Valentine’s Eve

Why does Valentine’s Day come around in the glumly frigid pit of the year?  Perhaps to remind us that contact with other mammals increases mutual warmth, besides stimulating serotonin or whatever the chemical is that (“studies show”) cheers us up.

This time last year, Venus was in the morning sky.  Now the planet of love is more conspicuous, and more conveniently so, in the evening.

Sky scene 2017 February 13

Venus in this picture is nearly 30° above the horizon, and is at greatly enlarged size to show its crescent shape.  The arrows through the moving bodies, including the Sun, show their movement on the map of the sky from two days before to two days after the date.

Venus is hurrying around toward us.

Space view of planets 2017 February 14

This space view shows the planets’ paths in February, and sightlines from Earth to them on Valentine Day.  The dashed line is the vernal equinox direction (longitude 0°), which happens to be our direction of view for this picture.

There’s a pronoun-dilemma in referring to Venus: be arch and say “she” or be sober and say “it”?  The planet, far from being a garden of delight, is a hell of hot poisonous fog, and I find the anthropomorphizing, or theomorphizing, rapidly cloys, but I’ll make an exception for this amorous occasion in the year.

She, then, Venus, is going through a succession of celebratory moments.  She was at greatest elongation east, 47.2° from the Sun. on Jan. 17; will show her greatest illuminated extent (largest angular area that we see sunlit) on Feb. 17; is brightest, at magnitude -4.6, on Feb. 18.

Some have asked why these climaxes don’t coincide – why, for instance, is Venus not brightest when its – her – angular extent is largest?  The answer, briefly, is that they are found by equations that take into account an array of changing quantities: not only distance from us and from the Sun, and angular extent, but phase angle (the angle Sun-Venus-Earth).

All this happens at stages of Venus’s curve around and in, to pass widely north of the Sun (inferior conjunction) on March 25.

And you can see from the space diagram that Venus’s out-swing almost resulted in a conjunction with Mars.  However, the closest they came was on Feb. 2; then, as the sky scene shows, Venus started moving east more slowly than Mars – began falling away toward the Sun.

She sometimes kisses Mars, sometimes fails to catch him.  As you’ll recall, Venus was married to Vulcan, the lame smith god, but had a fling with Mars.  Vulcan caught them at it – flung over them an entangling net that he had devised, and fetched boss Jupiter to witness the couple’s guilt.  The depiction of this scene in an engraving by Daumier is perfect, but I can’t find the copy of it that I had and I’m afraid you’re not going to be able to see it very clearly here

so I’m going to have to spoil the joke by describing it.  Under the net, Venus smirks and Mars (still wearing his helmet) scowls; Vulcan is shouting his denunciation – “Look, Sire, can you believe it!” – to judicious Jupiter, behind whose back the other gods are grinning.

(Postscript-interscript: Roger Taft has been able to send me a better reproduction of the Daumier print, whose correct title is “Mars et Vénus.”)

But the old pantheon has gone into retirement, leaving us wih a few demigods such as Santa Claus and Valentine, about whom we can find more to say.

My friend by correspondence Chet Raymo wrote a historical novel about Valentine, which may still be available.

The name Ballentine or Ballantine is not, apparently, a variant of Valentine, but comes from Scottish forms like Bannatyne and MacAmeltyne, which may have been from the name of an ancient fire god.

And then there were

Those two little pals of mine,
Ramadhin and Valentine

– in the words of “Cricket, Lovely Cricket,” sung in their honor.  They were the surprise heroes of the West Indies team that for the first time defeated England, in the test match of 1950: Sonny Ramadhin from Trinidad and, from Jamaica, Alf Valentine.  These two previously unknown young fellows, slow crafty spin bowlers, entangled the lordly English batsmen in a web rather like Vulcan’s.  And I can’t help adding that this “Victory Calypso” seems to have begun on the last day of the match as an improvization by Lord Kitchener, was later recorded by Lord Beginner, another of the West Indian immigrants to Britain; a chorus supplies the refrain “Ramadhin and Valentine.”  And that it started a flowering of cricket calypso; and that Ramadhin was the first of a series of great West Indian cricketers of East Indian ancestry; and that he never had a forename.  His birth certificate recorded just a “Boy,” hence he became just “Sonny.”  I hope that doesn’t give you ideas about why I’m called “Guy.”




14 thoughts on “Valentine’s Eve”

  1. Another view about why he was made a Saint: The origin of this holiday for the expression of love really isn’t romantic at all—at least not in the traditional sense. Father Frank O’Gara of Whitefriars Street Church in Dublin, Ireland, tells the real story of the man behind the holiday—St. Valentine.

    “He was a Roman Priest at a time when there was an emperor called Claudias who persecuted the church at that particular time,” Father O’Gara explains. ” He also had an edict that prohibited the marriage of young people. This was based on the hypothesis that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers because married soldiers might be afraid of what might happen to them or their wives or families if they died.”

    “I think we must bear in mind that it was a very permissive society in which Valentine lived,” says Father O’Gara. “Polygamy would have been much more popular than just one woman and one man living together. And yet some of them seemed to be attracted to Christian faith. But obviously the church thought that marriage was very sacred between one man and one woman for their life and that it was to be encouraged. And so it immediately presented the problem to the Christian church of what to do about this.”

    “The idea of encouraging them to marry within the Christian church was what Valentine was about. And he secretly married them because of the edict.”

    Valentine was eventually caught, imprisoned and tortured for performing marriage ceremonies against command of Emperor Claudius the second. There are legends surrounding Valentine’s actions while in prison.

    “One of the men who was to judge him in line with the Roman law at the time was a man called Asterius, whose daughter was blind. He was supposed to have prayed with and healed the young girl with such astonishing effect that Asterius himself became Christian as a result.”

    In the year 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a three part execution of a beating, stoning, and finally decapitation all because of his stand for Christian marriage. The story goes that the last words he wrote were in a note to Asterius’ daughter. He inspired today’s romantic missives by signing it, “from your Valentine.”

    “What Valentine means to me as a priest,” explains Father O’Gara, “is that there comes a time where you have to lay your life upon the line for what you believe. And with the power of the Holy Spirit we can do that —even to the point of death.”

    Valentine’s martyrdom has not gone unnoticed by the general public. In fact, Whitefriars Street Church is one of three churches that claim to house the remains of Valentine. Today, many people make the pilgrimage to the church to honor the courage and memory of this Christian saint.

  2. I love the word “theomorphizing”. It says so much about us as a species. Thanks.

    1. I thought I’d made up “theomorphize” on the spot – a neologism, something I’m rather often guilty of. But, because of what you say, I’ve checked in the Oxford English dictionary (online, I’ll tell you how to access this wonderful resource if you like), and I found that theomorphic and theomorphism were actually used by a few writers between about 1870 and 1905. They weren’t quite the counterparts of “anthropomorphize”, but meant “having the form or likeness of God” and “the doctrine that man has the form or likeness of God”.

      1. Google ngram viewer is useful. It doesn’t show any results for theomorphize or theomorphise, but it does for theomorphism. In 1980 theomorphism was used three times more often than in any other year. I don’t know what happened in 1980.

        1. What happened in 1980 was that I started an Amnesty International group, and went to East Africa to see an eclipse and my sister. Oh, and Reagan was elected president and was perhaps theomorphized by some.

  3. You may be thinking of oxytocin, or perhaps dopamine.

    I’m sorry to cloy by referring to the planets by the gendered pronouns appropriate to their mythological personalities. Thanks for playing along today.

    I’m continuing to enjoy looking at Venus through a small refractor, and showing her to passersby. She’s getting bigger! (There I go again, with the gendered pronouns. Thanks for your patience.) This past Saturday was a rare crystal clear day and night between the intense rainstorms we’ve been experiencing in northern California. As soon as the shadow of the church across the street shaded the sidewalk in front of my home, about an hour before sunset, I found Venus with binoculars and then naked eye, and got the telescope on her. She shows up quite nicely at 42x magnification. Pretty soon I’ll be able to use the 15×70 binoculars, and I can stop explaining that the telescope gives a mirror image views, so the Sun is actually shining from the lower right, although through the eyepiece it looks like Venus is lit up from the lower left … .

    Happy Valentine’s day to all who observe the Hallmark holidays.

    1. Gendered pronouns are perfectly fine
      When Sol’s circumambit takes 28 days,
      And also when he takes days twenty-nine,
      Except to those of hobgoblins’ mind,
      Who’d politically correct all spoken ways.

  4. Guy,I”m a little rusty on the incidentals but my Mother used to tell me the story of Valentine(around this time of year) when I was a little boy.Apparently, he like some many other religious folk at that time couldn’t quite extinguish the flames of desire through prayer and meditation-Think Heloise and Abelard-unfortunedly he like Abelard choose that wrong ladies who had very rich,noble and supposedly very religious wards.Valentine finding himself slammed in the local dungeon awaiting execution began furiously exchanging letters secretly with his beloved,aiding by the compassion of the dungeon keeper who felt bad for Valentine and helped him in exchanging the letters between the lovers.Anyhow,time passes rather quickly when you do not want it to and Valentine found himself on the last night of his life awaiting execution at cock’s crow.Apparently,he wrote a very beautiful and impassioned farewell letter to his beloved and signed it “Your Valentine”.How true this is is anybodies guess but it’s a nice story (kind of) isn’t it.Sam

  5. Otherwise one of the most enjoyable entries I’ve seen in a long time. Thanks Guy, you’ve done it again :)

    1. Oh, shut up, Juan. It’s f***in freezin here in NY. I hope you get sunburnt. Just kidding. although the frigid air does lend itself to good clear sky watching when its not snowing. Venus clearly visible in daylight if you know just where to look, and looking forward to seeing comet P45.

    2. That’s a good case for humans to become migratory. Either that or we need to go live on the planetary “hell of hot poisonous fog”.

    3. Marvelous! I was wondering whether my post had even gone – it hadn’t appeared on my computer – when, within seconds, came this comment on it from the opposite side of the planet!

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