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p718 Lupercalia

Article by Leonhard Schmitz, Ph.D., F.R.S.E., Rector of the High School of Edinburgh
on p718 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

LUPERCA′LIA, one of the most ancient Roman festivals, which was celebrated every year in honour of Lupercus, the god of fertility.a All the ceremonies with which it was held, and all we know of its history, shows that it was originally a shepherd-festival (Plut. Caes. 61). Hence its introduction at Rome was connected with the names of Romulus and Remus, the kings of shepherds. Greek writers and their followers among the Romans represent it as a festival of Pan, and ascribe its introduction to the Arcadian Evander. This misrepresentation arose partly from the desire of these writers to identify the Roman divinities with those of Greece, and partly from its rude and almost savage ceremonies, which certainly are a proof that the festival must have originated in the remotest antiquity. The festival was held every year, on the 15th of February,b in the Lupercal, where Romulus and Remus were said to have been nurtured by the she-wolf; the place contained an altar and a grove sacred to the god Lupercus (Aurel. Vict. de Orig. Gent. Rom. 22; Ovid. Fast. II.267). Here the Luperci assembled on the day of the Lupercalia, and sacrificed to the god goats and young dogs, which animals are remarkable for their strong sexual instinct, and thus were appropriate sacrifices to the god of fertility (Plut. Rom. 21; Servius ad Aen. VIII.343).c Two youths of noble birth were then led to the Luperci, and one of the latter touched their foreheads with a sword dipped in the blood of the victims; other Luperci immediately after wiped off the bloody spots with wool dipped in milk. Hereupon the two youths were obliged to break out into a shout of laughter. This ceremony was probably a symbolical purification of the shepherds. After the sacrifice was over, the Luperci partook of a meal, at which they were plentifully supplied with wine (Val. Max. II.2.9). They then cut the skins of the goats which they had sacrificed, into pieces; with some of which they covered parts of their body in imitation of the god Lupercus, who was represented half naked and half covered with goat-skin. The other pieces of the skins they cut into thongs, and holding them in their hands they ran through the streets of the city, touching or striking with them all persons whom they met in their way, and especially women, who even used to come forward voluntarily for the purpose, since they believed that this ceremony rendered them fruitful, and procured them an easy delivery in childbearing. This act of running about with thongs of goat-skin was a symbolic purification of the land, and that of touching persons a purification of men, for the words by which this act is designated are februare and lustrare (Ovid. Fast. II.31; Fest. s.v. Februarius). The goat-skin itself was called februum, the festive day dies februata, the month in which it occurred Februarius, and the god himself Februus.

The act of purifying and fertilizing, which, as we have seen, was applied to women, was without doubt originally applied to the flocks, and to the people of the city on the Palatine (Varro, de Ling. Lat. V. p60, Bip.). Festus (s.v. Crepos) says that the Luperci were also called crepi or creppi, from their striking with goatskins (a crepitu pellicularum), but it is more probable that the name crepi was derived from crepa, which was the ancient name for goat (Fest. s.v. Caprae).

The festival of the Lupercalia, though it necessarily lost its original import at the time when the Romans were no longer a nation of shepherds, was yet always observed in commemoration of the founders of the city. Antonius, in his consulship, was one of the Luperci, and not only ran with them half-naked and covered with pieces of goat-skin through the city, but even addressed the people in the forum in this rude attire (Plut. Caes. 61). After the time of Caesar, however, the Lupercalia seem to have been neglected, for Augustus is said to have restored it (Suet. Aug. 31), but he forbade youths (imberbes) to take part in the running. The festival was henceforth celebrated regularly down to the time of the emperor Anastasius. Lupercalia were also celebrated in other towns of Italy and Gaul, for Luperci are mentioned in inscriptions of Velitrae, Praeneste, Nemausus, and other places (Orelli, Inscr. n2251, &c.). (Cf. Luperci; and Hartung, Die Relig. der Römer, vol. II p176, &c.).


Thayer's Notes:

a It would seem obvious that Lupercalia might honor a god Lupercus, but such is not the case: "Lupercus" was a god back-constructed out of the festival. The actual god(s) in whose honor the Lupercalia were kept are shrouded in mystery.

The article on this page is of necessity very summary. If you want to get a bead on the Lupercalia you could do much worse than start with a book on them running just over a hundred pages: The Lupercalia, by A. M. Franklin.

b Modern attempts to relate the Lupercalia to Valentine's Day because of the mere (approximate) date are at best very suspect. That the two occasionally get equated seems rather to be an indication of late 20c mentality, according to which a lovers' festival must necessarily derive from the titillations of ancient fertility and flagellation by goats. More to the point, there is not the slightest shred of historical evidence for the connection.

It is frequently said that in the 5c, Pope Gelasius instituted Valentine's Day, but it's not true: what he did do was issue a long stern letter (Letter 100, To Andromachus, available online for the moment unfortunately only in Latin in GoogleBooks) forbidding the celebration of the Lupercalia; in that letter, there is no mention of Valentine. When exactly the martyrdom of St. Valentine — possibly a bishop of Terni in Umbria, although there are several other candidates — started to be commemorated is shadowy, but it was well after Gelasius' time; and the popular love-celebration with all its trappings seems to date only to the late Middle Ages, or at least the earliest surviving mention of St. Valentine's feast day in connection with romantic love occurs in England around 1380, and only in passing: about birds, not people. It scarce need be added that by that time of course, the intervening Dark Ages had wiped out all popular memory of the ancient Roman festival that had last been celebrated nearly 900 years before.

At any rate, if you can see any relation between the celebration of the Lupercalia as you read it above and anyone's celebration of Valentine's Day, you're a better man than I, or you have some exceedingly odd friends. (For a perfect example of this kind of projection, though, see this fun article in the San Francisco Gate; it even quotes the article you've just read.)

From the purification of shepherds and fields and the assurance of fertility to women (conflated in a "purification of women") to the Purification of the Virgin Mary is another unwarranted leap made by some, on the tenuous grounds of coincidence and closeness of date, since the Christian feast is celebrated on the 2d of February. Fortunately, the odd notion is easily dispelled by a glance at the Bible and a calendar: see the Catholic Encyclopedia article Candlemas. This is not to say that in the decaying world of paganism and rising Christianity, there were not connections; for a careful, close look at them, see The Lupercalia in the Fifth Century (CP 26:60‑69).

Finally, leaving aside the vagaries of those who seek to reduce Christianity to a hotch-potch of pagan rituals — in case you haven't noticed, gentle reader, we're dealing with an agenda — the Lupercalia themselves have been described as including a "lottery" in which young girls would write their names on slips of paper and young men draw them out of a box (or vice-versa), under the supervision of the Luperci: this is sheer fabrication, and a recent one at that. The first mention of such an idea dates only to 1756, in Alban Butler's Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints, where the author blithely asserts (Vol. 2, s.v. February XIV, St. Valentine, Priest and Martyr) that "To abolish the heathens lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honour of their goddess Februata Juno, on the fifteenth of this month, several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets, given on this day." No trace of any such custom has been found. A Frenchman named Douce, in 1807, then dragged in the actual name of the Lupercalia; then as usual with this kind of thing, everyone repeated it until it became "true": but there is no ancient witness to any of it. It is not true.

There are a lot of things we don't know. Many people, abhorring a void, fill it up with nonsense.

c Also Plutarch, Roman Questions, 52.


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Page updated: 14 Feb 13