Update: Valentine's Day: Its Origins and Celebration Feb 13, 2015 20:15:46 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Feb 13, 2015 20:15:46 GMT -5
The Lupercalia: Forerunner of Valentine’s Day?
Well, it’s that time of year again: flowers, chocolates, champagne, seafood dinners, naughty lingerie .... And, of course, the usual crowded restaurants (and possibly crowded theaters showing the latest must-see movie). If you’re single, you may be ready to grab a six-pack, fire up Netflix and call it a weekend. But hard on the heels of Valentine’s Day, the following day in fact, is the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia, which many find much more intriguing.
The Lupercalia may be the longest-lasting of the Roman pagan festivals. Some modern Christian festivals, such as Christmas and Easter, may have assumed elements of earlier pagan religions, but they are not essentially Roman. There are scholars who believe Lupercalia dates to the founding of Rome – traditionally 753 BC – or even earlier. It ended some 1200 years later at the end of the 5th century AD, at least in the West, though it continued in the East for a few more centuries. There are likely many reasons for the Lupercalia’s longevity, but the primary reason some celebrations last for centuries is because of their wide appeal.
If all you know about the Lupercalia is that it was the background for Mark Antony’s offering the crown to Caesar in Act I of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, you probably don’t know it has associations with Valentine’s Day. Other than the Lupercalia, the major calendar event in Shakespeare’s tragedy is the Ides of March (March 15). Scholars have argued that Shakespeare did not intend to portray the Lupercalia as the day before Caesar’s assassination, but it sure seems that way. According to J.A. North, Cicero points to the danger to the Republic Caesar presented on this Lupercalia, a danger the assassins addressed on that Ides. “It was also that day on which, sodden with wine, smothered with perfumes and naked [Antony] dared to urge the groaning people of Rome into slavery by offering Caesar the diadem that symbolized the kingship,” Cicero proclaimed. Chronologically, Lupercalia was a full month before the Ides of March, i.e., February 15 or February 13-15, a period either proximate to, or covering, modern Valentine’s Day. Still, sharing a date is not enough to closely connect Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day.
Rites and Rituals of the Lupercalia. The cavorting Sodales Luperci performed an annual purification of the city during the month of purification – February. March was the beginning of the Roman new year, so February was a time to get rid of the old and prepare for the new. There were two stages to the events associated with the Lupercalia. The first was at the site where the twins Romulus and Remus were said to have been discovered being suckled by the she-wolf. This is the Lupercal. Priests sacrificed a goat and dog, the blood of which was smeared on the foreheads of young men who would soon go prancing naked around the Palatine (or sacred way), aka the Luperci. The hide of the sacrificial animals was cut into strips to be used as lashes by the Luperci following the feasting and drinking.
After the feast, the second stage began, with the Luperci running about naked, joking and hitting people with their goatskin thongs. Why the Luperci were naked is unknown. (If, during their run, the Luperci circled the Palatine Hill, it would have been impossible for Caesar, who was at the rostra, to have witnessed the entire proceedings from a single location. He could, however, have seen the end.) Striking women is believed to have been a fertility measure and this was obviously the opinion of Shakespeare’s Caesar, who reminds Antony to strike Calpurnia, saying:
Forget not, in your speed, Antonio,
To touch Calpurnia, for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.
However, there is also a decided sexual component and the women may have bared their backs to the thongs, inviting the Luperci to strike them.
Goats are symbols of sexuality and fertility. (Amalthea’s goat horn brimming with milk became the cornucopia.) One of the most lascivious of the gods was Pan/Faunus, represented with horns and a caprine lower half. Ovid (through whom we are chiefly familiar with the events of the Lupercalia) names him as the god of the Lupercalia. Before the run, the Luperci priests performed their sacrifices of goats, or goats and dogs, – Plutarch calls dogs the enemy of the wolf. This leads to another of the problems scholars discuss, the fact the flamen dialis (high priest of Jupiter) was present at the Lupercalia during the time of Augustus. This priest of Jupiter was forbidden to touch a dog or goat and may have been forbidden even to look upon a dog. It has been suggested Augustus added the presence of the flamen dialis to a ceremony at which he had earlier been absent. Another Augustan innovation may have been the goatskin on previously naked Luperci, which would have been an attempt to add decency to the ceremony.
By the second century AD, some of the elements of sexuality had been removed from the Lupercalia. Fully dressed matrons stretched out their hands to be whipped. Later, the representations depict women humiliated by flagellation at the hands of men fully dressed and no longer running about. Self-flagellation was part of the rites of Cybele on the “day of blood,” dies sanguinis (March 16). Roman flagellation could be fatal. Horace writes of horribile flagellum, but the whip so used may have been a rougher sort. Scourging became a common practice in the monastic communities. It would seem likely, considering the early church’s attitude toward women and mortification of the flesh, some of the rites and rituals of the Lupercalia had Christian associations, despite its pagan deity.
According to Wiseman, after 276 BC, young married women (matronae) were encouraged to bare their bodies. Augustus forbade beardless young men to serve as Luperci because they were considered irresistible, even though they were probably no longer naked. By the 1st century BC, some classical writers refer to the Luperci as wearing goatskin loincloths.
Unfortunately, no one knows which god, or gods, were associated with the Lupercalia. Wiseman suggests a variety of related gods may have been involved. Ovid counted Faunus as the god of the Lupercalia. For Livy, it was Inuus. Other possibilities include Mars, Juno, Pan, Lupercus, Lycaeus, Bacchus and Februus. Obviously, the god himself was less important than the festival.
Sacrifice, which was a mainstay of Roman ritual, had been prohibited since 341 AD, but the Lupercalia survived beyond this date. Generally, the end of the Lupercalia festival is attributed to Pope Gelasius (494-496) or possibly Felix III, both 5th century popes.
The ritual had become important to the civic life of Rome and was believed to aid in preventing pestilence, but it was no longer performed in the proper manner. Instead of the noble families running around naked (or in a loincloth), riffraff was running about in clothing. The pope also observed the Lupercalia was more a fertility festival than a purification rite and pestilence continued despite the ritual. The pope’s lengthy document seems to have put an end to the celebration of Lupercalia in Rome, but according to Wiseman, in Constantinople, the festival continued to the 10th century.
But getting back to the Valentine’s Day connection: the Lupercalia started as a fun event with spectators serving occasionally as willing participants, naked bodies were exposed, there was a fertility component, there was feasting and drinking and everything centered around the location where the Vestal Virgin was raped by Mars, which resulted in the birth of Romulus, the founder of Rome. It is this blend of fun, fertility and erotic elements, as well as the date, that ties Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day, but Lupercalia is not the direct, legitimate ancestor of the holiday as it is celebrated today.
Sources: N. S. Gill, Ancient History; T. P. Wiseman, "The God of the Lupercal," Journal of Roman Studies (1995), and Peg Aloi, The Witching Hour, February 13, 2015.