The Roman Festival of Lupercalia

The festival of Lupercalia was held every year on February 15th in honor of Faunus, the god of agriculture, Luperca, the she-wolf who nursed Romulus, and Remus, the founders of Rome. The festival was originally a purification rite that was meant to cleanse people of any evil influences.

One of the most important rituals of Lupercalia was the sacrifice of a goat. The goat’s blood was wiped on the foreheads of two young men, who would then be given whips made from the goat’s skin. The men would walk around the city whipping any women they came across in order to “purify” them and ensure good health for all by driving out evil spirits. Meanwhile, other men would run around the city naked except for a loincloth of animal skin.

The hides of goats were used to protect them from the sharp rocks on the ground. Although goat hide may seem like an uncomfortable choice, it had two major advantages: First, goat hide is thinner than human skin, so wearing it wouldn’t get in the way of running quickly around the city. Second, goat hide is very durable and can withstand multiple beatings from a whip. The runners would also carry strips of goatskin to strike women with as they ran by them.

The Roman Festival of Lupercalia

The men who were running around whipping women weren’t priests or anything like that; they were just normal citizens who had been elected to do the job for a year. In to the rituals involving whipping, there was also a feast at Lupercalia where many goats were eaten alongside a lot of wine and music. There would be a feast for the priests and another one for everyone else that night as well as a big celebration on top of Palatine Hill.

The festival came to an end near the fifth century CE when Pope Gelasius I declared that Lupercalia was heathen and not in keeping with the Christian faith. He had some very unflattering things to say about it as well, namely that it had more to do with fertility than purification and that he was horrified at all of the half-naked children running around. He also declared that Lupercalia was connected with pagan rituals concerning human sacrifice. Apparently, there were rumors of infants being killed at this time. His decree put an end to the celebration of Lupercalia in Rome but it continued on in Constantinople until the tenth century CE.

The Roman Festival of Lupercalia
The Lupercalian Festival in Rome (ca. 1578–1610), drawing by the circle of Adam Elsheimer, showing the Luperci dressed as dogs and goats, with Cupid and personifications of fertility.

St.Valentine’s Day is very popular today and although it does have roots in paganism, many Christians celebrate it without any knowledge of its origins or practices during that time period. Although Gelasius I had some strong feelings about Lupercalia, when Catholicism spread throughout Europe the holiday became associated with love and romance rather than fertility. There are several things commonly associated with St.Valentine’s day such as Love, flowers, chocolates, and cards which all began in medieval times when mourning for St Valentine’s became a widespread tradition.

The medieval texts give two examples of valentines or “envoys of love” as they called them: The first was written by Charles, Duke of Orléans to his wife while he was a prisoner in the Tower of London after being captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The second is a poem about the kidnapping and murder of one young man by another entitled “The Parliament of Fowls”. The latter poem contains an allusion to a third envoy which we don’t know anything about because it only survives in fragmentary form.

It wasn’t until Chaucer wrote “Parlement of Foules” that we get any real information on how people might have used these poems during medieval times. Chaucer says that it was the duty of birds to seek their mates during certain days in order to ensure successful reproduction while other animals would seek out a mate on specific days depending on their mating habits. Birds, he says are governed by reason and are attracted to songs while “irrational” creatures are moved by external stimuli such as the wind or other forces which cannot be controlled by humans.

He also gives an example of how people might use these poems in real life when he describes how two young men used envoys of love written by Christine de Pisan on St Valentine’s Day. The first young man wrote an envoy addressed to someone who couldn’t read but composed a poem for her anyway, not knowing precisely whom it was for, but simply following the dictates of his heart. The second young man’s envoy and poem were meant for a specific person and their conversation was very pleasant as a result.

Christine de Pisan
Christine de Pisan

The medieval period is often characterized as dark and full of oppression but this custom shows that it wasn’t all bad. People still sought out companionship, still used language to express their feelings, and still sought out love just as we do now. It’s interesting to see how this seemingly arbitrary tradition can be tied back to something we know so little about such as Lupercalia or paganism in general.

Another thing I find fascinating about St Valentine’s Day is the link between religion and romance which has not always been there; people have long celebrated fertility and romantic love with different rituals and customs all throughout history. Whether or not we agree that the modern holiday is still about fertility, it seems clear that Lupercalia was associated with fertility during Roman times and perhaps there are still remnants of pagan rituals concerning love and romance in our culture even today.

more info: The Lupercalia


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