Photo by ketrin1407 / Flickr.com
Written by Katherine O’Boyle-Sheffield
January 20, 2019
Historic records indicate the pagan festival of Lupercalia has been observed as early as the 6th century and celebrated annually through the 5th century A.D. (Roach). The exact origins of the festival are unknown. Lupercalia is an “…ancient Roman pagan festival that was conducted annually on February 15 under the superintendence of a corporation of priests called Luperci” (Lupercalia). It is believed that both the festival and the Luperci derived its name from the word “Lupus” or wolf. The festival is an enactment of protection and fertility that honors the lupine goddess who nurtured Romulus and Remus (the founders of Rome) and to honor the Roman God of Fertility, Lupercus (Lupercalia).
Festival rituals were conducted in Lupercal cave (where the she-wolf nurtured Romulus and Remus), on Palatine Hill, and within the Roman open-air, public meeting place called the Comitium (Lupercalia). The ritual involved sacrificing goats and dogs then feasting upon their flesh. Two Roman priests, called Luperci, would then be chosen, marked on their foreheads with the ritual knife covered in the blood of the slain animals. “The blood was then removed with a piece of milk-soaked wool as the Luperci laughed” (Lupercalia). Naked, the two males would then use strips of the skins from the sacrificed animals to make thongs, also known as februa, to flog women to bestow fertility (Lupercalia). It is believed that many women eagerly bared their skin to receive such markings to ensure their fertility (Lupercalia). During Lupercalia, men would randomly choose a woman’s name from a jar of names to be their escort during the festival. Many would stay together until the following celebration of Lupercalia whilst others fell in love and committed to marriage (Lupercalia). Later celebrations of Lupercalia eliminated the nakedness of the men and women were whipped only on their hands (Lupercalia).
It is believed that Lupercalia is tied to Valentine’s Day which is nationally celebrated on February 14th. According to legend, circa 3rd century A.D., Roman Emperor Claudius II forbade his soldiers to marry in order to bolster his army. The recalcitrant Saint Valentine secretly married soldiers as well as other Christian couples which was forbidden by the emperor. For his defiance and refusal to denounce his Christian faith, Valentine was executed on February 14th in A.D. 270. Valentine’s death being the day before the pagan festival of Lupercalia is believed to be the reason Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia are historically intertwined (Lupercalia). “In the late 5th century A.D., Pope Gelasius I eliminated the pagan celebration of Lupercalia and declared February 14 a day to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine instead” (Lupercalia). Some Christians do not celebrate Valentine’s Day for its ties to Lupercalia and pagan traditions.
Fast forward to the 21st century. People of all religions, including pagans and atheists, celebrate Valentine’s Day simply to honor the loved ones in their lives. Modern day Valentine’s celebrations still incorporate the symbolism found in Lupercalia, from the color red for the blood of the animals sacrificed to the color white for the nurturing milk used to wipe the blood clean, representing new life and promoting procreation (Lupercalia). Some pagans still celebrate Lupercalia, though often in private due to the lack of mainstream acceptance of many pagan rituals and ceremonies.
Lupercalia. Britannica.com. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 2019. Web. 18 Jan. 2019. Https://www.britannica.com/topic/Lupercalia
Lupercalia. History.com. 2019 A&E Television Networks, LLC. 2019. Web. 20 Jan. 2019. Https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-rome/lupercalia
Roach, John. Valentine’s Day: Why Do We Celebrate It? (Hint: Naked Romans). 1996-2015 National Geographic Society / 2015-2019 National Geographic Partners, LLC. Feb. 15, 2012. Web. 20 Jan. 2019. Https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/02/120213-valentines-day-gifts-cards-history-facts-naked-romans/
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