In recent times, Valentine’s Day has been associated with flowers, chocolates, hearts, and love letters signed “Your Valentine”. Some may look forward to this day and plan romantic dates and organise gifts for a special someone, while others are sickened by the thought of public affection and puppy love. Have you ever considered that there might be a story behind this particular day, a story that does not fall under the genre of a romantic novel?

In an article written by David Kithcart titled “St. Valentine, the real story”, found on CBN. com, father Frank O’Gara of White Friars Street Church in Dublin, explains that St Valentine was a Roman priest during the reign of emperor Claudias. Emperor Claudias made it illegal for young couples to get married. “This was based on the hypothesis that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers, because married soldiers might be afraid of what might happen to them or their wives or their families if they died,” explains father O’Gara. Legend has it that St Valentine married young couples in secret but was ultimately captured, tortured and put behind bars for going against emperor Claudias’ orders. While in prison, Valentine educated and prayed with a blind girl who happened to the daughter of judge Asterius. O’Gara says that “in the year 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a three part execution of a beating, stoning and finally decapitation, all because of his stand for Christian marriage. The story goes that the last words he wrote were in a note to Asterius’ daughter. He inspired today’s romantic missives by signing it, ‘from your Valentine’ .”


However, Dr Fraser G. McNeill, senior lecturer of anthropology at the University of Pretoria, is of the opinion that the story of St Valentine is fabricated. Dr McNeill explains that there was an ancient pagan festival, Lupercalia, that was celebrated every year around 15 February in honour of Luprecus, the god of fertility. Dr McNeill believes that the Valentine’s tradition has been taken from this ancient pagan festival and has been altered and transformed into what we know it as today. Dr McNeill also says that there where many men in ancient times that went by the name of Valentine who have no relation to Christianity at all. Dr McNeill is of the opinion that the legend of St Valentine was added in later by the Romans Catholics to add a Christian twist. Dr McNeill goes on to say that February is the time of year, in the northern hemisphere, when the snow starts to melt and plants start to grow. “It a good time to reproduce,” says Dr McNeill, and this could also be why the month of February is associated with love.


Cupid, another Valentine’s Day symbol, is depicted in classical mythology as the god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection. Cupid has also been depicted as the son of the love goddess Venus as well as the chubby, baby faced angel who shoots arrows and makes people fall in love at first sight. Up until recently, falling in love at first sight has also been labelled as a myth. An article written by Christine Hsu, found on MedicalDaily.com, titled “You can love at first sight: scientists discover brain region responsible for instant attraction, states that researchers from Trinity Collage Dublin have found, through brain scans, that “different parts of the medial prefrontal cortex, the region that sits near the front of the brain, make snap judgements about physical attraction and whether the person is likely to be a compatible match, all within milliseconds of seeing a new face.”


Researchers continue to say that, through a test of participants looking at photographs of people’s faces, they were able to see whether or not a participant found a face attractive. Researches state that the region called the paracingulate showed the most activity when participants saw a face they found attractive. A second area of the medial prefrontal cortex, the rostromedial prefrontal cortex, showed more activity when participants found certain faces unattractive. Jeffery Cooper, a psychology researcher who conducted the study while he was a postdoctoral student at Trinity College, explained that the rostromedial prefrontal cortex plays an important part in making social decisions and calculating whether or not someone is similar to you.


The colour red is associated with Valentine’s Day. According to Dr McNeill, the colour red is also classically associated with power and danger. However, surveys conducted in the United States and Europe have found that nowadays the colour red is mostly associated with passion, love, joy, sexuality and desire.


The heart shaped symbol also ties in with Valentine’s Day because it symbolises love. Big Bang Theory character Amy Farrah Fowler clears up the real meaning of why the heart is the shape it is. It is not, in fact, the shape of the human heart, but rather the shape of a woman’s behind while bending over. “The heart shape symbol is indeed associated to women’s genitalia,” says Dr McNeill. Dr McNeill states that the heart shape looks nothing like a real heart and is therefore associated with a woman’s behind, or even the frontal genitals, like the vulva. According to a 2009 study from the University of Arizona and the University of Maryland, found on ScientificAmerican.com, the heart is also associated with love because the brain regulates the emotions associated with heartbreak to the Vagus nerve. The Vagus nerve connects the brain with the chest and abdomen, which is why you may experience the feeling of a “broken heart”.


Whether you are looking forward to Valentine’s Day or dreading the whole event, at least you do not have to worry about the awkward silence ruining your date, as you are now familiar with the legends and myths behind Valentine’s Day which could turn out to be the perfect ice-breaker.


Photo: Kirsty Mackay

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