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

February 10, 2013

Brother Rosary: Bartolo Longo of Brindisi

Bartolo Longo
By Niccolò Graffio
“He that repents is angry with himself; I need not be angry with him.” – Benjamin Whichcote: Moral and Religious Aphorisms, 1753
Bartolo Longo was born on February 10th, 1841 to Dr. Bartolomeo Longo and Antonina (nee) Luparelli in the town of Latiano, in the province of Brindisi, Apulia at the time that region was part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.  He had the good fortune of being born into a prosperous family which guaranteed for him a better lifestyle than most of those living around him.

His parents were devout Roman Catholics, especially his mother, who taught young Bartolo to pray the Rosary on a daily basis. At an early age he demonstrated a marked intelligence.  That, plus his parents’ prosperity, insured for him a good education.  In addition to academics he also studied the piano and the flute.  Records show he did well in all his endeavors.

Bright, talented and charismatic, one would have thought a promising future lay ahead for the lad.  Tragically, however, fate would deal him a bad hand at an early age.  In 1851 his beloved mother died.  Perhaps as a result of anger at losing her, he slowly drifted away from the faith of his parents.  By the time he attended the University of Naples to study law, he had ceased practicing Catholicism altogether.

While attending the university he fell in with a “New Age” neo-pagan group, one of many that had been popping up across the continent of Europe.  By his own later admission he took part in séances and orgies in addition to practicing fortune-telling.  He also experimented with drugs when he wasn’t engaging in inordinate periods of fasting.

Unlike many other neo-pagan groups of the time, the one Longo joined was of a decidedly Satanist bent, and he was eventually “ordained” a Satanic high priest!  Unsatisfied with merely practicing Satanism, he took to publicly attacking and ridiculing Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular!  Modern psychologists might postulate the antipathy he demonstrated for the religion of his parents was his way of venting his anger for the loss of his mother.

His attacks on Catholicism bore a dark fruit – he was able to convince a number of Catholics to “leave the fold” and join him in practicing occult rites.

In the meantime, he completed his law studies at the University of Naples in 1864 and practiced law in that city until 1871, while continuing his Satanic exploits.

As has happened to so many before and after him who sought hedonistic pleasures in such a debased lifestyle, he ultimately derived no joy from it.  In fact, his physical and mental health suffered as a result of it. He eventually suffered a kind of breakdown.  

Feeling lost and depressed, he sought out the help of a childhood friend, Professor Vincenzo Pepe.  Initially repulsed by what Longo told him, Pepe sought to drive him from his presence.  Bartolo persisted, however, telling his friend he had nowhere else to go.  Pepe eventually relented and helped Longo by introducing him to a Catholic priest of the Dominican Order – Father Alberto Radente.  Fr. Radente agreed to hear Bartolo’s Confession and help him find his way out of the spiritual abyss he had flung himself into.

It has been said there are few people more zealous for their faith than a reformed reprobate, and that was certainly true in the case of Bartolo Longo!  His self-imposed penitence included attending a séance.  At one point during the ceremony, he rose, producing a medal of the Blessed Virgin Mary and crying out “I renounce spiritism because it is nothing but a maze of error and falsehood!”

His path to spiritual redemption eventually led him to become a lay (Third Order) Dominican.  As part of his vows he took the name “Fra Rosario” (It: Brother Rosary) in honor of the Rosary his mother had taught him as a child. The date of his official conversion was October 7th, 1871.

Our Lady of Pompeii
After his conversion he relocated to Pompeii where he joined a local charitable group.  There he met Countess Mariana di Fusco, a wealthy widow, whom he later married on the recommendation of Pope Leo XIII.  Though the two were obviously quite happy with one another, they mutually agreed theirs would be a chaste marriage, devoting their time and energies to the service of the Church.

In October, 1873 the two started a confraternity of the Rosary in a dilapidated church which they helped to restore with the help of funds they raised. In addition, they sponsored a festival in honor of Our Lady of the Rosary.  Stories of miracles associated with this church caused people to flock to it in droves, and in 1875 the Bishop of Nola encouraged the two to begin construction of a larger church.

The cornerstone of this edifice was officially laid on May 8th, 1876.  The church was officially consecrated by Cardinal La Valetta (representing Pope Leo XIII) in May, 1891.  48 years later it was enlarged to a basilica, known today as the Basilica of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary of Pompeii.  The church became a pilgrimage site for Catholics and non-Catholics alike, who are drawn to the story of a church built by an ex-Satanist.

In 1906 Bartolo Longo and the Countess donated the Pompeii shrine to the Holy See but continued to promote the Rosary for the remainder of their lives.  Longo would often evangelize young people in cafes and local parties, warning them of the dangers of occultism and preaching the glories of Christ, his Mother and the Catholic Church.  In addition, Longo and his wife provided for orphans and the children of prisoners – the latter something for its time was considered unheard of!

Bartolo Longo died on October 5th, 1926 at the ripe old age of 85!  His body was dressed in a mantle of a Knight of the Order of the Most Holy Sepulcher, a papal order of knighthood.  It was then encased in a glass tomb and displayed in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary in Pompeii where it remains to this day.

Immediately following his death there were calls for his canonization.  On October 26th, 1980 he was beatified by Pope John Paul II, who called him the “Apostle of the Rosary”.  

The dark lure of Satanism drove Bartolo Longo nearly to mental and physical ruin. The faith of this man’s parents gave renewed life to him when he thought himself spiritually dead.  The city of Pompeii, in turn, was thought destroyed forever in 79 AD when it was buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the “evil old lady of Italy”.  The basilica constructed by Longo and the Countess attracted families, roads, hotels, electricity, restaurants and shops.  In addition, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims a year visit the shrine built by the ex-Satanist.  It is therefore perhaps fitting the resurrection and salvation of Pompeii should be linked forever to that of Bartolo Longo.

Further reading:
• Gennaro Auletta: The Blessed Bartolo Longo; The Shrine of Pompeii (Publisher), 1987

February 5, 2013

Feast of Sant'Agata of Sicily, Virgin and Martyr

The Martyrdom of Sant'Agata,
Maschio Angioino, Napoli
Photo by New York Scugnizzo
February 5th is the Feast of Sant'Agata of Sicily, patroness of nurses, women with breast cancer and the victims of rape and torture. The protector of Catania, she is also invoked against fire, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters, the potential for which is ever present in the shadow of Mt. Etna. Agatha is also the patron saint of Malta, where it is said that her intercession saved the Maltese from a Turkish invasion in 1551. 

Born in Catania (some say Palermo) to a wealthy family, Saint Agatha devoted her life to God. Also very beautiful she was sought-after by many suitors for marriage. Taking a vow of chastity the young maiden turned down all proposals. However, when the powerful Senator Quintianus was rebuked he vindictively threatened to denounce her as a Christian for disobeying Emperor Decius' edict on religious sacrifice. Standing firm against his threats and unwanted advances Agatha was arrested and condemned to the brothels. 

Cattedrale di Sant'Agata, Catania
Photo courtesy of Olivia Cerrone
Tortured and beaten, young Agatha's spirit could not be broken. Instead of being violated she converted the Madam to Christianity. Angered by her obstinacy Quintianus had Agatha's breasts chopped off. Mutilated and close to death, a vision of Saint Peter miraculously healed her wounds. Still not satisfied the cruel Senator had his victim rolled over hot coals. Dragged to her cell and left to die, Agatha never wavered in her faith. With her dying breath she prayed to the Lord and thanked him for her victory over her tormentors will. She died on February 5th, 251 AD.

In Catania her feast is extremely popular and enthusiastically celebrated from February 3rd through 5th. Almost a million people converge to show their devotion and participate in the rituals. In honor of the Saint, delicious sponge cakes in the shape of her breasts are made with ricotta, chocolate and candied fruit, and have a red candied cherry on top of them.

In celebration, I'm posting A Prayer to Saint Agatha.(1) The accompanying photos were taken at the Chapel of the Souls in Purgatory in the Maschio Angioino (Castel Nuovo), Napoli and in Catania. Sant'Agata of Sicily, ora pro nobis.

Sant'Agata, Catania
Photo courtesy of Olivia Cerrone
A Prayer to Saint Agatha

O St. Agatha, who withstood the unwelcome advances from unwanted suitors, and suffered pain and torture for your devotion to Our Lord, we celebrate your faith, dignity and martyrdom. Protect us against rape and other violations, guard us against breast cancer and other afflictions of women, and inspire us to overcome adversity. O St. Agatha, Virgin and Martyr, mercifully grant that we who venerate your sacrifice, may receive your intercession. Amen

~ Giovanni di Napoli, February 4th, Feast of San Andrea Corsini

(1) The Prayer to Saint Agatha was reprinted from a prayer card

February 1, 2013

New Books

Some forthcoming titles that may be of interest to our readers. They are available for pre-order at Amazon.com

Paolo De Matteis: Neapolitan Painting and Cultural History in Baroque Europe by Livio Pestilli

Publisher: Ashgate Pub Co.
Publication Date: February 29, 2013
Hardback: $124.95
Language: English
Pages: 368

Plays: Vol. 2 by Luigi Pirandello

Publisher: Oneworld Classics
Publication Date: March 1, 2013
Paperback: $13.57
Language: English
Pages: 672

Sicily: A Cultural History by Joseph Farrell

Publisher: Interlink Pub Group Inc.
Publication Date: May, 2013
Paperback: $10.20
Language: English
Pages: 256

Architecture and Statecraft: Charles of Bourbon's Naples, 1734-1759 by Robin L. Thomas

Publisher: Penn State University Press
Publication Date: October 1, 2013
Hardcover: $65.33
Language: English
Pages: n/a

Click here to see more books