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5 Myths & Legends That Make Valentine’s Day Interesting

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss
Kimberly Vardeman/Flickr

Every year we try to talk ourselves out of caring about Valentine’s Day and every year we give in to the fun of celebrating love. Or, specifically not celebrating love, if that’s your thing. Either way, even if it’s become way too commercialized, we always pay attention to society’s day of love.

This year, instead of complaining about the prices of roses and chocolates, entertain your valentine with some of the stories that make Valentine’s Day more than just a day of obligatory affections.

The Myth of St. Valentine

Technically, there are three saints named Valentine. The most popular—and best frontman for the holiday—was a priest who defied the law of Roman Emperor Claudius II, who had decided to make it illegal for young men to marry their girlfriends because he would prefer the men went to war for him. The priest Valentine would secretly marry young couples because he loved love and disagreed with Claudius. He was eventually caught.

The story goes that Valentine was beheaded on February 14 in the year 269 B.C. In 498 A.D., Pope Gelasius made Valentine a saint and declared February 14 the day of his feast. This may also have been a good way of Christianizing the Romans’ pagan holiday of Lupercalia, which was bloody and weird and gross and took place at the exact same time. The Catholic church later officially removed the February 14 St. Valentine’s Day feast from its holy calendar due to the fact that nobody actually knew what the real story of St. Valentine was or why he was sainted.

The Legend of the First Valentine

The legend of the first valentine sent out of love is sometimes attributed to the very same St. Valentine who was caught marrying young couples and sometimes attributed to another Valentine altogether. Either way, this Valentine was thrown in jail, and while he awaited his execution—presumably on February 14—the jailer’s daughter would come to visit him. Her presence cheered him up, and he appreciated the time she spent with him so much that on the day he was executed, he sent her a note to thank her for her kindness. The loving note ended with the phrase “From your Valentine.” And that’s how that got started.

The Myth of Cupid

The story of Cupid is more rooted in literature. The tales come from Greek mythology and involved Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and her son Eros. The Romans bogarted the stories and changed Eros to Cupid and Aphrodite to Venus, perhaps to protect the innocent, ‘Dragnet’-style.

Anyway, Cupid/Eros was so handsome and charming that he could make anyone fall in love. He thought that was fun, so he went around shooting his arrows of love to cause mischief. It wasn’t until the Renaissance that Cupid was depicted with more childlike features. He then evolved into the mischievous baby with angel wings and a bow and arrow that we know today.

The Legend of the First Valentine’s Day Love Letter

Valentine may have sent the first valentine, but someone else has the honor of being the legendary sender of the first St. Valentine’s Day love letter. Even though Father of English Literature, Geoffrey Chaucer, tried to give St. Valentine’s Day a reboot at the end of the 14th century, it wasn’t until the 15th century that someone sent a letter of love to a sweetheart on February 14.

In the British Library in London, there is preserved a love poem from Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife, Bonne of Armagnac, who may have only been 15 or 16 years old at the time. Following the romantic Valentine tradition, the duke was imprisoned in the Tower of London at the time he wrote the poem and sent it to his wife on that day to express his love. The poem included verses like “I am already sick of love, My very gentle Valentine.” Bonne died before the duke was ever released from prison.

The Legend of Esther A. Howland

If you aren’t a fan of the pre-printed cards you feel forced to buy for Valentine’s Day, you finally have someone to blame: the legendary Esther A. Howland is credited with creating the first mass-printed Valentine’s Day cards. After the Duke of Orleans started the whole love-letter thing on February 14, it got kind of popular in England. By the 1700s, people in Great Britain and America were exchanging handmade cards for the holiday. At some point in the 1840s, Esther Howland received a valentine from a friend in Great Britain and liked the idea so much that she used her father’s printing press to mass-produce beautiful cards of her own. She started selling them and is now known as the “Mother of the Valentine.” So the next time you have to buy one, you can think of her before you curse the greeting card companies of today.

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