Whips. Wolves. A lottery where girls are given to men. Sex in the streets. The Pagan root of Valentine’s Day.
History and misinformation has put A LOT at the feet of this ancient Roman festival. Let’s take a look at what was possibly the truth and what is modern projection on the holiday known as Lupercalia.
It’s important to remember that we do not a have a complete description of this holiday from any era that it was celebrated, just pieces and partial descriptions, often recorded by pious Christians who were not happy with its popularity.
Lupercalia was the most important holiday of February, which gets its name from februare “to purify.” The actual day of Lupercalia, Feb 15 was known as Dies Februatus, “Purified Day.” A lustration, it first and foremost was an ancient festival observed by Romans to celebrate the purification of the cities and the fields surrounding them. Many archaeologists believe the roots of this Roman celebration can be found in an Ancient Greek celebration, the Lykaia, an archaic festival with a secret ritual possibly dedicated to Pan, on the slopes of Mount Lykaion (“Wolf Mountain”), the tallest peak in rustic Arcadia. Lykaia may have had something to do with the rites of passage for pubescent or adolescent boys (epheboi), and rites concerned with lycanthropy; either the invoking of shape-changing powers or the protection from werewolves.
From the earliest recordings of the Lupercalia festival, it also seems to have been tied to Remus and Romulus, the twin boys who were reared by a she-wolf, and founded the city of Rome in the Lupercal, a cave or grotto at the foot of the Palatine in South Western Rome. From it issued a spring.
These types of rituals are some of the most common we will find in Pagan practices. as James Frazer says, “to repel the powers of evil and so to liberate the powers of good, thus promoting the fertility at once of man, of beast, and of the earth.” This really was about “waking up and purifying” the Earth, and at a very appropriate time, just before the New Year started at Spring Equinox.
There’s conjecture as to who, if any specific deity was worshiped at Lupercalia.
Faunas, Bacchus, Lupercus, Juno, Pan, Lycaeus, Inuus, many figures have been suggested. Some authors have even suggested the rites were dedicated to Februus, “spirit” of February, or the “spirit” or idea of purification. In one record, of an estate which was conducting the rituals, “Father God Mars” is called upon to protect and purify the house, lands, people, and livestock. An interesting connection, considering the God-Father of Remus and Romulus was Mars.
However, Lupercalia was also intended to “stir up” the virility and fertility of Roman citizens, matrons, and women who wanted to get pregnant in particular, coming out of the sleepy hibernation of Winter, and here is where we see how the holiday gets its wild reputation.
Luperci, priests in charge of the festivities, would erect a statue of a man, nude except for a goatskin. They sacrificed a goat. Then they ran back and forth through the streets wearing only goatskin loincloths, whipping people with goatskin thongs or whips called februum. In Caesar’s era, this part was played by the sons of noble houses, and folks ran butt nekkid out into the streets, stretching out their legs and backsides to make sure the priests had plenty of real estate to aim for. But as Christian rule overcame Pagan Rome, it was relegated to the lower classes to enact the rituals, and women kept their clothes on, holding their hands out for their palms to be whipped. (Romans still felt the rituals needed to be enacted, they just couldn’t be seen doing it themselves.).
There’s also some discussion around the holiday being a throwback to Rome’s early years as a nation of shepherds. While this festival was primarily about Rome, we see records of other cities in Italy and Gaul celebrating as well.
It was celebrated for over 700 years until nearly 500CE, and long after it had been banned by the Roman Catholic Church. We know Romans had other festivals and rituals like this, but information about them has been lost.
There’s some back story on this holiday, which pretty frisky all by itself. So, let’s debunk some of the stuff that has been added on over the ages.
Lupercalia is the ancient root of Valentine’s Day.
Nope. We don’t know exactly when St. Valentine started to be celebrated but was waaaay after this holiday came and went. And it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that St. Valentines Day became even remotely connected with lovey-dovey stuff, and then it’s about birds and not people. It’s hard to imagine after 900 years of Catholic oppression that many of the simple folk remembered anything directly connected to this celebration.
The Lupercalia purification rites are the same as the Catholic/Candlemas purification rites of the Virgin Mary.
It’s entirely possible that these holy events occur at this time of year because this whole season celebrates purification, but they are not THE SAME holiday. In fact, Pope Gelasius wrote a long ass smack down forbidding the celebration.
Lupercalia was a lottery where young girls were given to men to be their dates for the night (or week or whatever.)
The first time this unfortunate scenario is mentioned is in 1756 CE by the Christian author Alban Butler, in his interesting work Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints. Turns out, this was a custom associated with some English and Scottish Catholic Spring observances.
How can we modern Pagans work with this holiday?
You can, of course, use it as a continuance of the other purification work we’re doing during Imbolc season.
We can use it as a great time to look at our “fields,” aka the parts of our life, our homes, our yards, our internet worlds, etc. where we are thinking about making some stuff happen. Merely survey the situation.
We can also use it as the first forays into “waking ourselves up” and begin to start to commence to get ready to start to begin to get prepared for the thing. Of course, this can and probably should include some thoroughly inappropriate behavior that gets the blood to the skin and the laughter flowing.
For folks who enjoy kink and polyamorous activities, the SM connections are obvious, and including any kind of extra frisky pain/pleasure activities in one of your late Winter rituals is completely in the flow of this holy day.
We don’t have to kick it into high gear right this second, but Lupercalia comes along at just the correct time to remind us it’s nearly about time to open our eyes, yawn, and begin to stretch after our long Winter’s sleep and get ready to face the new Day of the approaching Spring.
Here’s some journaling prompts for you to work with during Lupercalia.
What parts of you still feel like they are asleep, or hibernating?
What parts of you want to stay asleep?
What parts do you want to wake up first?
What parts of you are beginning to wake up?
What parts of ourselves are we nursing and protecting, because they are not ready for the world, yet?
What would we like to found or start-up this year?
What’s going to need to be cleared out?
What’s going to need to be repaired before use next cycle?
What wants to be fertile?
What wants to spark or invigorate?
Imbolc – A Six Week Guide to Candlemass & The Quickening
Subscribe to my Patreon!
Attend or download my Six Week Guide to the Witch’s Sabbats
And follow me on social media…
Patreon subscribers had early access to this piece.