The Gnostic Origins of Valentine’s Day
Picture of medieval young couple kissing
Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays most people take for granted but know very little about. And that is because its origins are as mysterious as love itself.
Originally known as the Feast of Valentinus (Latin for ‘worthy’), this holiday was established by Pope Galasius in the Fifth Century. The problem is that nobody really knows which Valentinus it was dedicated to! Traditionally, the leading candidate is an obscure priest martyred by the Roman Emperor Claudius in the Third Century.
But wouldn’t a far better template for Saint Valentine be an individual who actually championed the exploration of love in an era when Christianity stressed either celibacy or sex for procreation only?
And that would be the Gnostic Heretic, Valentinus of Alexandria.
Valentinus was a religious leader in Rome during the Second Century, respected by both Gnostics and Christians during his lifetime. He is said to have conceived the notion of the Trinity, was famous for his poetic philosophy, and almost became Pope (lost by a small margin).
And unlike the other contenders for Saint Valentine, there is actual evidence that Valentinus promoted a notion of romance that is similar to the modern version.
The Encyclopedia of Religion states that Valentinus “permitted intercourse only between men and women who were able to experience it as a mystery and sacrament.” It also explains that Valentinus was “the only early Christian on record who spoke lovingly about sexual intercourse and womanhood…he must have been a great lover.”
Valentinus and his followers practiced the Bridal Chamber, a secret ritual of spiritual purification and Christ-consciousness. Yet some scholars including April De Conick have proposed that sacred sex might have been part of this ceremony.
While Christianity denounced women and the divine aspects of sex, Valentinus supported them. This is most evident in the Valentinian scripture, The Gospel of Philip:
Indeed marriage in the world is a mystery for those who have taken a wife. If there is a hidden quality to the marriage of the world, how much more is the undefiled marriage a true mystery! It is not fleshly but pure. It belongs not to desire but to will. It belongs not to the darkness or the night but to the day and the light.
In another passage, The Gospel of Philip states:
Those who are separated will be united and will be filled. Everyone who will enter the Bridal Chamber will kindle the light, for it burns just as the marriages which are observed at night. That fire burns only at night and is put out. But the mysteries of this marriage are perfected rather in the day and the light.
Stressing the transformative powers of love, The Gospel of Philip further declares that “love is the wind through which we grow.” The Gospel of Philip also contains the controversial passage where Jesus kissed Mary Magdalene “often on the mouth.”
However, Valentinus did not believe in shallow encounters. His theology stressed that love should be approached with responsibility and veneration. The romance of committed couples was ultimately the symbol of the romance between Jesus Christ and humanity. The Church Father Irenaeus wrote that Ptolemy, a pupil of Valentinus, believed that marriage was a means to a deeper understanding of God (Against Heresies, 1:6:4).
The association between romantic love and Valentine’s Day is widely held to have happened during the Renaissance. But this ‘Bridal Chamber’ union might have also been inspired by the teachings of Valentinus of Alexandria. As Rev. Steven Marshall of theEcclesia Gnostica proposed in a homily:
Though the Valentinian Gnostics seem to have disappeared after the Fourth century, the spirit of transcendent love in the poetry and message of St. Valentinus has never really died. Joseph Campbell has theorized that the spiritual marriage of the Valentinians may have survived in some form in the Valentine Clubs of Southern France described by him from John Rutherford’s ‘The Toubadours’.
The Troubadours are one of the main influences of romantic love as it is known today. Joseph Campbell is far from the only scholar who noticed their connection with Gnosticism. In the book Traces of a Hidden Tradition in Masonry and Medieval Mysticism, Isabel Cooper-Oakley writes:
Such is the statement of a high Mason on this connection, corroborating the links that have already been outlined, and many more might be instanced, showing that all the tenets of these medieval sects of Troubadours are traceable to Gnostic and Manichaean doctrines. Very wonderful is the part filled by the ‘Messengers of Love’ in the spiritual evolution of Europe during the Dark Ages.
It is unlikely that the origins of Valentine’s Day will ever be in black and white, but more like shifting red. Like sexuality itself, the real identity of Saint Valentine will remain a constant enigma.
But if Aphrodite came out of her shell to judge which Valentinus deserved to be the inspiration for Valentine’s Day, she would probably cast her vote for a person who was the knight in shining armor for both earthly and divine love, instead of some celibate man from a religion that frowned upon the blessed dangers of human passion.
The goddess might even kiss Valentinus of Alexandria “often on the mouth” for this.