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 Lupercalia.
Descriptions of this holiday from any era in which it was celebrated are incomplete. Just pieces and partial descriptions, often recorded by pious Christians who were not happy with its popularity.
For Romans, Lupercalia was the most important holiday of February and they focused on purification vibes.
For example, Februare means “to purify”. And the actual day of Lupercalia, Feb 15, is Dies Februatus, which means “Purified Day”. A lustration, it first and foremost was an ancient festival celebrating the purification of the cities and fields. Many archaeologists believe the roots of this Roman celebration can be found in an Ancient Greek celebration, the Lykaia. This was an archaic festival with a secret ritual possibly dedicated to Pan. Greeks held this fest 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 festival, Romans tied it to Remus and Romulus, the twin boys reared by a she-wolf. Remus and Romulus 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. James Frazer says they are “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 was about “waking up and purifying” the Earth, and at a very appropriate time; just before the New Year started at Spring Equinox.
There is conjecture amongst historians as to who folks 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, the “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 Lupercalia, would erect a statue of a man, nude except for a goatskin.
They sacrificed a goat. They ran back and forth through the streets wearing only goatskin loincloths, whipping people with thongs or whips called februum. In Caesar’s era, the sons of noble houses were the Priests. Folks ran butt nekkid 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. 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.
Lascivious Romans celebrated Lupercalia for over 700 years until nearly 500CE, long after the Roman Catholic Church forbid the practice. We know Romans observed other festivals and rituals like this, but information about them is lost.
So, there is some back story on this holiday, which is pretty frisky all by itself.
Now I debunk some of the stuff added on over the ages.
Is Lupercalia the ancient root of Valentine’s Day?
Nope. We don’t know exactly when people started to celebrate St. Valentine but it 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.
Were the Lupercalia purification rites the same as the Catholic/Candlemas purification rites of the Virgin Mary?
It is entirely possible that these holy events both 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.
Was Lupercalia a lottery where men won young girls to be their dates for the night (or week or whatever)??
The first time we see this unfortunate scenario mentioned is by the Christian author Alban Butler, in his interesting 1756 CE work Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints. Turns out, this was custom during some English and Scottish Catholic Spring observances.
How can we modern Pagans work with this holiday?
Romans celebrated Lupercalia February 13-15. However, usually in the ancient world, people fixed dates to the movement of a celestial body like the Moon (instead of an arbitrary numbered system like our modern calendar.) So you can celebrate this festival on the 13th, 14th, and 15th days (the days/nights that align with the Full Moon). Or you can just celebrate this on February 13-15. I update the Wheel of the Year calendar every year with the accurate lunar cycles. In 2023, these dates fall on Feb 5-7.
In ritual, magical, and seasonal work, Lupercalia sits as a continuance of 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 work with Lupercalia as the first forays into “waking ourselves up” and coming back from the Winter Underworld Journey. 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 kinky activities, the SM connections are obvious. Include any kind of extra spicy pain/pleasure activities that are safe and sexy for you. Especially potent magical tool are whips or floggers. Adding these to 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.
Thinking about the Underworld Journey, what parts of you still feel like they are asleep, or hibernating?
Are there parts of you that want to stay asleep?
What parts do you wake up first?
Name the parts of you that are already starting to wake up.
Are there parts are you nursing or protecting because they are not ready for the world, yet?
What would you like to found or start-up this year?
Do you need to ‘clear out,’ ‘repair,’ or ‘restore’ anything in your life before the next activity cycle begins?
What wants to be fertile?
What wants to spark or invigorate?
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2 thoughts on “Lupercalia: The Risqué History of this Frisky Festival!”
Thank you for all this great information I am working on a novel involving Scottish Wytches/ Irish and Norse Viking -Werewolves and a Catholic Friar. They are traveling to Greece did the 16th century Greeks participate or celebrate Lupercalia?
What Celtic/Pagan ties were there?
Thank you for any help or guidance.
Y’know, that’s a great question! Officially the Catholic Church ‘cancelled’ this festival in the 400’s CE, but when Shakespeare wrote Julius Ceasar he starts the play during Lupercalia, so folks in 1599 CE certainly knew about it. Also, something to consider the immense amount of influence Rome/Roman culture had over Western Europe, especially in Celtic lands like the British Isles. Many of the words still in use today in countries like Wales, Scotland, Ireland, even the way time is conceptualized, are rooted in Latin or deeply conjoined with the Roman equivalent. Further, as I talk about in this article and in other writings on this site pertaining to Imbolc, there is a persistent theme of ‘purification’ and ‘fertility’ in both festivals, both connected to milk and some kind of physical intensity, like being whipped.
I found the Wikipedia page on Lupercalia was a great place to start my research: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupercalia
Hope this helps!