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My Bloody Valentine

[whitespace] Cupid and Victim When Cupids Attack: Luca Giordano's 17th-century portrait 'St. Michael' sums up the feelings of many unfortunate lovers on Feb. 14.

Beheading, bloodshed and confusion are the only certainties in the web of truth and lies known as Valentine's Day

By Mary Spicuzza

ASSAULTED BY the barrage of love printed, packaged and sold this February, most frantic folks are exhausted by the time Valentine's Day finally rolls around. Victims of the multi-billion-dollar romance industry, they've spent countless hours hunting for that ideal gift or scrambling for the perfect clutch of long-stemmed hot-house roses imported from low-cost-labor foreign greenhouses.

Yet if more poor souls drowning in this spring's sea of cherubic cupids and hot-pink hearts took a moment to reflect on the bizarre and bloody origins of Valentine's Day, they might find some solace. Or at least take comfort in knowing they're not alone--confusion and heartache on Feb. 14 are centuries-old traditions.

The Valentine legend, as little bespectacled Sister Edwardina told my plaid jumper-clad fifth-grade class, traces the event to a priest named Valentinus. He lived in third-century Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius Gothicus, who from 268 to 270 C.E. earned his title by slaughtering Gothic invaders. In his free time, the industrious emperor persecuted Christians refusing to worship the official Roman gods.

Emperor Claudius, learning that popular Valentinus was a priest and healer, ordered one of his top minions to keep him out of trouble. While keeping Valentinus under house arrest, the soldier brought his beautiful, bright and blind young daughter, Julia, to visit him with hopes that she might be cured.

Valentinus and Julia met numerous times and developed an intense relationship--which our tiny, wrinkled nun insisted was purely platonic. As he worked to cure her blindness, he taught Julia lessons in mathematics, literature and Christ's love. Wise Valentinus was known as a chaste man--suggesting a proper Valentine's Day would be a celebration of abstinence, much like a day-long "True Love Waits" rally.

Still, many of us young 'uns tugged at our navy knee socks, wondering whether Valentinus and Julia's relationship went beyond mere teacher-student devotion.

We were told the real trouble started when Emperor Claudius learned that Julia and her entire family had converted to Christianity. He sent his soldiers, who swiftly smashed Valentinus' herbal tinctures and tossed him in the death-row dungeon. Valentinus continued to see Julia even after he was thrown in the clink, and supposedly he passed the rest of his long days cutting paper into intricate shapes to stave off madness. He sent his creations as gifts to Julia. (Perhaps this is why several of the women in my class later dated men in prison--we somehow learned from Sister Edwardina that it's romantic to get cheap gifts from unstable men twice our age.)

The good nun's eyes welled with tears as she recounted how Valentinus was led off by soldiers to meet his fate on the morning of Feb. 14. He pleaded for a pen and scribbled a quick note to little Julia--who despite the long hours with her loving Valentinus was still completely blind.

Probably just as Valentinus' head was lopped off on the Via Flaminia, the busiest road in the Roman Empire, Julia took Valentinus' note from her father's hands and looked at the world for the first time through her own eyes. Her sight miraculously restored, she read Valentinus' proclamation of love, signed, "From Your Valentine."

THIS WELL-MEANING tale of the first Valentine's Day love letter is a topic of centuries of battle among scholars. As if engaged in an endless lovers' quarrel, religious scholars constantly bicker over the conflicting facts that leave the life of Saint Valentine a mystery.

The confusion undoubtedly lies in just how unlucky those named Valentine have been throughout the ages. Of the 12 saints Valentine recorded in The Book of Saints by the Benedictine monks of Saint Augustine's abbey, all but three met their end as martyrs. Nearly every one had his head lopped off, except for the poor female martyr Saint Valentina--of course the only noted virgin of the bunch--who was burned in a group sacrifice.

Most tales of the cursed Feb. 14 mention another martyr named Valentinus, a bishop from Terni, who was beheaded that day along the same road. Scholars, Sister Edwardina and the other nuns of Saint Robert School still spar over whether the two saints were truly one man. Some believe one Valentinus was imprisoned in two towns; others say his corpse got so much mileage after being scattered about the town after his untimely end that in different towns cults sprang up in his honor.

Several accounts say that young Julia was truly a blind little boy; others argue that the entire story was fabricated centuries later for theatrical entertainment. Another camp contends that Valentinus was killed for marrying young couples despite the emperor's ban on marriage, though that seems to be completely fabricated to up the romance factor.

Basically, when it comes to Valentine's Day, truth falls last on the priority list.

Both February martyrs have been honored as saints, whereas the Gnostic Valentinus, born a century earlier, was excommunicated by the church. Because his rational teachings fused Christianity with the logical teachings of Plato, he offended the church and was exiled to the isle of Cyprus.

It was this heretic Valentinus who wrote, "And the heart seems to me to be treated somewhat like an inn, for that it has holes and ruts in it, and is oft filled with dung by men who live filthily in it, and take no care of the place since it belongs to others."

Sister Edwardina never taught us about the rational Valentinus. The diminutive nun had an affinity for martyrs, which is probably why she got stuck with the lunchtime duty of inspecting the lunchroom garbage to make sure we ate every last Tater Tot.

Just like the life of the martyred symbol of love, Saint Valentinus' post-mortem period is wrapped in confusion. After he was bludgeoned, beheaded and dragged along the Flaminian Way, it's no surprise Valentinus' remains were scattered. Both the Church of St. Praxedus in Rome and a basilica in Terni display what are said to be Valentine's bones. Some stories say his head was purchased by British royalty as a good-luck charm; others that a group of English monks stole it. Regardless, Valentine's head makes appearances in 12th-century Britain, where it's credited with curing the blind, epileptics, the insane and sufferers willing to kiss the decaying relic.

In the tradition of Roman Catholic imperialism, Saint Valentine's name was used to take over the Feb. 15 pagan festival of Lupercalia. The frisky day consisted of nearly naked boys slaughtering goats and running through the streets playfully whipping young girls and boys with freshly made goat-skin thongs.

It wasn't until the Middle Ages that the mass-marketed consumerism sold as romance took over the feast day of Saint Valentine.

This messy tale of Saint Valentinus, though it doesn't fit the tidy Hallmark image, teaches modern sufferers that we're not alone. Whether spent listening to Mr. Wrong babble endlessly about himself over a cold plate of linguini, or sitting alone devouring copious amounts of Godiva truffles, Feb. 14 could be worse. Compared to Julia and her bludgeoned, beheaded Saint Valentinus, the dreaded Valentine's Day seems to have improved through the centuries. And folks probably have a better chance of finding Mr. or Ms. Right than they do of uncovering the truth about the ill-fated martyr known as Saint Valentine.

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From the February 10-17, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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