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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 9
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Lupercalia

by Alberta Mildred Franklin

New York, 1921

The text is in the public domain.

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 p96  Chapter X

More than a thousand years before the Christian era, we may imagine the hills upon the Tiber occupied by scattered clans of Ligurians. From their remote ancestors they had inherited a religion that was mainly of fear, and that sought to propitiate the invisible forces that seemed lurking to do harm. To the people of Italy the wolf was a constant object of terror, and so it had very early come to typify this destructive power. Accordingly the tribes dwelling near the Palatine came to the Lupercal and tried to propitiate the wolf-deity that dwelt there. They offered a goat from their herds, then fled with all speed from the scene of the slaughter of a sacred animal. Afterward, having expiated their guilt, they returned to the cave, to partake in sacramental fashion of the victim. In this, its earliest stage, the Lupercalia was an apotropaic rite whose purpose was protection against evil.

When the terremara folk settled upon the Palatine, they found the cult at the wolf-cave too long established and too deeply venerated to be eradicated or disregarded. Therefore they incorporated it into their religion, and had their own priests share in the ritual. Yet the part assigned to the new‑comers was shadowy; the Ligurian priests performed all the significant rites. In time the practical Romans observed that the goat-sacrifice which they offered at the Lupercal lacked the vigor possessed by it in the neighboring cults of Juno Caprotina and Juno Lucina, in which blows from the victim's hide assured to the worshippers the entrance of the god's life-giving power. So they proceeded to reinforce the rite of Lupercus with these cult-acts of Juno. Thus the Lupercalia had a new purpose added to the old one: it now served to assure the people of fertility.

After the cult of the dog had appeared in Italy, a dog‑sacrifice was regarded as an especially potent means of purification. It was, accordingly, adopted by the Sabines, an intensely devout people, who regarded man's impurity as the root of all disaster. It is not hard to believe that, when the Sabines took under their care some of the oldest chthonic cults of Rome, and devoted the month of  p97 February wholly to cleansing rites, they sought to add potency to the Lupercalia, which occurred in the middle of this lustral period, by including in its rites the sacrifice of a dog. According to the interpretation of the Sabines, the Lupercalia could best perform its old purpose of protection and fertility by assuring the people of purification.

As directed by the Roman priesthood, Rome's religion tended to become stereotyped and formalistic. At a time of peril it could offer little of support or of comfort. Consequently the dark days of the war with Hannibal witnessed the reception in Rome of an unbroken succession of chthonic gods and of their orgiastic rites. The outworn festivals of the native gods, who no longer helped the people, were revivified by the addition of Greek ceremonies. Such a time affords a natural setting for the introduction into the Lupercalia of acts which resemble nothing except the rite of the Orphics. These Orphic ceremonies possessed a power of lustration so strong that they assured to the celebrant an entrance into a new state, where he was one with the gods. Therefore if the effete ceremonial of the Lupercalia was reinforced by the Orphic sprinkling with blood for perfect cleansing, and the mystic use of milk in token of new life, it was a logical culmination of a festival that sought to protect the people from harm by making them pure.

In the development of the Lupercalia, the old was not replaced by the new so much as reinterpreted by it. Protection against evil involved, on its positive side, the assurance of productivity. For that, cleanness of the worshipper was essential, hence the ceremony became dominantly lustral. According to later theology, when man was fully cleansed, he became akin to the gods. Having thus been reinforced by successive new ideas, this oldest of Rome's festivals was the last to succumb to Christianity. Even when Pope Gelasius abrogated it, he softened his act by establishing on the same day a festival celebrating the purification of the Virgin.​1 Thus transformed, the Lupercalia, in its essential meaning, continued to live on.

The Author's Note:

1 Baronius, Annales Ecclesiastici, 8.60 fol.

Thayer's Note: This is not a fact, but merely a conjecture by Baronius; and, unfortunately for the blithe concluding sentence of Franklin's paper, an altogether mistaken one that she should have caught, since it had already been pointed out by Usener in 1889. Pope Gelasius did not create the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin out of the Lupercalia: his letter against Andromachus merely forbade Catholics to celebrate or perform the rites of the Lupercalia. Baronius confused the 40th day after Christmas, February 2 — set by Scripture (Leviticus 12.2‑4) as the date of the Purification of the Virgin — with a 40th day after Epiphany, a feast specific to Jerusalem but of no particular import in Rome and not celebrated there. See the first paragraph of William M. Green, "The Lupercalia in the Fifth Century", CP XXVI, pp60‑69 (and note 4 there); and the article Candlemas in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907‑1914).

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Page updated: 10 Jul 19