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      Valentine's Day: History & Meaning

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Valentine's Day: Festival of Love and Desire

It will soon be that time of year when our thoughts turn to sweethearts. Those we have now, or those we have had in the past.

Valentine's Day is one of our most popular holidays, inspiring a flurry of card and gift giving to those we love.

The origin of the concept of romantic love goes far back to ancient times long before the legend of St. Valentine.

Eros, Greek God of Love and Desire

The first idea of romantic love came from the god, Eros, in Greek mythology. One of the versions of the birth of this very appealing god was presented by the Greek poet Hesiod, who tells us in his Theogony, that Eros was one of the first gods born out of Chaos (the void), along with Gaia (the earth) and Tartarus (the underworld). This puts his birth all the way back to the beginning of time. Theogony describes Eros in the following enthralling terms: "…and Eros, the fairest of the deathless gods; he unstrings the limbs and subdues both mind and sensible thought in the breasts of all gods and all men." (Hesiod, Theogony, 120-2)

This is quite a good description of the state that engulfs us when we fall in love. From this passage we can assume that he had power over not only man but also the gods.

The other significant depiction of the myth surrounding Eros' birth is that he was the son of Aphrodite and Ares. Being the son of the goddess of love puts him in a less powerful role. The charming legend of Eros and Psyche, from Metamorphoses by Apuleius, the Roman writer, is spawned from classical mythology.

The love story of Eros and Psyche

The story goes that a king had three daughters, the youngest being beautiful to the degree that she rivaled the goddess Aphrodite. Her physical charms were so great that people began worshipping her instead of the goddess of love. Aphrodite became enraged at this turn of events and in an attempt at revenge, conscripted her son Eros into using his powers as the god of desire to force Psyche into falling in love with the most hideous, grotesque creature imaginable. But when Eros cast his eyes upon Psyche, he himself fell hopelessly in love. In a cunning plan to satisfy his own desires and deceive his mother, he transported her to an isolated place where stood a magnificent, magical castle. This was to be Psyche's new home, and when night fell, Eros came to her bed and whispered under the cover of darkness that he was her new husband. She was not, under any circumstances to seek knowledge his identity.

She lived quite happily until she requested that her sisters could come visit her to alleviate her isolation. When they saw her beautiful surroundings, jealousy drove them to cause trouble by encouraging her to find out the identity of her husband. That night when she went to bed she took a lamp that she could light when her husband had fallen asleep. When the light fell upon the divine features of this beautiful god, Psyche was so startled and enthralled, she let a drop of oil fall, which woke him. He realized that his identity was revealed and immediately departed.

Psyche's grief at the loss of her love was so great that she was inconsolable. She begged help from various goddesses, even ultimately going to Aphrodite, begging to be reunited with Eros. This effort was to no avail. Ultimately Eros longed for her as much as she for him so he went to the god Zeus for help. Zeus intervened with Aphrodite and brought the lovers together.

Cupid and his arrows of desire

Eros' Roman name was Cupid, which means desire. In Roman mythology he is depicted as a capricious winged child carrying a bow and a quiver of arrows. Due to the popularity of this depiction by poets and artists over the centuries, this is how we see this darling little god today. He gads about ready to let his arrows fly, striking our hearts with love and desire for appropriate and sometimes inappropriate people. Who of us has not felt the excitement and exquisite pain that is produced when one of his arrows has pierced our heart?

St. Valentine, patron saint of lovers

While Cupid or the ancient god Eros gives us the inspiration, St. Valentine supplied the name of our current holiday. There are a number of Valentine legends as to why his name is linked to lovers. One is that the Roman emperor Claudius II thought that single men made better soldiers and therefore forbade them to marry. St. Valentine is said to have secretly married many young lovers and therefore became their patron saint. Another story has Valentine, while being imprisoned for his Christian faith, falling in love with his jailer's daughter and sending her a love letter before his execution.

The roots of Valentine's Day most likely came from the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which had been celebrated for eight hundred years on February 15th. The day was dedicated to the god Lupercus and young men would take a woman as a sexual companion for a year, by means of drawing her name in a lottery. Pope Gelasius changed this custom, which was unacceptable to the Catholic Church. He decreed that the lottery be changed so that both young men and women drew the names of saints to emulate for the coming year. Valentine instead of Lupercus became the patron of this feast. Despite this change in custom, Roman men continued to seek the affections of women on this date and sent notes of endearment to their sweethearts, including Valentine's name in their missives.

It would seem that the ancient god still lives, for today the spirit of love and desire resides as strongly as ever in the hearts of those struck by Cupid's arrows, be they young or old.

What delightful gift will guide Cupid's arrow to the heart of your true love this holiday?

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