Lupercalia

15 Feb

More than a Hallmark holiday, Valentine’s Day, like Halloween, is rooted in pagan partying. Lupercalia was an ancient pagan festival held each year in Rome on February 15. Although Valentine’s Day shares its name with a martyred Christian saint, some historians believe the holiday is actually an offshoot of Lupercalia. Unlike Valentine’s Day, however, Lupercalia was a bloody, violent and sexually-charged celebration awash with animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and coupling in the hopes of warding off evil spirits and infertility. The origins of the festival are obscure, although the likely derivation of its name from lupus (Latin: “wolf”) has variously suggested connection with an ancient deity who protected herds from wolves and with the legendary she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus. As a fertility rite, the festival is also associated with the god Faunus. The Lupercalia may be the longest-lasting of the Roman pagan festivals. Some modern Christian festivals, like Christmas and Easter, took on elements of earlier pagan religions, but they are not essentially Roman, pagan holidays. Lupercalia may have started at the time of the founding of Rome (traditionally 753 BC) or even before. It ended about 1200 years later, at the end of the 5th century AD, at least in the West, although it continued in the East for another few centuries. There may be many reasons why Lupercalia lasted so long, but most important must have been its wide appeal.

Scenes from films like Gladiator and series such as HBO’s Rome might lead you to think that the ancient Romans were liberal in their view of nudity. In fact the opposite was true. It was only during exceptional occasions that Romans were freed from their social norms – and the most spectacular occasion was the annual Lupercalia festival. From the earliest days of Rome, 15 February was reserved for this strange festival. It was so unusual that Cicero disparaged the festival as savage and uncivilised remnants of primitive times. A closer look at the rituals might explain his attitude: men of the nobility stripped down to their underwear in order to strike women with strips of goatskin. Classed as priests, these were not men of the cloth as we would understand it – Roman religion was nothing like modern Christianity or Islam – but young men of military age who showed off their muscles running around the Palatine hill and the Forum, the city centre of ancient Rome. These young men were known as the Luperci, or wolf-men, because the origin of the festival was tied to the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus.

According to Roman legend, the ancient King Amulius ordered Romulus and Remus—his twin nephews and founders of Rome—to be thrown into the Tiber River to drown in retribution for their mother’s broken vow of celibacy. A servant took pity on them, however, and placed them inside a basket on the river instead. The river-god carried the basket and the brothers downriver to a wild fig tree where it became caught in the branches. The brothers were then rescued and cared for by a she-wolf in a den at the base of Palatine Hill where Rome was founded. The twins were later adopted by a shepherd and his wife and learned their father’s trade. After killing the uncle who’d ordered their death, they found the cave den of the she-wolf who’d nurtured them and named it Lupercal. The festival began at Lupercal cave with the sacrifice of one or more male goats—a representation of sexuality—and a dog. The sacrifices were performed by Luperci, a group of Roman priests. Afterwards, the foreheads of two naked Luperci were smeared with the animals’ blood using the bloody, sacrificial knife. The blood was then removed with a piece of milk-soaked wool as the Luperci laughed. Feasting began after the ritual sacrifice. When the feast of Lupercal was over, the Luperci cut strips, also called thongs or februa, of goat hide from the newly-sacrificed goats. They then ran naked or nearly-naked around Palantine whipping any woman within striking distance with the thongs. Many women welcomed the lashes and even bared their skin to receive the fertility consecration; it’s open to speculation what the lashes represented. During Lupercalia, the men randomly chose a woman’s name from a jar to be coupled with them for the duration of the festival. Often, the couple stayed together until the following year’s festival. Many fell in love and married.

Today, Lupercalia is probably most famous for what happened on February 15, 44 BC. Shakespeare chose the festival as the opening of the second scene of his play Julius Caesar, probably based on an account in Plutarch’s work Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans. The great dictator had prepared his own political spectacle under the guise of the Lupercalia chaos and had made his ally, Mark Antony, the captain of the Luperci. In front of the festive crowds, the wolf-man Antony ran up to Caesar in the Forum and offered him a royal crown – a strict taboo in Rome, where the early kings had been vanquished to form the republic. But by 44BC, Caesar’s powers were unprecedented, comparable to those of a king: an impossible position in the republican Roman system. The Senate was concerned that he might declare himself king; Caesar therefore tried to use the popular festival to make a statement. Before the gathered Romans, Antony thrice offered Caesar a crown – and three times Caesar rejected it. This public rejection of power was meant to alleviate the Senate’s concerns. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect. The Lupercalia of 44 BC happened exactly one month before Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March.

Despite this evidence of the importance of the Lupercalia festival, the actual sanctuary of the Lupercal is proving difficult to pin down. We know that the wolf-men started their ritual run from the cave, but its location has become a subject of controversy. The Italian archaeologist Andrea Carandini and his associates claimed to have discovered the site back in 2006, to great fanfare in the international press. However, other archaeologists demonstrated that the “discovery” was already known in the late 19th century and it was in fact a nymphaeum, a fountain-like structure. The last Lupercalia was held at the end of the fifth century. By then, Christianity had taken over Rome, and Lupercalia was one of the few Roman holidays that was still being celebrated. Pope Gelasius I eliminated the pagan celebration of Lupercalia and declared February 14 a day to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine instead. Although it’s highly unlikely he intended the day to commemorate love and passion, thanks to Saint Valentine’s reputation as a “patron of lovers,” he became synonymous with romance. It’s true Valentine’s Day uses some of Lupercalia’s symbols, intentionally or not, such as the color red which represented a blood sacrifice during Lupercalia and the color white which signified the milk used to wipe the blood clean and represents new life and procreation. Over the next 1,500 years, some things changed. Instead of putting their names in jars, women got cards. Instead of hitting women with girdles, men gave them flowers. But the holiday we celebrate today got its start here.

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