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It’s kind of fun to do the impossible. Walt Disney

February 14, 2009

Lupercalia

Observed by

Roman, Pre-Roman Civilizations

Type

Pagan, Historical

Date

February 13February 15

Lupercalia was a very ancient, Roman pastoral festival, observed on February 13 through February 15 to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. The Lupercalia was believed in antiquity to have some connection with the Ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia (from Ancient Greek: λύκοςlykos, “wolf”, Latin lupus) and the worship of Lycaean Pan, the Greek equivalent to Faunus, as instituted by Evander.

In Roman mythology, Lupercus is a god sometimes identified with the Roman god Faunus, who is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan. Lupercus is the god of shepherds. His festival, celebrated on the anniversary of the founding of his temple on February 15, was called the Lupercalia. His priests wore goatskins. The second-century Christian apologist Justin Martyr mentions an image of “the Lycaean god, whom the Greeks call Pan and the Romans Lupercus,”  nude save for the girdle of goatskin, which stood in the Lupercal, the cave where Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf. There, on the Ides of February, a goat and a dog were sacrificed, and salt mealcakes prepared by the Vestal Virgins were burnt.

 

The celebration during the Late Republic and Empire

Plutarch described Lupercalia:

Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.

The Lupercalia festival was partly in honor of Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome,  explaining the name of the festival, Lupercalia, or “Wolf Festival.” The festival was celebrated near the cave of Lupercal on the Palatine (where Rome was founded, see Livy, Book I), to expiate and purify new life in the Spring. The Lupercal cave, which had fallen into a state of decay, was rebuilt by Augustus; the celebration of the festival had been maintained, as we know from the famous occurrence of it in 44 BC. A highly decorated cavern 50 feet below Augustus’ palace in the correct approximate location was discovered by archeologists in October 2007, which may prove to be the Lupercal cave when analyzed.

The religious ceremonies were directed by the Luperci, the “brothers of the wolf (lupus)”, a corporation of priests of Faunus, dressed only in a goatskin, whose institution is attributed either to the Arcadian Evander, or to Romulus and Remus. The Luperci were divided into two collegia, called Quinctiliani (or Quinctiales) and Fabiani, from the gens Quinctilia (or Quinctia) and gens Fabia; at the head of each of these colleges was a magister. In 44 BC. a third college, the Julii, was instituted in honor of Julius Caesar, the first magister of which was Mark Antony. In imperial times the members were usually of equestrian standing.

The festival began with the sacrifice by the Luperci (or the flamen dialis) of two male goats and a dog.[6] Next two young patrician Luperci were led to the altar, to be anointed on their foreheads with the sacrificial blood, which was wiped off the bloody knife with wool soaked in milk, after which they were expected to smile and laugh.

The sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs from the skins of the victims, which were called Februa, dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats, in imitation of Lupercus, and ran round the walls of the old Palatine city, the line of which was marked with stones, with the thongs in their hands in two bands, striking the people who crowded near. Girls and young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from these whips. This was supposed to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ease the pains of childbirth. This tradition itself may survive (Christianised, and shifted to Spring) in certain ritual Easter Monday whippings.

The Lupercalia in the fifth century

By the fifth century, when the public performance of pagan rites had been outlawed, a nominally Christian Roman populace still clung to the Lupercalia in the time of Gelasius (494–96). It had been literally degraded since the first century, when in 44 BC the consul Mark Antony did not scruple to run with the Luperci; now the upper classes left the festivities to the rabble, prompting Pope Gelasius I‘s taunt to the senators who would preserve it: “If you assert that this rite has salutary force, celebrate it yourselves in the ancestral fashion; run nude yourselves that you may properly carry out the mockery.” The remark was addressed to the senator Andromachus by Gelasius in an extended literary epistle that was virtually a diatribe against the Lupercalia. Gelasius finally abolished the Lupercalia after a long dispute.

 

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