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Chapter 1
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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Chapter 3

 p18  Chapter II
The Ceremonial of the Lupercalia

At the outset of our studies of the Lupercalia we need a clear picture of the ceremonial acts. Though the Lupercalia was very frequently mentioned by ancient writers, Plutarch alone gives all the details of the ritual. His portrayal, therefore, will serve as a general survey.

"The Lupercalia," says Plutarch,​1 "from the time of its celebration, might seem to be a ceremony of purification, for it is performed in the ill‑omened days of the month of February, a period which any one would interpret as devoted to expiation; furthermore the very day of the Lupercalia was in olden times called The Purification. But the name of this festival is the same as Lycaea in Greek, and for this reason it seems to be a very ancient festival of the Arcadian immigrants who followed Evander. But this is merely the general explanation, for the name may, in fact, have been derived from the she‑wolf [of the Romulus legend]. And, indeed, we believe that the Luperci begin their race about the city at the spot where, they tell us, Romulus was exposed. The ceremonial, however, makes the origin of the rite hard to guess. For goats are slain, then two boys of noble rank are led up to the victim, and a sword which has been dipped into blood is pressed upon their foreheads, after which the blood is immediately wiped off with a bit of wool moistened in milk. The blood having been removed, the lads must laugh. After this [the Luperci] cut the hides of the goats into strips and, naked except for a girdle, they run about [the Palatine], striking with the thongs everyone whom they meet. The young women do not shun the blows, since they believe that they will avail for the conception and easy delivery of children. A peculiar feature of the festival is that the Luperci also sacrifice a dog."2

In this passage it is significant that Plutarch does not name the god in whose honor the Lupercalia was celebrated. The Romans, in fact, associated many deities with the Lupercalia: Lupercus, Faunus, Inuus, Februus, and, more frequently than any Roman god, Pan, or Pan Lycaeus.​3 They seem, furthermore, to have connected the festival with Juno, since the strips with which the  p19 Luperci smote the women were called amicula Iunonis.​4 Thus the Romans seem to have had no definite idea of the patron god of the Lupercalia. To decide, if possible, what god was originally worshipped at the wolf's cave will be an important point in our study.

Though they knew so little of the deity of the Lupercalia, the Romans had definite ideas about its purpose. Very frequently the blows dealt by the Luperci are mentioned as assuring to women productivity. In later times this idea of propagation was extended also to the crops.​5 In the minds of the ancients fertility was closely related to purification, for it was by purification from evil powers that the forces of life became active.​6 Consequently by the time of Varro the Lupercalia was regarded as one of the most important lustrations of the state.​7 The idea that the Lupercalia would keep away misfortune of all sorts, such as pestilence, barrenness, famine, war, drought, hail, and tempest, was stressed during later years. Again and again Pope Gelasius chided the people for attributing all these disasters to the cessation of the Lupercalia.​8 These interpretations of the Greeks and the Romans are essentially consistent, being merely different versions of the same idea, for the apotropaic rite which serves to banish evil or to render it inactive results in the freeing of all beneficent forces.

The Lupercalia was probably founded even before the Romans settled on the Palatine,​9 and it continued until 395 A.D., when it was abolished by the edict of Pope Gelasius.​10 This long existence gives the natural explanation both of the incongruous ritual acts which composed the ceremonial, and of the ignorance of the Romans concerning the presiding deity. The Lupercalia should be studied, not as the product of a particular period, but as a cult-complex.​11 It was, in a measure, an epitome of the religious experience of the Romans, and, like a vital organism, it developed now one side, now another, according to the needs of a people that passed from the state of simple shepherds to that of the masters of the world.

The Author's Notes:

1 Plut., Rom.  2131.

2 In addition to the above cult-features, there were offered at the Lupercalia the mola salsa, or salt cakes, which were made by the Vestal Virgins from the first  p20 grain of the harvest. These cakes were also offered at the Vestalia and on the Ides of September (Serv. ad Verg., Ecl., 8.82). This is obviously a ceremony that is associated primarily with the ritual of the Vestal Virgins rather than with the Lupercalia, and an adequate explanation of it would involve a survey of the cult of Vesta. Hence it cannot be included in the present study.

Ovid (Fast., 2.282) says that the Flamen Dialis officiated at the Lupercalia; but Dr. Fowler (R. F., 313) points out the impossibility of his having performed the sacrifice, since it was unlawful for him to touch either a goat or a dog. It is impossible to explain the presence of the Flamen Dialis at the Lupercalia without an examination of the history and the significance of that obscure minister. Hence that too, like the offering of the mola salsa, lies outside the scope of the present study.

3 For the discussion of these various deities, see pp36‑8, 82 n. 55.

4 See p62.

5 Lyd., de Mens., 4.25.

6 Rohde, I.247; Samter, Die Familienfesten der Griechen und Römer, 12.

7 Var., L. L., 6.34.

8 Gelas., adv. Androm., 13, 21, 24, et al.

9 See pp38‑9.

10 Baronius, Annal. Eccles., VIII.60 fol.

11 This theory is advocated by Dr. Deubner, Lupercalia, in Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, vol. XIII, 1910, 481, et passim.

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Page updated: 19 May 20