Monday, 14 February 2011


Those looking for the origins of Valentine's Day inevitably encounter the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. The Lupercalia festival is described in sometimes conflicting details by classical and Christian writers, so we have some idea of what went on at it, but there's even more about it we don't know. For example, we don't know:

•which god was celebrated,
•exactly how/where the Lupercalia was celebrated, or
•what its origins were.

Lupercalia is one of the most ancient of the Roman holidays (one of the feriae listed on ancient calendars from even before the time Julius Caesar reformed the calendar). It is familiar to us today for 2 main reasons:

1.It is associated with Valentine's Day
2.It is the setting for Caesar's refusal of the crown that was made immortal by Shakespeare, in his Julius Caesar.

The name of the Lupercalia was talked about a lot in the wake of the 2007 discovery of the legendary Lupercal cave where, supposedly, the twins Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf.

Lupercalia may have started at the time of the founding of Rome (traditionally 753 B.C.) or even before. It ended about 1200 years later, at the end of the 5th century A.D., 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.

Why Is Lupercalia Associated With Valentine's Day?

Chronologically, Lupercalia was a full month before the Ides of March. Lupercalia was February 15 or February 13-15, a period either proximate to or covering modern Valentine's Day.

Sharing a date is not enough to connect Lupercalia and Valentine's Day closely. For that there is a thematic connection....

History of Lupercalia

Lupercalia conventionally starts with the founding of Rome (traditionally, 753 B.C.), but may be a more ancient import, coming from Greek Arcadia and honoring Lycaean Pan, the Roman Inuus or Faunus. [Lycaean is a word connected with the Greek for 'wolf' as seen in the term lycanthropy for 'werewolf'.]

Tradition has the legendary twin brothers Romulus and Remus establishing the Lupercalia with 2 gentes, one for each brother. Each gens contributed members to the priestly college that performed the ceremonies, with Jupiter's priest, the flamen dialis, in charge from at least the time of Augustus. The priestly college was called the Sodales Luperci and the priests were known as Luperci. The original 2 gentes were the Fabii, on behalf of Remus, and the Quinctilii, for Romulus. Later, Julius Caesar made a short-lived addition to the gentes who could serve as Luperci, the Julii. Although originally the Luperci had to be aristocrats, the Sodales Luperci came to include equestrians, and then, the lower classes.

Etymologically, Luperci, Lupercalia, and Lupercal all relate to the Latin for 'wolf' lupus, as do various Latin words connected with brothels. The Latin for she-wolf was slang for prostitute. The legends say that Romulus and Remus were nursed by a she-wolf in the Lupercal. Servius, a 4th century pagan commentator on Vergil, says that it was in the Lupercal that Mars ravished and impregnated the twins' mother. (Servius ad. Aen. 1.273)

The Performance

The Sodales Luperci performed an annual purification of the city in the month for purification, February. Since March was (early in Roman history) the start of the New Year, this was a time to get rid of the old and prepare for the new. The naked Luperci ran about the area of the Palatine settlement. Cicero [Phil. 2.34, 43; 3.5; 13.15] is indignant at a nudus, unctus, ebrius 'naked, oiled, drunk' Antony serving as Lupercus. We don't know why the Luperci were naked. Plutarch says it was for speed. While running, the Luperci struck those men or women they encountered with goatskin thongs (or perhaps a lagobolon 'throwing stick' in the early years) following the opening event: a sacrifice of goat or goat and dog. If, as some think, the Luperci, in their run, circled the Palatine Hill, it would have been impossible for Caesar, who was at the rostra, to have witnessed the entire proceedings from one spot. He could, however, have seen the climax. The naked Luperci started at the Lupercal, ran (wherever they ran), and ended at the Comitium.

The running of the Luperci was a spectacle. Supposedly Varro called the Luperci 'actors'. The first stone theatre in Rome was to have overlooked the Lupercal. There is even a reference in Lactantius to the Luperci wearing dramatic masks.

Speculation abounds as to the reason for the striking with the thongs or lagobola. Perhaps the Luperci struck men and women to sever any deadly influence they were under. That they might be under such an influence has to do with the fact that one of the festivals to honor the dead, the Parentalia, occurred at about the same time.

If the act was to ensure fertility, it could be that the striking of the women was to represent penetration. Obviously the husbands wouldn't have wanted the Luperci actually copulating with their wives, but symbolic penetration, broken skin, made by a piece of a fertility symbol (goat), could be effective.

Striking women is thought to have been a fertility measure, but there was also a decided sexual component. The women may have bared their backs to the thongs from the festival's inception. It is believed that after 276 B.C., young married women were encouraged to bare their bodies. Augustus ruled out beardless young men from serving as Luperci because of their irresistibility, even though they were probably no longer naked. Some classical writers refer to the Luperci as wearing goatskin loincloths by the 1st century B.C.

Goats and the Lupercalia

Goats are symbols of sexuality and fertility. Amalthea's goat horn brimming with milk became the cornucopia. One of the most lascivious of the gods was Pan/Faunus, represented as having horns and a caprine bottom half. Ovid (through whom we are chiefly familiar with the events of the Lupercalia) names him as the god of the Lupercalia. Before the run, the Luperci priests performed their sacrifices of goats or goats and dog, which Plutarch calls the enemy of the wolf. This leads to another of the problems scholars discuss, the fact that the flamen dialis was present at the Lupercalia (Ovid Fasti 2. 267-452) in the time of Augustus. This priest of Jupiter was forbidden to touch a dog or goat and may have been forbidden even to look at a dog. Holleman suggests that Augustus added the presence of the flamen dialis to a ceremony at which he had earlier been absent. Another Augustan innovation may have been the goatskin on previously naked Luperci, which would have been part of an attempt to make the ceremony decent.


By the second century A.D. some of the elements of sexuality had been removed from the Lupercalia. Fully dressed matrons stretched out their hands to be whipped. Later, the representations show women humiliated by flagellation at the hands of men fully dressed and no longer running about.  Self-flagellation was part of the rites of Cybele on the 'day of blood' dies sanguinis (March 16). Roman flagellation could be fatal.  Scourging became a common practice in the monastic communities. It would seem likely, that with the early church's attitudes towards women and mortification of the flesh, Lupercalia fit right in despite its association with a pagan deity.
In "The God of the Lupercalia", T. P. Wiseman suggests a variety of related gods may have been the god of the Lupercalia. As mentioned above, Ovid counted Faunus as the god of the Lupercalia. For Livy, it was Inuus. Other possibilities include Mars, Juno, Pan, Lupercus, Lycaeus, Bacchus, and Februus. The god itself was less important than the festival.

The End of the Lupercalia

Sacrifice, which was a part of Roman ritual, had been prohibited since 341, but the Lupercalia survived beyond this date. Generally, the end of the Lupercalia festival is attributed to Pope Gelasius (494-496). Some believe  it was another late 5th century pope, Felix III. The ritual had become important to the civic life of Rome and was believed to help prevent pestilence, but as the pope charged, it was no longer being performed in the proper manner. Instead of the noble families running around naked, riffraff was running around clothed. The pope also mentioned that it was more a fertility festival than a purification rite and there was pestilence even when the ritual was performed. The pope's lengthy document seems to have put an end to the celebration of Lupercalia in Rome, but in Constantinople, apparently, the festival continued to the tenth century.

Lupercalia started out as a fun event with spectators serving occasionally as willing participants.  Naked bodies were unusually exposed to view. There was a fertility component. There was good food from the sacrificial animal. Everything centered around the place where the Vestal Virgin was raped by the god Mars in order to conceive the founder of Rome, Romulus. It's this blend of fun, fertility, and erotic elements, as well as the date, that ties Lupercalia to Valentine's Day, but Lupercalia is not the direct, legitimate ancestor of the Valentine's Day holiday.


Adapted from

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