(Next Friday is Valentine’s Day, one of the most popular holidays in our culture. The Dukes have a gig that night, and that got me to thinking again about the beloved symbol of that day and the persistence that symbol has had throughout history. I remembered an old newsletter I had written some 4 years ago about that symbol, and I thought I would re-run it with some minor alterations)
STORY AND SYMBOL: WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN
“We are human; that means we are symbol making beings, and that means symbols can move us much more than facts.”
Anonymous history teacher“Symbols are the imaginative signposts of life.” Margot Asquith
“In most cases, a good story connected to a strong symbol will last much longer and have more effect than any collection of mere facts”
Mac George Bundy, advisor to Presidents Kennedy and JohnsonNext week we celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to the idea of demonstrating and expressing true and romantic love. As in any culturally significant observance there are expectations: rites, behaviors, and symbols that mark the occasion and make it meaningful. We are expected tell people we care deeply about that we love and adore them, to give cards called “valentines” to those special people, to play special music, to have special romantic meals, and to spend special “romantic times” with that special someone. Cartoon and candy hearts are seen everywhere, and the day is supposed to be all about the expression of love and togetherness. It is thought of as a warm and feel good day.
Of course, we live in a capitalistic and highly commercialized civilization, so there is always an economic interest in any popular cultural observance. I have a friend who says he refuses to celebrate any “Hallmark holidays,” as he sees the commercialization of holidays as having triumphed over the actual meaning of a given “holy day.” Valentine’s Day can certainly be looked at that way; Americans spend more money on Valentine’s Day than on any other single holiday except Christmas. According to the business websites, we spent over $21 billion dollars on the holiday in 2019, more than on Father’s and Mother’s Day combined. The cards, the chocolate, and the flowers all add up. But to have reached that economic point, Valentine’s Day had to first be accepted as an important cultural idea. It needed to be embraced. And like any other strong cultural occasion, this day had to be wrapped in both story and symbol.The most accepted story about Valentine’s Day traces its origins to a Roman priest by the name of Valentine. In the late third century ACE the Roman emperor Claudius was engaged in a series of unpopular and costly military campaigns, and he was having a hard time getting men to join the Roman armies. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families, so he summarily banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When what Valentine was doing was discovered, Claudius had him beheaded on February 14, probably in the year 278 A.C.E. He was later made a saint, became a martyr for the Catholic Church, and became associated with romantic love and marriage. Supposedly he wrote notes to people while in prison, signing them, “From your Valentine,” Thus a story and a tradition was born.
Historians know that there really was a St. Valentine. But historians also know that there were at least three saints who were named Valentine. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists three martyrs with that name, and all are connected to a date in February. While that may seem strange to us, it is really not that surprising. Valentine, meaning, “having valor, righteousness, and strength,” was not that uncommon a name for Roman boys at the time. Just as happens now, parents then often gave children names that meant something. Historians also know that at that time there was a big February celebration in Rome called the Feast of Lupercalia. It was a pre-Roman pastoral festival dedicated to health, cleansing, renewal, and fertility. As a part of the occasion, the names of single Roman women were put into a box. Single men randomly picked a name out of the box and they were then allowed to romance the woman whose name they had drawn. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome many of these ancient Roman festivals were either outlawed or converted into Christian fetes. In 496 ACE Pope Gelasius decided to put an end to the Feast of Lupercalia; he declared that February 14 would thereafter be celebrated as St Valentine’s Day, giving the day of his martyrdom a new meaning. People were to exchange simple gifts with loved ones such as grain, messages and flowers. The story of Saint Valentine sacrificing his life for love became a widespread and popular one, and he and the date of February 14 became forever associated with gift giving in the name of romance and love.
Eventually the story of Valentine’s devotion to true love became joined to the one thing all great stories need: a symbol. The heart has been important as a symbol since the time of the ancient Egyptians. They saw it as the most important organ of the body. This was the place in the body where wisdom, emotions, personality and more were all joined. They also believed that it was an important vehicle through which gods spoke to humans. Yes, they knew about the chambers of the heart and that blood circulated through the heart. But that circulation of blood was not the most important job of the heart to them; its supposed link to all things emotional, spiritual, and intellectual was.
Greek and Roman cultures drew heavily from Egypt, so the heart was important to them as well. It was associated with emotions such as love, and by the 5th century BCE symbols on coins and in writings depicted the heart looking somewhat as it does on our Valentine’s Day cards: a fat rounded ”V” with two joined curves at the top. Some historians say that particular shape was chosen because it looked like the seed pod of a plant called “silphium’, a plant used as a medicine and as a contraceptive in the ancient world. Others say it came about as an attempt by early graphic designers to represent what the heart looked like in early medical texts. Regardless, by the time of the Renaissance that shape had become a symbol of love throughout Europe. And as Europeans went to other continents, they naturally took their symbols with them. That heart shape became associated with love in most parts of the world. This heart now abounds on all those valentine cards, in the design of boxes of chocolate, in TV commercials, and all over just about anything connected with love. The story had found its symbol, and the two would be forever linked.
The use of that heart as a symbol for love shows us just how powerful and persistent a given symbol can be even when it contradicts fact and truth. In the 1640’s William Harvey put forth the notion that the heart was a muscle, and that its primary role was to keep blood circulating in our bodies. By the middle of the 18th century that had become commonly accepted medical knowledge, and by the mid-20th century was being widely taught in junior high school biology classes. We all know this fact. Yet we still associate the heart with love. We know that emotions are generated in the brain-we now even know that certain specific things can trigger a specific emotion in a particular region of the brain. But our cultural knowledge and common ways of talking regularly ignores our factual knowledge. We say, “I’m heartbroken,” when we are disappointed in love. Or we say, “My heart is heavy with loss” when we acknowledge the death of a loved one. We place our hands over our heart when we say the Pledge of Allegiance. Our "hearts are lifted,” when we feel our mood dramatically improve, and are “downhearted” when the opposite happens. We still talk and think as if all these emotional things are connected to that muscle that keeps our blood flowing despite our knowing the facts. We do not say, “My brain is lifted when I am happy,” or, “It is with a heavy brain that I bring you this sad news.” And we definitely do not know “a place on Lonely Street called “Brainbreak Hotel.” It is the “heart” we relentlessly talk about in such situations. And more knowledge or more education will not change that. We have our story and we have our symbols, damnit, and we’re sticking to them.
And that is true in just about all of our celebrations and rituals. We can always see this link between story and symbol playing out. As humans we need that interaction between the two; that is where our emotions get touched, where our memories come alive, and where we can join together with other people. A good story with a good symbol helps us make sense of the world, and it also move us, whether it is on the political front, in movies, in art, in literature, in romance, or whatever. We create stories and symbols, and the joining of them is one of the things that mark us as “human”-that strange animal that uses these things to try to interpret the world. Yes, we are also rational, and the rational side of our brain gets us through a lot and helps us greatly. Our rationality has helped us figure out important things about the universe, solve problems, create impressive inventions, design social and political systems, and much, much more. But we cannot or should not overlook how much we still depend on story and symbol to find our place in the world. If they can be linked to fact, it is so much the better. But even if they can’t, we still make regular use of them in figuring out the world and navigating this thing called life. We have to use the two of them; we have to. After all, we are human, and this is what humans do.