Scintillating Astronomy

As Valentine's Day approaches, couples prepare to trade endearing gifts -- and to make florists, jewelers, and candy makers rich in the process. Meanwhile many singles (and some guys actually in relationships) dread the commercialized lovers' holiday and its sickly sweet sentiment.

Things weren't always this way. Centuries before the holiday was co-opted by corporations, a single dude could simply get naked, run around a hill in Rome, and swat his chosen cutie with a flail made of goatskin.

Not exactly what Saint Valentine had in mind, but he wasn't in the picture when the pagan rite of spring was first celebrated. The whole sordid history will be explained Thursday by astronomer Dr. David Menke in the planetarium show Lupercalia.



Buehler Planetarium at Broward Community College, 3501 SW Davie Rd., Davie.

Thursday, February 10, at 7:30 p.m. Reservations are required. Admission is $6. (Children under 5 are not admitted.) Call 954-475-6681.

What, you may ask, does astronomy have to do with Valentine's Day? Well, the planet named for Venus -- the goddess of love -- is bright in the sky this time of year. Adonis and Cupid, relatives of Venus, are also discussed in the show. "These lesser gods and goddesses have asteroids or moons named after them," Menke notes. So while he yaks about Valentine's, he'll flash visuals of planets, stars, and constellations on the planetarium dome.

Lore has it that Valentine, a kind Roman priest and doctor, performed marriages when getting hitched was illegal. But Valentine's Day wasn't celebrated as a lovers' festival until the 14th Century. The ancient Roman fertility ceremony, Lupercalia, started it all.

The mythological founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were raised by a wolf who lived in the cave of Lupercal on Rome's Palatine Hill. The Festival of Lupercalia was held at the base of the hill in their honor and to commemorate the rite of fertility. Eating, drinking, and dancing took place, but the most sacred ritual was the sacrifice of two goats and a dog by a group of priests known as the Luperci. Goat blood was smeared on the foreheads of young men and wiped off with lamb's wool, then the men ran naked around the hill carrying whips made of goatskin. The whips were called "februare," which means "to make pure." (Thus the name for the month of February.) Virgin women stood along the men's path, and when the man of her choice came near, a woman would step forward, offering to be struck (lightly) by his whip and perhaps hook up.

The pagan Lupercalia was replaced in A.D. 494 with the Christian feast of the Virgin Mary, which was later moved back to February 2. Eventually Lupercalia traditions were combined with the new feast day of Saint Valentine on February 14.

"When I do these presentations, I like to blend history, culture, and science, so people can relate to it," says Menke. "They leave the planetarium with some additional astronomical information, but they are also entertained and uplifted."

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