February 15: The Roman Festival of Lupercalia5 min read
Originally written on February 15, 2020. Updated on Feb.15 2023
Lupercalia was one of the most ancient of the Roman holidays, one of the feriae listed on ancient calendars from even before the time Julius Caesar reformed the calendar. It was held each year in Rome on this day, February 15.
Although Valentine’s Day shares its name with a (well, one of many) martyred Christian saint, some historians believe the holiday is actually an offshoot of Lupercalia. Unlike our modern Valentine’s Day, however, Lupercalia was a bloody, violent and sexually-charged celebration filled with animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and coupling in the hopes of warding off evil spirits and infertility.
Despite no one knows its exact origin, Lupercalia may have started at the time of the founding of Rome (traditionally 753 B.C.) or even before, coming from Greek Arcadia and honoring Lycaean Pan, the Roman Inuus or Faunus. And, not by chance, “Lycaean” is a word connected with the Greek for wolf, as seen in the term lycanthropy for werewolf. It ended about 1200 years later, at the end of the 5th century A.D., at least in the West, although it continued in the East for another few centuries.
There may be many reasons why Lupercalia lasted so long, but most important must have been its wide appeal.
According to Roman legend, the ancient King Amulius ordered Romulus and Remus (his twin nephews and, according to tradition, founders of Rome) to be thrown into the Tiber River to drown in retribution for their mother’s broken vow of celibacy.
A servant took pity on them, however, and placed them inside a basket on the river instead. The river-god carried the basket and the children downriver to a wild fig tree where it became caught in the branches. The brothers were then rescued and cared for by a she-wolf in a den at the base of Palatine Hill where Rome was founded.
The twins were later adopted by a shepherd and his wife and learned their father’s trade. After killing the uncle who’d ordered their death, they found the cave den of the she-wolf who’d nurtured them and named it Lupercal. It’s thought Lupercalia took place to honor the she-wolf and please the Roman fertility god Lupercus.
Lupercalia rituals traditionally took place in Lupercal cave, on Palatine Hill and within the Roman open-air, a public meeting place known as Comitium. The festival began at Lupercal cave with the sacrifice, performed by a group of Roman priests, or Luperci, of one or more male goats, symbols of sexuality and fertility, and a dog. Etymologically, Luperci, Lupercalia, and Lupercal all relate to the Latin for “wolf”, lupus, as do various Latin words connected with brothels. The Latin for she-wolf was slang for prostitute.
Afterwards, the foreheads of two naked Luperci were smeared with the animals’ blood using the bloody, sacrificial knife, and the blood was then removed with a piece of milk-soaked wool.
In Ancient Rome, feasting began after the ritual sacrifice. When the feast of Lupercal was over, the Luperci cut strips, also called thongs or februa, of goat hide from the newly-sacrificed goats.
They then ran naked (or nearly-naked) around Palatine, or sacred way, whipping any woman within striking distance with the thongs. Many women welcomed the lashes and even bared their skin to receive the fertility rite. Interestingly, the lashes represented is a mystery and there are, still today, only speculations. Perhaps the Luperci struck men and women to sever any deadly influence they were under. That they might be under such an influence has to do with the fact that one of the festivals to honor the dead, the Parentalia, occurred at about the same time.
During Lupercalia, the men also randomly chose a woman’s name from a jar to be coupled with them for the duration of the festival. Often, the couple stayed together until the following year’s festival, but many fell in love and married.
Over time, nakedness during Lupercalia lost popularity. The festival became more chaste, if still undignified, and women were whipped on their hands by fully-clothed men.
Either way, thanks to Saint Valentine’s reputation as a “patron of lovers,” he became synonymous with romance.
In the late 5th century A.D., Pope Gelasius I eliminated the pagan celebration of Lupercalia and declared February 14 a day to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine instead, although it’s highly unlikely he intended the day to commemorate love and passion.
The ritual had become important to the civic life of Rome and was believed to help prevent pestilence but, as the pope charged, it was no longer being performed in the proper manner. Instead of the noble families running around naked (or in a loincloth), riffraff was running around clothed. The pope also mentioned that it was more a fertility festival than a purification rite and there was pestilence even when the ritual was performed. In any case, the pope’s lengthy document seems to have put an end to the celebration of Lupercalia in Rome, but in Constantinople, apparently, the festival continued to the tenth century.
Like many ancient traditions, there’s a lot of haziness surrounding the origins and rituals of Lupercalia and how they influenced Valentine’s Day. But It’s also true Valentine’s Day uses some of Lupercalia’s symbols, intentionally or not, such as the color red which represented a blood sacrifice during Lupercalia and the color white which signified the milk used to wipe the blood clean and represents new life and procreation.
And, finally, I also add that Valentine’s Day is not the only festival that presumably comes from the Roman Lupercalia. Even the carnival draws some aspects from these celebrations, such as chaos and purification. But that’s another story!