Ah Lupercalia… er, Valentine’s Day? There is a lot of interesting history about the origins of Valentine’s Day, St. Valentine, et cetera et al. I want to talk about the OG Valentine’s Day today, though.

Ooh-la-la: Pan with a She-Goat, from Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit at the British Museum.

Ooh-la-la: Pan with a She-Goat, from Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit at the British Museum.

Lupercalia. A Roman festival (perhaps Pre-Roman, Greek festival of Pan)  celebrating the god Lupercus or Faunus. This combines so many of my favorite things: pagan festivals, history, the Classical world, Pan/Faunus, and of course, goats!

Lupercalia, traditionally celebrated on February 15, was a combination of many things; one of the most important was as a celebration of the wolf who suckled and raised Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome. Anyone who has read the Harry Potter series will recognize two words here: Remus and Lup(in). Therefore, the word Lupercalia literally means wolf festival.

The Capitoline Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus in the  Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome

The Capitoline Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome

At the Roman festival, priests of the god Faunus, a goat-like god of farms and forests and the Roman equivalent of the Greek nature god Pan, would sacrifice dogs and goats to the god. These priests were called the Luperci, the “brothers of the wolf.” They would be anointed with the blood of the sacrifices, and the celebrations would start. The priests would dress in the goat-skins of the fresh sacrifices, and the real fun would begin.

Statue of a Luperci with his whip. Whipping it good.

Statue of a Luperci with his whip. Whipping it good.

The luperci, dressed in their fresh goat skins, would run the borders of the Palatine city, leather thongs (not that kind of thong) in hand, happily whipping the women and girls who lined up for the privilege of being (literally)

hit on by the priests to bring about fertility and ease the pains of childbirth.

Plutarch described it thus:

“Lupercalia.. was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea… many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.”

Once Christianity expanded and pagan rituals and festivals were often outlawed (Thanks Theodosius), pagan rituals were often rebranded and repackaged as new, holy, Christian festivals.  This might be the case with Lupercalia and Saint Valentine’s Day, though primary sources are often muddled and hard to interpret.  Some scholars indicate that a pope in the 5th century combined the two holidays to keep the peace and encourage Christian worship.

Regardless, the parallels here are obvious. Love, lust, men hitting on women, the undeniable passions of the wild naked people running through the streets…. well maybe some parallels are obvious, at least.

 

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