Saint Valentine: Patron Saint of cards, confectionary, and being packed into a restaurant with fifty other couples who feel socially obligated to celebrate their love with an early bird menu and a complementary basket of bread.
Did that sound bitter? I hope so. I’m not even sure that anyone actually likes Valentine’s Day - if you’re coupled up, you will almost certainly resent partaking in corporately-mandated woo, and if you’re white-knuckling Valentine’s Day as a reluctant singleton you can only hunker down with a bottle of wine and pray for daylight.
"The Romans celebrated by taking their clothes off, getting pissed, and spanking each other with a whip made from the skin of a sacrificed goat"
Which is why I suggest that, rather than sulk about the imposition of commercialised romance, we reclaim Valentine’s Day from saccharine teddy-bears and petrol station roses, and take it back to its roots. And, wherever you're from in the world, that involves a lot of whipping.
The life of the real Saint Valentine is something of a mystery. So little is known about him that the Catholic Church stopped liturgical veneration of him in 1969 (although they let him keep his Saint title). But, like all the best holidays, Valentine’s Day has its origins in much older pagan fertility festival. The Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia from February 13th - 15th and they did so by taking their clothes off, getting pissed, and spanking each other through the streets with a whip made from the skin of a sacrificed goat.
This may well sound a lot like a bank holiday weekend at Wetherspoons, but there was method in the madness – well, kind of. Women would line up for the men (the 'Luperci’) to whip them in the belief this made them more fertile (FYI, folic acid is also good). Plutarch wrote about the Lupercalia in the first century AD:
"Many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy."
We all know that the Romans were a mucky lot, and you may think that this fertility whipping is a long dead tradition to be revived only in reruns of HBO’s Rome – but you would be wrong.
Whipping still plays a major part in spring fertility festivals around the world today. In the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia, for example, a tradition of whipping is still performed on Easter Sunday. In the morning, men arm themselves with a braided whip called a pomlázka, and go from door to door, spanking women on the bottom.
Legend has it that women who are whipped like this will enjoy greater health and fertility for the coming year. Rather than issuing a restraining order, the woman will give a painted egg to the man who has whipped her as a thank you present.
You will be pleased to learn that in the afternoon the whipped women get their own back by pouring buckets of water over the heads of their assailants - and as you can imagine a bucket full of icy Bohemian water helps cool things off a bit.
Speaking of cold water, the tiny Swiss village of Ettingen has an annual fertility festival called Pfingstblüttlern where men dress up as bushes to chase women down the street, and then dunk them in the village well.
The tradition was first recorded in the nineteenth century and is supposed to help women get pregnant. This is unlikely to get anyone pregnant, but will almost certainly get you a criminal record if you attempt this anywhere outside of Ettingen in early June.
But anyway, back to whipping.
The ancient Japanese fertility festival of Onda Matsuri (rice field festival) takes place every year in early February. To ensure a bountiful rice harvest, male actors dress up as goblins and drag up as women to graphically simulate sex on stage before the festival goers – apparently, this is a day out for the whole family.
The actors not only spank each other a great deal, but when they’re done, they start running about the festival, whipping their audience on the bottom with bamboo canes. And if that doesn’t get the rice growing, I don’t know what will.
Whips have a place in Mexican festivities too. The Dance of the Devils ( La danza de los diablos) is a ceremony performed in Costa Chica, on the Pacific coast of Guerrero and Oaxaca in Mexico, where men dressed as devils dance from village to village spanking spectators.
The dance is led by a man called el Terron, and a woman called la Minga, who carries a doll with her throughout to symbolise her fertility. El Terron whips la Minga as she tries to seduce the other dancers to increase her chances of having a baby.
The Manggarai live in western Flores, Indonesia and go one better by holding ritualised whipping fights called caci for young men prove their virility. Two male adversaries square up to one another, one holding a whip made from rattan, which symbolises the penis, and the other holding a round shield that symbolises the vulva and womb. The fighting and striking of the whip on the shield represents sex, and blood spilled is said to ensure the fertility of the earth. The display can last several days and is all terribly erotic.
Such fertility rituals are found all over the world, so just what is going on? Clearly, you can’t flog yourself fertile, so why do so many cultures share this strange custom? Spanktastic sex, or ‘erotic flagellation’ to use the clinical term, is as old as sex itself. One of the earliest depictions of such kinky sex is found in the ‘Etruscan Tomb of the Whipping’ that dates to 490 BC and is named after the frescoes of BDSM that are painted on the walls.
But exactly why some people enjoy a spot of slap and tickle is a matter of debate. Psychologists have suggested that the pain acts as a stress release, others that it enhances sex by allowing kinksters to explore dominance and submission, rather than the pain itself. But, crucially, research has shown that whipping and spanking does have clear a neurophysiological value, and imitates sensations of sexual arousal such as heightened blood pressure, muscle tension, and hyperventilation.
Combine that with the fact that a whip is clearly a phallic symbol, repeatedly pounding its target, and it’s little wonder that ritualised whipping is associated with fertility around the world – it’s basically simulated sex, and I defy anyone to watch Indiana Jones handling his weapon and tell me I’m wrong.
So, this Valentine’s Day instead of buying into love hearts, champagne and mass-produced poetry, why not buy a whip? Not only will you be reviving an ancient fertility custom that far predates Valentine’s Day, but you will be honouring a fertility rite that is recognised around the world. But before arming yourself with a cat o' nine tails and heading to the high street, do remember that unless your intended is fully consenting, claiming that you only wanted to boost her fertility is unlikely to stand up in court.