Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Simon Andrew Stirling: Why Valentine?

Simon Andrew Stirling

Today, something a little different. Mr. Stirling shares a sentiment dear to my heart: that every woman is a goddess (or should be treated like one). Please give Simon a warm welcome! 
Why Valentine?  He's not a very well known saint.  There's no obvious link at all between Valentinus, a Christian martyr of the third century, and the feast day of lovers.

This question bugged me for a long time.  You can put that down to my interest in history, which is really about asking what happened, and why it happened, and how has it affected things since?  Weird little questions like "Why do we make such a big deal of Valentine's Day?" tend to pop into my head, demanding an answer.  There must be some reason.  It couldn't all be down to the greetings card industry looking to make a profit.

The odd thing is, when you try to find out what made the feast day of St Valentine (who died, supposedly, on February 14th) so special, you run up against a wall.  Some have suggested that it all goes back to the Roman feast of Lupercalia, celebrated in mid-February, which was held partly in honour of Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the founders of Rome.  But ancient Roman festivals don't bother us much these days.

Maybe it was the 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer who started it all.  In his Parlement of Fowles, Chaucer noted that birds tend to choose their mates "on seynt Volantynys day".  And yes, that's quite a nice idea.  Why do we send gifts to our true loves on Valentine's Day?  We're just imitating the birds.

It wasn't until I was researching the man who became known as King Arthur - the historical prince who gave rise to the legends - that things fell into place.

There were eight major festivals back in Arthur's day.  They divided the Celtic year evenly.  Four festivals devoted to the Sun took place at the solstices (midwinter and midsummer) and the equinoxes (spring and autumn).  Between those Sun festivals, there were four more festivals timed in relation to the Moon.  These festivals marked the changing of the seasons.  The great fire-and-fertility festival of Beltane, held around the beginning of May, welcomed in the summer.  The games of Lughnasadh (beginning of August) anticipated the fall.  Samhain - or Hallowe'en, as we now think of it - saw the year's ending and beginning on the edge of winter.  And at Imbolc, the first signs of spring were celebrated.

Imbolc (pronounced "Im-bole") took place in early February, traditionally on the 2nd day of the month.  The snowdrops were appearing, giving the first signs that the frozen earth was returning to life.  Ewes started lactating.  The Goddess, as the Celts thought of her, was spreading her green mantle over the land.

Just as the Goddess was seen to age as the year wore on - a Sacred Bride at Beltane, a nurturing Mother at harvest time, a wizened old Crone at Samhain - so she was rejuvenated at the beginning of spring.  At Imbolc, she presented herself in her virginal aspect.  She was the Maiden, symbolising youth, innocence, and the promise of fertility to come.  The Christian Church called her Imbolc festival Candlemas or - tellingly - the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin.

Now, here's the thing.  The Catholic Church adopted a new calendar in the 1580s.  But England, being Protestant, refused to recognised the new Gregorian calendar, which was named after the Pope.  The English held onto the much older Julian calendar (named after Julius Caesar) for another 170 years.

By 1752, the difference in dates between Britain and most of Europe was 12 days.  It was in that year that Britain decided to abandon the Julian calendar and take up the Gregorian one, which meant dropping eleven days altogether.  Wednesday, September 2nd 1752 was immediately followed by Thursday, September 14th.  The English weren't happy, believing that twelve days of their lives had been taken from them.  Riots broke out.  But the change had finally brought Britain in line with her European neighbours.

The implications of the change in the calendar aren't often appreciated.  Valentine's Day is a good example of what happened.  When eleven days were lost, the old pagan festival of Imbolc slipped.  What would have fallen on February 2nd now fell on February 14th - which just happened to be the feast day of an obscure Roman martyr called Valentinus.

The researches which led me to write my book The King Arthur Conspiracy had convinced me that Arthur was conceived during the May Day festivities of Beltane in the year 558.  This made sense for a number of reasons.  First, the birthday given for his half-sister Muirgein is January 27th, roughly nine months on from Beltane, and birthdays tend to cluster in families.  Secondly, bringing a child into the world in early spring was good practice: the warm summer months of plenty lay ahead.  And Beltane symbolised the sacred marriage of Sun and Moon, a moment when illicit couplings were positively encouraged.  A time for heroes to be conceived.

It would also mean that his birthday fell roundabout the start of February.  The historical Arthur, I concluded, was born on or about February 2nd 559, during the Imbolc feast which honoured the Goddess in her lovely Maiden form.  Today, his birthday would fall sometime near February 14th, the festival of true love.

Behind all the chocolate hearts, the red roses, the sparkling wine and the intimate dinners for two, the traditions of Valentine's Day stretch way back in time.  They were once a celebration of new life, fresh hope, young love and innocence.  Every girl was the goddess on that day.

And of course, every woman still is.

The King Arthur Conspiracy:
How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero 
by Simon Andrew Stirling

Published by The History Press, available from  

Simon's second book, Who Killed William Shakespeare? The Murderer, The Motive, The Means, will be published in August 2013.  He is currently working on a new project, The Grail: Relic of an Ancient Religion, which is being published in monthly instalments online and can be read for free at

Simon also has a blog:

1 comment:

Cate Masters said...

Welcome Simon! I love that your research uncovered such a wealth of information. And I love the notion that women should be treated like goddesses - that's the premise of my Goddess Connection series. :)