Dear Dr. P,
Valentine’s Day. It’s so romantic. It’s such a contrast to the sex-oriented relationships you see on the soaps today. What do you think?
Valentine’s Day! We have romance, sweethearts, the freshness of youth, budding spring loves and proclamations of enduring devotion and fidelity. But is it all this innocent?
Let’s examine the season and its symbols: the cards, the hearts, Cupid, Cupid’s arrow, the color red, the chocolates, the boxes in which they arrive, the flowers, the white lace and, of course, Saint Valentine himself.
February 14th is a bit more than halfway between the winter solstice and the beginning of spring. Animals are just beginning the annual frenzy of mating and reproduction. In humans the anonymity conferred by costumes and masks of Mardi Gras and Carnival free people of their inhibitions. Valentine’s Day provided another of the February opportunities for sexual frolic.
The Romans held love and fertility celebrations February 13-15 called the Lupercalia, a time of love, eroticism, and sexual license. February was sacred to, and named for, Juno Februata, goddess of the “fever” (febris) of love. During the Lupercalia young men chose their sexual partners by drawing cards with lovers’ names on them. The commercially produced Valentine cards we send are a recent innovation that dates to the late Victorian period.
Today a very red heart dominates nearly every paper Valentine. The heart is closely associated, of course, with Cupid. But to understand this symbol, we’ll start with Cupid’s mother, Venus.
Venus is the Roman name for the Greek goddess of beauty, Aphrodite. As her myth has it, her single most beautiful characteristic was her shapely rounded butt. These were so appreciated by the Greeks that they built a special temple to Aphrodite Kallipygos, which literally means “Goddess with Beautiful Buttocks.” It was quite probably the only religious building in the history of mankind dedicated to buttock worship.
We have it on good authority that the origin of our stylized heart symbol with its deep cleft, was quite probably the inverted shape of female buttocks. (If you have difficulty visualizing this, just draw a Valentine’s heart and turn it upside down. Get the picture?)
Cupid, the god of love, desire and lust was born of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. His relationship with his mother seems to foreshadow Freud’s notion of the Oedipus Complex. Several paintings from the Renaissance, whose artists were more familiar with Greek and Roman religious mythology than are we, show a rather incestuous relationship existing between Cupid and Venus. In Bronzino’s (1545) famous painting, Cupid kisses his mother on the lips, fondles both of her breasts and one nipple, while she caresses his, um, arrow.
In Hinduism there is also a Cupid figure, Kama. In fact, the famous sex manual of India, the Kama Sutra (experts only, please), was named after him. In Hinduism, Shiva is a manifestation of the principal deity, Brahma. Kama was induced to distract him with love and desire by lesser Hindu gods who were jealous of Shiva’s dominance. Kama was about to shoot his “flowery” arrow of lustful fire and passion energy, when Shiva saw him and destroyed him. Kama was then reincarnated as a tree. Arrows are made from straight tree saplings. The arrows aren’t “flowery” any more, but are rigid and deadly effective. Since his misfortune, Kama (Cupid) prefers to do his mischief by candlelight, moonlight, or, for that matter, total darkness.
On Valentine’s Day we traditionally offer chocolates to our Valentine to the exclusion of other confections. Why? When you are in love and when you are in the presence of your beloved your brain produces a chemical called phenyethyamine (PEA). PEA intoxicates you. It feels great to be in this state. Chocolate may contain enough PEA to enhance this effect, although this is a matter of scientific dispute. In any event, the Aztecs used chocolate as an aphrodisiac.
And don’t forget the box in which the chocolates are packaged.
In Freudian dream symbolism any type of container or vessel, such as a box, is symbolic of female genitalia–essentially the vulva and vagina. The heart shape, of course, intensifies the connection to the genitalia.
As for genitalia, there is no denying that flowers are the genitalia of plants. Flowers are sexed, male and female. Flowers emerge during the plant’s reproductive cycle and are the site of reproduction. Male pollen joins with the female element of the flower and fertilization occurs. The female flower then produces the new embryonic plant seeds for the next generation. So, what are we saying when we present our beloved with a dozen beautiful, red, long-stemmed, genitalia? (Oops, I meant roses. Maybe I just won’t say anything about the long stems.)
Traditionally, white lace appears on both heart-shaped candy boxes and cards. But ask any Victoria’s Secret catalog subscriber about the significance of lace. It is the predominant feature of expensive lingerie. Quite often lingerie is an intimate gift from one lover to another. Whether given on Valentine’s Day or on any other, the meaning is clearly, “wear this for me and further inflame my, and ultimately our, passion.”
On a symbolic level, white, especially in association with the color red (the female principle) stands for the male’s essence, the Hindu Soma, or semen. Traditional Hindu wedding colors are red for the woman, cream-white for the man, and gold for the fire of creation.
What of St. Valentine himself? The existence of an historical personage of this name is questionable. He may have been substituted for the Roman goddess Juno Februata, or even for Eros or Cupid in early Christian writing. Several contradictory biographies exist for him. One describes him as a handsome Roman youth who was executed the moment his lover received a love raffle card from him. He is also described as a tutor to young ladies who was martyred for his Christian faith. There has been some attempt to deny his existence altogether and suppress the Valentine celebration. Nevertheless, his myth persisted, and he is traditionally the patron saint of lovers. His name was much invoked during the Middle Ages in love charms.
Our modern holiday celebrations are the product of our collective, multicultural history. Valentine’s Day, or something like it, has been around for a very long time. It’s the middle of February. It’s been a cold winter. Can spring and its warm romantic love be far away?