoned as babies on the banks of the Tiber and rescued there by the river-god Tiberinus.
Whether a particular deity was at the heart of the festivities is disputed. According to the Roman poet Ovid, the fertility god Faunus (Pan to the Greeks) was the object of worship. The ancient historian Livy names Innus, a lascivious embodiment of Faunus. Some have speculated that Juno or Bacchus presided. (And a bacchanal it was!) Still others contend that Lupercalia was a magical rather than a religious rite and didn’t involve the gods at all.
One deity curiously absent from the literature is Cupid, god of desire and enemy of chastity (also, coincidentally, a half-brother of Romulus and Remus — all were sired by Mars). On first thought, it would seem he should fit right in. This was Rome’s Eros, after all. But Cupid at the time was rather less single-minded and somewhat more devious, than we think of him today. He could strike attraction and revulsion in his marks, which might have complicated passions at an orgy.
Modern, romanticized depictions of Cupid drawing his bowstring tend to show either a red, heart-shaped arrowhead or a pointy gold one on the shaft in the serving. In ancient Rome, though, the mischief-maker kept two types of arrows in his quiver: some gold-tipped and sharp, others lead-tipped and blunt. If he hit you with the gold, your heart would swell with desire; if he hit you with the lead, it would, as Ovid put it, “provoke disdain and drive desire away.”
That description is from Cupid’s very first appearance in Ovid’s epic, Metamorphoses. After Apollo insults him as being puny and ill-suited to archery, Cupid exacts revenge by aiming one gold-tipped arrow at the great god (of archery, among other things, it happens) and a lead-tipped one at the naiad Daphne. When Daphne flees, the smitten Apollo chases her until she begs the help of her father (the river-god Peneus), who responds by turning her into a laurel tree, which Apollo embraces only to hear an unrequited heart beating beneath the bark.
It's widely believed (though this is also disputed) that Lupercalia — like so many other pagan rites — was usurped by the papacy in order to get the rabble to fall in line with the Roman Catholic Church. The history has it that Pope Gelasius I, an avowed critic of Lupercalia, designated February 14 as St. Valentine’s Day in the 5th century, and that it wasn’t too long before the old festival fizzled.
The saint attached to February 14 is officially known as St. Valentine of Rome. This is to distinguish him from a handful of other Valentines (one of them a pope) connected to the church. Very little is known about the man, and it’s quite possible he’s a composite. One prevailing story has him beheaded in the 3rd century for performing illegal Christian marriages at a time when married men could evade duty in the Imperial Roman army, but only after a period of service as bachelors. It’s sometimes said that the saint issued heart-shaped pieces of parchment to those he wed, and that this is the origin of Valentine’s cards. Another common account has him getting arrested for evangelizing, falling in love with the blind daughter of his jailer, curing her of her blindness and sending her a note signed, “Your Valentine” just prior to being executed.
Whatever the case, for nearly the next 1000 years, February 14 was celebrated as a feast day with no evidence of any connection to romance. That changed in the late-1300s when the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a series of poems in which a St. Valentine appears as the patron of mating birds. In Parlement of Foules, the most famous of these poems, Chaucer writes, For this was on seynt Valentynes day, Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make. (Translated into modern English: “This was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.") Some scholars suspect that Chaucer was referencing someone altogether different from St. Valentine of Rome, but the earliest letters between lovers referring to St. Valentine’s Day began to appear soon after publication of the poem (which was fantastically popular), and the custom on February 14 stuck, so to speak.
Throughout the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, as lovebirds went on doing what lovebirds do — and exchanging homemade cards in the process — Cupid was a frequent subject for artists. (Readers interested in some scandalous art history should look up the Amor-centric spat between Caravaggio and Giovanni Baglione.) By the turn of the 19th century, when commercial printers began to produce Valentine’s cards en masse, the cherub — now with a decidedly Victorian demeanour — flew into the Modern Age to assume the role of Valentine Day’s most enduring symbol.
The world’s oldest-known commercial Valentine’s card resides in a museum in York, England. The front design resembles lacework adorned with engravings of flowers, doves and six cupids.
It was printed on January 12, 1797 by John Fairburn of London. The following verse appears along the floral edges of the illustration:
Since on this ever Happy day,
All Nature's full of Love and Play,
Yet harmless still if my design,
'Tis but to be your Valentine.
The card was sent by a Catherine Mossday to one Mr. Brown of Dover Place, Kent Road, London. Inside is a handwritten message:
As I have repeatedly requested you to come I think you must have some reason for not complying with my request, but as I have something particular to say to you I could wish you make it all agreeable to come on Sunday next without fail and in doing you will oblige your well wisher.
Dear me! One imagines that if Mr. Brown’s body were exhumed today, an x-ray would reveal a lead arrowhead in his chest. Perhaps in his coat pocket would be discovered a crumbling, undelivered Valentine addressed to his hapless well-wisher:
When Cupid lifts his fateful bow,
And lets his errant arrows fly,
His targets one and all will know,
If love for them should live or die.
We can only hope that poor Miss Mossday, come February 15, 1798, decided not to wait until “Sunday next,” but instead took herself out on the town and wound up in the embrace of limbs more responsive than the branches of a laurel tree.
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