Lupercalia is uniquely Roman, but even the Romans of the first century were at a loss to explain exactly which deity or deities were being exalted. It hearkens back to the days when Rome was nothing more than a few shepherds living on a hill known as Palantine and was surrounded by wilderness teeming with wolves.
Lupercus, protector of flocks against wolves, is a likely candidate; the word lupus is Latin for wolf, or perhaps Faunus, the god of agriculture and shepherds. Others suggest it was Rumina, the goddess whose temple stood near the fig tree under which the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus. There is no question about Lupercalia’s importance. Records indicate that Mark Antony was master of the Luperci College of Priests. He chose the Lupercalia festival of the year 44BC as the proper time to offer the crown to Julius Caesar.
February occurred later on the ancient Roman calendar than it does today so Lupercalia was held in the spring and regarded as a festival of purification and fertility. Each year on February 15, the Luperci priests gathered on Palantine Hill at the cave of Lupercal. Vestal virgins brought sacred cakes made from the first ears of last year’s grain harvest to the fig tree. Two naked young men (called Lupercii) asisted by the Vestals, sacrificed a dog and a goat at the site. The blood was smeared on the foreheads of the young men and then wiped away with wool dipped in milk.
The Lupercii them skinned the sacrificed goat and ripped the hide into strips which they tied around their naked waists and led groups of priests around the pomarium, the sacred boundary of the ancient city, and around the base of the hills of Rome. The occasion was happy and festive.
They then got drunk, and ran around Rome striking everyone they met with strips of the goat hide. This act supposedly provided purification from curses, bad luck, and infertility. Young women who were touched in this manner were thought to be specially blessed, especially in regards to fertility and procreation.
It is from these implements of purification, or februa, that the month of February gets its name.
Long after Palentine Hill became the seat of the powerful city, state and empire of Rome, the Lupercalia festival lived on. Roman armies took the Lupercalia customs with them as they invaded France and Britain. One of these was a lottery where the names of available maidens were placed in a box and drawn out by the young men. Each man accepted the girl whose name he drew as his love – for the duration of the festival, or sometimes longer.
Lupercalia, with its lover lottery, had no place in the new Christian order. In the year 496 AD, Pope Gelasius did away with the festival of Lupercalia, citing that it was pagan and immoral. He chose Valentine as the patron saint of lovers, who would be honored at the new festival on the fourteenth of every February. The church decided to come up with its own lottery and so the feast of St. Valentine featured a lottery of Saints. One would pull the name of a saint out of a box, and for the following year, study and attempt to emulate that saint.
If you are interested, you can read more about Valentine’s Day (and how it came to be what it is today) on it’s own separate page.
A modern approach to the Lupercalia is as follows:
- Themes: Love; Passion; Romance; Sexuality
- Symbols: Doves; Flowers; Berries; Trees; Pine Cones
- Presiding Goddess: Venus
Venus was originally an Italic goddess of blossoms; hearts and flowers have slowly become attributed to her loving, passionate energies. In fact, her name became the root for the word venerate – to lift up, worship, or esteem. So it is that Venus greets pre-spring efforts for uplifting our hearts with positive relationships.
To Do Today:
During Lupercalia, an ancient predecessor of Valentine’s Day, single girls put their names in a box, and unmarried men drew lots to see with whom they would be paired off for the coming year. To the more modern minded, try pinning five bay leaves to your pillow instead to dream of future loves. If you’re married or otherwise involved, steep the bay leaves in water and drink the resulting tea to strengthen the love in your relationship.
To encourage balance in a relationship, bind together Venus’s symbols, a pine cone and a flower, and put them somewhere in your home. Or, to spice up a passionate moment, feed fresh berries to each other and drink a berry beverage from one cup (symbolizing united goals and destinies).
In Roman tradition, anywhere there’s a large stone adjacent to a tall tree, Venus is also there. Should you know of such a place, go there today and commune with her warm lusty energy.