The Mythology of Valentine’s Day and the evolution of courtship

Our caveman ancestors weren’t known for gifting their chosen mate with a stuffed bear, selection of sugary treats or bouquet of wildflowers picked from the nearest mountainside on any particular day of the year. So how has Valentine's Day now become such a cultural staple across the globe and how have our patterns of courtship changed since our pre-historic roots?

St Valentine himself was a relatively obscure 3rd century Roman saint martyred on the 14th February. The plethora of handed-down fables and stories-turned-legends that surround him portray him as a heroic character, sympathetic to the hardships of star-crossed lovers in their various permutations, but these tales are hard to prove with any empirical validity. It seems that through a combination of his martyrdom, coinciding with February’s bird mating season, Chaucer’s literary influence in 14th century England and Christian attempts to supersede the pre-existing Pagan fertility holiday of Lupercalia, have propelled him into universal stardom and historical immortality.

Caveman culture was, as far as evolutionary anthropologists can tell, polyamorous and promiscuous. Our ancestors did not mate for life, right up until the last millenium. The invention of modern monogamy and the focus of courtship on one individual made way for the establishment of traditions and rituals that us humans are still so fond of today.

Courtship, even over the last 100 years, has changed so vastly that behaviours which would have been considered scandalous to downright obscene - such as unmarried men and women being alone together - are so commonplace today that it seems laughable to the contemporary Western dating world. Courtship has grown from being a family affair with the express goal of marriage, where first dates were conducted in the parlour of the family home, to today's more casual dinner-and-a-movie format, with future marriage relegated firmly to a list of taboo conversation topics. While cultures differ in their adherence to and maintenance of these old traditions across the globe, Valentine’s Day in the Western world has become an opportunity to woo a new mate or delight an existing one.

The fundamentals of Valentine’s Day appeal to us on the most basic of human levels - the human need for love. We are social creatures, and social creatures that have a psychological need for love and belonging. Affirmation of this love can only be constructive to our self-confidence and rewarding for us and our partners, so it’s only natural that a festival celebrating such has prospered in our increasingly romance-focused society. From the troubadours, poets and bards of history to modern fine dining and luxury weekends away in Paris, Valentine’s Day gives an excuse for lovers everywhere to show each other what they mean to them. In our fast-paced world, excuses such as these should not be taken for granted.