Ah, once again, the frozen scales of winter begin to fall, and the celebration which symbolizes romance is upon us; yes, Valentine's Day is here. We love love, so we're looking at the iconic images which surround this ancient celebration. There is more than meets the eye.
The Heart: We are all familiar with the bottom pointed, double-lobed shape. We call it a heart. However, the symbol looks nothing like the muscular, vein-encased, namesake organ unless you have a vivid imagination. The answer has two parts. Firstly, the Greeks and Romans advanced the idea of the heart being the cradle of love. Tracing down the shape is trickier. The earliest appearance of the shape is on Cyrene coins. The coins depict the fruit of the silphium plant. The plant brought great wealth to the Cyrene culture due to its medicinal properties, which included use as a contraceptive. Because of this association, the shape became associated with love and, over time, was named for the organ associated with love, the heart.
Cupid and the Cherubs: Oh, those much adored, winged babies with amorous arrows and bows. It was not always so. In early mythology, neither Cherubs were entities to trifled with. Early cultures pictured Cherubs as fierce winged lions, big beasties that would love to eat you more than get you to love. Then there is Cupid, also known as Eros. He was the beautiful son of Venus, with a vicious streak, using his power to get humans and gods to fall in love, causing misery and chaos. He inspired fear, not affection. By Roman times "public relations firms" reduced him to Venus' baby boy. As a baby doing mommy's bidding, he was less scary. Artistic images of cutie Cupid with wings and arrows of love began to spread, so did Christianity. Cherubs were sent to protect the glory and pure love of God. Early Christians began calling the bubbly flying Cupids, Cherubs. People liked the softer side of destroying angels and manipulative gods, so the names became interchangeable, and here we are.
St. Valentine: So, who is this mysterious Saint for whom the day is named? Well, there are two St. Valentines. I am going to focus on Valentine the Bishop of Terni in the second century. The story is that he was minding his own business, doing the Bishop of Terni thing. He was told to stop marrying people by Rome, who thought single men made better soldiers. Valentine was all about "the love," so he kept marrying Christian couples and was arrested. His jailor began to like Valentine and was starting to convert but wanted a sign. The jailor brought his blind daughter for Valentine to heal. Heal her he did, and they fell in love. He was moved to Rome to face execution. The night before his execution, he wrote a letter to her and signed it, "-from your Valentine." The first Valentine (I'm not crying, you're crying.) Some historians doubt the story's authenticity, but they will be alone on February 14 (which is the day Valentine was martyred.) St. Valentine became the patron saint of Lovers and Beekeepers, which is why we say, "Bee my Valentine!" Okay, I cannot back that up, but it sounds good. He is also the Patron Saint of Epileptics, but I don't know how that fits in, so…
Chocolate: Your lips part, your mouth waters, and you feel flush as your pulse quickens. Eyes close in anticipation of a hunger that can only be sated by the thing you crave… chocolate. Chocolate was known for its magical properties by the Mayan and Aztec elites. It was considered celestial and as valuable as gold. Its alleged aphrodisiac properties led some Aztec rulers to drink 3 gallons a day to foster these powerful properties. The delicacy was taken back to Europe and loved by the Aristocracy and bourgeois. Still consumed as a beverage, 16th-century cocoa shops rivaled coffee shops in London. In England, Richard Cadbury discovered how to make solid chocolates; God bless that man. In the United States, Milton Hershey brought chocolate to the common man. All along the way, there has always been something sultry and decadent about this "Food of the Gods," which melts hearts and puts us in the mood for love.
Red Roses: I don't know if an item is more associated with love than a red rose. Not just the rose flower but the red rose flower. There are many brilliant blooms with beautiful bouquets, so why are they relegated to the back seat for the red rose monopoly. The answer again lies with the Greeks. Aphrodite/Venus (that's right, Cupid's mom) fell in love with the mortal Adonis. Their passion was epic until he got gored by a boar while hunting. As his life slipped away, Venus' tears mixed with Adonis' blood and, 'Bob's your uncle' – the red rose. Yes, I know there are versions of the story involving the anemone flower and white roses turning red but suffice it to say, he died, she cried, and red rose. Images of the Goddess often show her wearing or surrounded by red roses. I think the thorns on the rose also add to the analogy of red roses; love must be handled gently, or it can be painful. Again, over time the symbolism appeared in paintings, sculptures, and plays (Romeo and Juliette even had the red rose thing going.) Today giving a red rose or a dozen of them can only mean one thing – LOVE.
As this day of romance approaches, looking back at the origins of Valentine's Day is fun. It doesn't change the importance of the day and recognizing the importance of love in our lives. It is wholly appropriate that we take the chance to acknowledge those people to bring the gift of love into our lives. Life without love is like a day without the sun. We hope that everyone will see and feel the effects of love in their lives this Valentine's Day.