February 15, 2013

The Roman Lupercalia, an Ancient Tradition

Dancing Faun
Casa del Fauno, Pompeii
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
By Lucian

The Lupercalia was a Roman holiday that was celebrated on February 15th and 16th. A holiday within a holiday, it began on the second day of the Roman Parentalia, which focused on honoring and appeasing ancestral spirits. Both the Parentalia and Lupercalia dealt with the concept of spiritual purification, a common motif in ancient rituals but found especially around February in Greco-Roman culture. Some even claim that the Lupercalia is the origin of St. Valentine’s day.

One of the oldest recorded pagan holidays, the Lupercalia is thought to predate even Rome itself. Because of its age, widespread popularity and resilience it is difficult to definitively say which gods it was associated with. There is evidence pointing toward Faunus/Pan, and even Bacchus or Juno, but in all likelihood the rituals were originally related to the more primitive animism that predated Roman urbanization and continued to remain in rural areas throughout the Roman Empire. Roman mythology credits the Arcadian Greek hero Evander with instituting Lupercalia in Pallantium decades before the Trojan War, on a site that would later become part of the city of Rome. It was finally suppressed by Pope Gelasius I in the 5th Century A.D. It was so popular that at the time many people who were nominally Christian were still celebrating it.

The original ritual was performed on Palatine Hill in Rome, but spread throughout both Northern and Southern Italy and the rest of the empire with Rome’s expansion. It was even celebrated in Greece, especially after the capital was moved to Constantinople. The themes of the rite were fertility and spiritual purification. The ceremony began in a cave (Lupercal) at the foot of the hill and involved the sacrifice of goats and a dog. The blood of the goat was smeared on the foreheads of chosen young men (luperci) then washed off with milk by priests, the men were then required to laugh at the priests. After drinking wine the young men, clad only in goatskin loincloths, would chase and whip willing young women with ceremonial goatskin thongs. It was thought that the women would be blessed with fertility, so they would bare their shoulders or hands in hopes of being touched this way.

Photo by New York Scugnizzo
Another ritual involved the placement of young women’s names in a box. Young men would then pick a name from the box and the two would be “paired” until the next year. The joining was not supposed to be binding, but it was hoped that the young people would get to know each other and consider the possibility of marriage in the future. In later times the Church attempted to replace the names with that of saints and the young people were supposed to emulate them. The new version of the ritual wasn’t as popular, and young men were said to give love notes on this day to the girls they liked in order to get around the new rules, hence the alleged connection to St. Valentines Day. Some medieval sources claim that the name choosing rites were from Lupercalia, but critics claim that the name choosing ritual was from the middle-ages and not related to the classical era. In this particular case, the critics do have some compelling arguments.

There is also a claim that Lupercalia was replaced by the Feast of the Purification of St. Mary, also called Candlemas, which occurs on February 2nd. Again, there are critics who passionately refute this, but as even amateur historians know about the connection between purification and the month of February in pagan Rome, it seems inevitable that such speculation would occur regardless of whether or not it was true.

Plaster relief of Faun
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
Historically it was common for new religions to demonize the religions they replaced, even as they absorbed some of their elements. Sometimes traditions from the old religion that were conveniently accepted for centuries were banned when one of the popes felt that their usefulness had run its course. The connection of Lupercalia to wolves was clear and the image of the god Faunus (Pan) was also commonly used to represent Lucifer or a fallen angel, so it is no surprise that during the suppression of Lupercalia the Church associated it with demon worship and werewolves.

If we take a step back from the conflicts between the old and new religions, and look at what the common folk were celebrating and praying for in February, we will see them asking for bountiful harvests, many healthy children and protection for their families and flocks. Throughout the ages, our people have asked for the same things.

To me, the Lupercalia, St. Valentines Day and Candlemas are all familiar, they all feel right. Whether it is because they reflect my ancestral soul or simply appeal to my subconscious emotional needs, I cannot say. What is certain is that these rituals have continued in some form for hundreds or even thousands of years. Aside from their spiritual aspects, that sort of resilience alone makes them special.

Chauser and the Cult of St. Valentine, by Henry Ansgar Kelly ISBN 9004078495, 9789004078499
• The Religious Experience of the Roman People, by W. Warde Fowler M.A. published 1911, reprinted 1971. ISBN 0-8154-0372-0
• Phases in the Religion of Ancient Rome by Cyril Bailey, published 1932, reprinted 1972 ISBN 0-8371-4759-X 
• Taboo, Magic, Spirits A Study of Primitive Elements in Roman Religion, by Eli Edward Burriss, published 1931, reprinted 1972 & 1974, ISBN 0-8371-4724-7
• "More to Explore" by Mary Jennings, National Geographic Magazine, January 2005