Due to Valentine’s Day blogs and hashtags, a friend learned of the ancient Roman ritual of Lupercalia shared her newfound enthusiasm for it with me. Trusting History.com’s version, this friend somewhat facetiously suggested that we might all want to reinstate Lupercalia instead of engaging in the overly commercialized Valentine’s Day holiday that focuses on romance vis à vis credit cards.
History.com claims Lupercalia was a pagan touchstone for the beginnings of Valentine’s Day, stating:
While some believe that Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the middle of February to commemorate the anniversary of [Saint] Valentine’s death or burial–which probably occurred around A.D. 270–others claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to “Christianize” the pagan celebration of Lupercalia. Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide. Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.
Unfortunately, this description of the ancient Lupercalia is generally very inaccurate. The original myth and ritual belongs to calendrical seasons and new year celebrations; and an Arcadian (Greek) myth involving a goddess of fire, prophecy, and sexuality; her animal totem, the wolf; and a wild demi-god of the hills and forests (known first Evender, then Pan, then Faunus) whose animal totem was the goat.
Lupercalia from the beginning
Like the Chinese (whose New Year, this year of the Dog, starts today), the ancient Romans used a lunisolar calendar. Lupercalia was one ritual intertwined with other corresponding Roman rituals that signaled the ending and beginning of their calendar year. As comparative mythologist Jaan Puhvel explains, the ancient Romans celebrated the New Year between February 27 and March 13. Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15 as the twilight ending of the past year. While it did honor the founding myth of Rome (see below), Lupercalia is also linked to the Ides of March and the Fordicīdia on April 15.
These rituals literally and symbolically bookmarked the Roman New Year. This festival marked the approach of a new dawn, a new year, and a new king on the horizon for the Roman peoples. A manuscript fragment from the 3rd century BCE, notes an Italian wilderness goddess of prophecy whose son, Evander, who founded a sacred place called luperkon. (The Evender myth seems to originate in Arcadia, part of the Greek Peloponnese). The luperkon was on the banks of Lake Avernus, a volcanic crater lake. Thus, this is a lake formed in the mouth of fire.
This prophetic goddess or sibyl, (known much later as the Cumean sibyl, and Carmentis) like other divination goddesses, is associated with the underworld, caves, the moon, darkness, and death. As Roman scholar T.P. Wiseman notes that, first century BCE historian M. Tertentius Varro wrote that the goddess Lupereca was also a wolf (The God of the Lupercal 1). Luper (Latin) and lykos (Greek) mean “wolf.” Wolves eyes seem to glow at twilight and of course they sing to the moon!
The Romans viewed Lake Avernus as an entry point into the underworld. Evander, the mortal sun of the wolf goddess of the underworld is the human “founder” of the cult of the wolf cave of Lupercal (Lykaion, Gk) and the mountain cult of a goddess of victory (Wiseman, 4). Again, like other mountain goddesses, the Arcadian victory goddess was associated with sexuality, sunlight, wealth, and life. It appears like that in Italy, the victorious sun goddess and the lunar wolf goddess of the underworld were linked by a “fiery” lake of new beginnings.
Within the Lupercalia, there were also early elements of a horse race (most likely from Arcadia, an area that worshiped Black Demeter, a horse goddess who after a sexual encounter with Poseidon (ocean water god) retreated to a cave to bear twins. The Roman myth borrowed heavily from the Arcadian myth and created a festival, the Lupercalia, where nearly naked men wearing masks and goatskin capes (representing the sexual fertility god) ran circular races from Palantine Hill and then around Rome. The scene was bawdy, sexy, and celebratory (Wiseman 14).
Remus & Romulus, founders of Rome
The Lupercalia also evolved to honor Remus and Romulus, the mythic founders of Rome. Almost every ancient great city or peoples needed a mythic founding story because that myth would tie the particular peoples or city to both goddesses and gods as creators of all and to the greater structures of the heavens and earth. Thus, a founding myth promotes legitimacy, a divine intent to produce said peoples and city, and a genealogy to the gods.
The myth of Romulus and Remus involves a she-wolf who nursed and raised divine twins who then became the founders of Rome. This myth appears to be part of much larger Indo-European¹ mythic themes around divine twins, the goddess of the sun/dawn (horses or birds) and the goddess of twilight/night (wolves). The twins’ mother Rhea Silvia, a former Vestal Virgin who keeps flames eternally burning, sends the infants floating down the earthly Tiber River to the wolf to raise. Symbolically, Rhea Silvia also symbolizes the Great Milky Way, the River of Light within the vast inky dark.
From sunny, sexy celebrations of life to militarized unions
Later, the myth was revised to have the Roman war god Mars as the father of Romulous and Remus. The Roman myth and rituals were becoming militarized and degraded. The demi-god son of the lunar wolf goddess who helps usher in the release of the solar goddess became associated with Pan. That link was likely due to switching the role of sexual choice from the goddess to the god. Pan, another wilderness god was noted for being nearly naked, typically ithyphallic, and wearing a goat-skinned cape. By the first century BCE, Pan, Dionysus, and Faunus degrade in certain regions into lechery, drunkenness, and women followers who are “lunatics,” i.e. moon-crazed.
By then, men who raced were linked to the Roman cavalry and wore only goatskin loincloths. They brandished goat hide whips ( from the Latin hircus, i.e. ‘he-goat) and the women were ordered to “no longer run away” (Wiseman 14). Two hundred years and several plaques later, the women are depicted on mosaic floors and sarcophagi as being stripped to the waist, restrained by men on either side as a cavalry man whips her (Wiseman 16). According to Puhvel, the Lupercalia was then a public acting out of one type of Roman marriage—one that involved union by kidnapping coupled with lashings, and public humiliations of women.
Valentines and Lupercalia
I hope that this mythological look back into Lupercalia offers a corrective on the origin of Valentine’s Day. Although in theory, Valentine’s Day may harken very far back to seasonal practices by ancient peoples who both celebrated the protection of the underworld lunar goddess who nurtured the underworld (winter) sun as well as the return of the stronger victorious spring and summer sun goddess, that’s unlikely. To connect a day that does (however, commercially) celebrate love, sexuality, and romance to a very corrupted Roman myth tarnishes the spirit of Valentine’s while polishing the final version of Rome’s Lupercalia. Going forward, please howl at the moon like faithful wolf pairs, soak up the sunshine of flirtatious fun on February 14, but don’t buy into an ancient Roman militarized, violent ritual that in the end mocked it’s own mythic beginnings!
¹. The term “Indo-European,” refers to the huge language family that links myths, peoples, customs, and, naturally, ways of speaking across a great span of time and geography.