Lupercalia in Ancient Rome

The Dark Origins Of Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day is a time to celebrate romance and love and kissy-face fealty. But the origins of this festival of candy and cupids are actually dark, bloody — and a bit muddled.

A drawing depicts the death of St. Valentine — one of them, anyway. The Romans executed two men by that name on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

A drawing depicts the death of St. Valentine — one of them, anyway. The Romans executed two men by that name on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Though no one has pinpointed the exact origin of the holiday, one good place to start is ancient Rome, where men hit on women by, well, hitting them.

Those Wild And Crazy Romans

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From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.

The Roman romantics "were drunk. They were naked," says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.

The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.

The ancient Romans may also be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on Feb. 14 of different years in the 3rd century A.D. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine's Day.

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Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine's Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. But the festival was more of a theatrical interpretation of what it had once been. Lenski adds, "It was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it. That didn't stop it from being a day of fertility and love."

Around the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatin's Day. Galatin meant "lover of women." That was likely confused with St. Valentine's Day at some point, in part because they sound alike.

William Shakespeare helped romanticize Valentine's Day in his work, and it gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe. Perry-Castañeda Library, University of Texas hide caption

William Shakespeare helped romanticize Valentine's Day in his work, and it gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe.

Perry-Castañeda Library, University of Texas

Shakespeare In Love

As the years went on, the holiday grew sweeter. Chaucer and Shakespeare romanticized it in their work, and it gained popularity throughout Britain and the rest of Europe. Handmade paper cards became the tokens-du-jour in the Middle Ages.


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Eventually, the tradition made its way to the New World. The industrial revolution ushered in factory-made cards in the 19th century. And in 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Mo., began mass producing valentines. February has not been the same since.

Today, the holiday is big business: According to market research firm IBIS World, Valentine's Day sales reached $17.6 billion last year this year's sales are expected to total $18.6 billion.

But that commercialization has spoiled the day for many. Helen Fisher, a sociologist at Rutgers University, says we have only ourselves to blame.

"This isn't a command performance," she says. "If people didn't want to buy Hallmark cards, they would not be bought, and Hallmark would go out of business."

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And so the celebration of Valentine's Day goes on, in varied ways. Many will break the bank buying jewelry and flowers for their beloveds. Others will celebrate in a SAD (that's Single Awareness Day) way, dining alone and binging on self-gifted chocolates. A few may even be spending this day the same way the early Romans did. But let's not go there.

Lupercalia in Ancient Rome - History

The festival Lupercalia is uniquely Roman, but even the Romans of the first century were at a loss to explain exactly which deity or deities were being exalted. It harkens back to the days when Rome was nothing more than a few shepherds living on a hill known as Palatine and was surrounded by wilderness teeming with wolves.

Lupercus, protector of flocks against wolves, is a likely candidate to be honored by the festival (the word lupus is Latin for wolf) or perhaps Faunus, the god of agriculture and shepherds. Others suggest it was Rumina, the goddess whose temple stood near the fig tree under which the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus. There is no question about Lupercalia's importance. Records indicate that Mark Antony was master of the Luperci College of Priests. He chose the Lupercalia festival of the year 44BC as the proper time to offer the crown to Julius Caesar.

Celebrated in February, which occurred later on the ancient Roman calendar than it does today, the Lupercalia was held in early spring and can be regarded as a festival of purification and fertility. Each year on February 15, the Luperci priests gathered on Palatine Hill at the cave of Lupercal . Vestal virgins brought sacred cakes made from the first ears of last year's grain harvest to the fig tree. Two naked young men, assisted by the Vestals, sacrificed a dog and a goat at the site. The sacrificial blood was smeared on the foreheads of the young men and then wiped away with wool dipped in milk. The youths then donned loincloths made from the skin of the goat and led groups of priests around the pomarium, the sacred boundary of the ancient city, and around the base of the hills of Rome . The occasion was happy and festive. As they ran about the city, the young men lightly struck women along the way with strips of the goat hide. It is from these implements of purification, called februa, that the month of February gets its name. This ritual act supposedly provided purification from curses, bad luck, and infertility.

Roman armies took the Lupercalia customs with them as they invaded France and Britain . One of these was a lottery where the names of available maidens were placed in a box and drawn out by the young men. Each man accepted the girl whose name he drew as his love - for the duration of the festival, or sometimes even longer.

The Lupercalia was a very ancient, possibly pre-Roman pastoral festival, observed on February 15 to avert evil spirits, purify the Roman city, and ensure health and fertility for its citizens. It was also thought to honor the god Pan.

The festival was celebrated near the cave of Lupercal on the Palatine (one of the seven hills of Rome), to expiate and purify new life in the Spring. The Lupercal cave, which had fallen into a state of decay, was rebuilt by Augustus despite the cave’s disrepair, the celebration of the festival itself had always been maintained, as we know from the famous occurrence of it in 44 BC.

The religious ceremonies of the Lupercalia 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) viz. gens Fabia at the head of each of these colleges was a magister, or magistrate. In 44 BC. a third college, Luperci Julii, was instituted in honor of Julius Caesar, the first magister of which was Mark Anthony. In imperial times the members of these colleges were usually of equestrian standing.

The festival day began with the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog. Next two patrician young 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 the youths were expected to smile and laugh the smearing of the forehead with blood probably refers to human sacrifice originally practiced at the festival.

A sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs (which were called Februa) from the skins of the sacrificed animals, dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats, ,in imitation of Lupercus himself, and then ran in two groups round the walls of the old Palatine city, the line of which was marked with stones, with the thongs in their hands, hitting the girls and young women who crowded along the edge of the course. This ritual was supposed to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ease the pains of childbirth. This tradition itself may survive (albeit Christianized and shifted to Spring) in certain ritual flagellations associated with Easter Monday.

Lupercalia as an ancient clothing-optional event

In the month of February, Ancient Rome celebrated the festival of the Lupercalia. It was “the last publicly tolerated remnant of the heathen faith” [1]. According to Ferdinand Gregorovius [2], a historian who specialized in the medieval history of Rome, the festival was “centred round the sanctuary of the Lupercal or the wolf-averting Abolition Pan”. It was the oldest of all the Roman sanctuaries, “a dark cave at the foot of the Palatine”. The feast “was celebrated every year on February 15, and was followed on the 18th by the Februatio, or purifying of the city from the influence of demons”. The Lupercal was able to survive when all other ancient festivals “had yielded to the influence of Christianity”. So great “being the reverence of the Romans for this, the most ancient of their national customs, that even as Christians they could not renounce it” and “to the horror of the Bishop it was still celebrated” even after nearly five hundred years “passed since Paul preached the gospel in Rome” [1].

But why was the Bishop so horrified?

Ferdinand Gregorovius described the main feature of the festival in a following way (the bold font is mine):

The Luperci (youths, members of the sacred college) uncovered themselves unabashed before the eyes of the people, and clad only with an apron of the skins of the goats slain in the sacrifice, ran from the Lupercal through the streets, swinging straps of leather, with which they hit the women strokes on the right hand, thereby to bestow the blessing of fruitfulness. [1]

Let’s turn to ancient sources. We have Plutarch’s record of this feast.

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 to an easy delivery, and the barren to pregnancy. [3]

Another translation slightly smooths out the overall picture:

On this occasion many of the young nobles and magistrates run through the city without their toga… [4]

In order to clarify the character of the festival, I’ll refer to Ovid.

You ask, Why then do the Luperci run? and why do they strip themselves and bear their bodies naked, for so it is their wont to run? The god himself loves to scamper, fleet of foot, about the high mountains, and he himself takes suddenly to flight. The god himself is nude and bids his ministers go nude: besides, raiment sorted not well with running. [5]

Ovid believed the feast took us to ancient times when

there was as yet no use for horses, every man carried his own weight: the sheep went clothed in its own wool. Under the open sky they lived and went about naked, inured to heavy showers and rainy winds. Even to this day the unclad ministers recall the memory of the olden custom and attest what comforts the ancients knew. [5]

He also tells a “merry tale” “handed down from days of old” which explains why “betrayed by vesture, the god loves not garments which deceive the eye, and bids his worshippers come naked to his rites“. [5]

Study for Lupercalia by Annibale Carracci (16th century)

In the end, the bishops got what they wanted and put an end to the “horror”. Pope Gelasius, who was appointed in March 492, insisted that the Romans must understand that “they could not at the same time eat at the table of the Lord and at that of demons, nor drink from the chalice of God and that of the devil.” “It is probable that the zeal of the Pope succeeded in inducing the Senate to abolish the Lupercalia.” The Church “transformed the old festival of purification in the Lupercalia into the feast of the Purification of Mary”[1] (cp. [6]).

If we accept Ovid’s interpretation of the meaning of the feast, the abandonment of clothing will appear as part and parcel of the celebration. In ancient times, nudity often was considered as a means of ritual purification. Even in ancient Christianity, “the process of taking off clothes was an essential moment of the baptismal ceremony, as it was structured during the 4th century” [7]. Maybe these days we are witnessing the rebirth of the ancient attitude towards nudity. I have in mind, of course, the World Naked Bike Ride [8] and similar events. Who knows? Maybe they’ll become something big: new festivals of purification. The “garments” “deceive the eye”, after all.

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The true, twisted history behind Lupercalia from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Part two of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina brings fans back to Greendale and The Academy of Unseen Arts. Picking up where the holiday special left off, the teenage witch now pursues her education at The Academy exclusively, absorbing herself in the studies and culture of her magical, wicked side.

The latest installment of the series not only provides a reading on the hierarchy of the Witching world, but also expands on history and lore, specifically diving into the holidays, traditions, and celebrations at the heart of witchcraft. Early on in part 2, the witches and warlocks of The Academy celebrate Lupercalia, using the ancient holiday and its rituals as a means for Sabrina and her new love interest, Nicholas Scratch, to get closer to one another. But the history of this celebration is far more carnal and bloody than what the Netflix series would have you believe.

Lupercalia began as a Pagan festival held around the same time as our contemporary Valentine’s Day. But unlike the holiday that celebrates love with chocolates, flowers, and gestures of romance, Lupercalia expressed itself through animal sacrifice, random coupling, and practices to ward off evil spirits and infertility. According to information cited by National Public Radio and St. Valentine’s Day, the holiday originated in Rome as far back as the sixth century B.C.E, and sprung out of the story of Romulus and Remus. The pair were twin brothers whose uncle ordered their murder as a means of retribution for their mother’s broken vow of celibacy.

But a servant of the twins’ uncle took matters into their own hands. Disobeying orders, the servant put Romulus and Remus in a basket that floated the boys down river to safety. Once the basket was caught, a she-wolf took the twin boys in as her own, nurturing them until a farmer and his wife found the boys and raised them to adulthood. The twins eventually learned the truth and murdered their uncle as retribution. Returning from the slaughter, they stumbled upon the cave where they were raised and dubbed it Lupercal. Romulus and Remus would go on to found Rome.

The Lupercalia holiday was a time to celebrate the she-wolf who took care of Romulus and Remus as infants and appease the fertility god of Rome, Lupercus. When Lupercalia first began, each man of Rome participating would select a woman’s name from a jar and the two would be coupled for the duration of the festival.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina takes a more whimsical, if magically dark take on the coupling ritual. Instead of the men choosing a woman at random from a jar, the series shows the young woman dancing in a circle holding a ribbon attached to a pole in the center of the grand room – a makeshift, macabre Maypole of sorts. The young men sit in chairs along the outskirts of the Maypole until their partner, quite literally, lands in their lap. It may not be as efficient as a simple name on a slip of paper from a jar, but it does make for a lurid sequence to set the tone on the show’s take of the holiday.

The traditions and history of the holiday, however, begin with the ritual sacrifice of a goat, representing sexuality, and a dog, a regular representation in sacrifices of purification. While Chilling Adventures of Sabrina glosses over this part of the ritual, one aspect the series showcases to its mortal audience is the smearing of blood to the forehead and the removal of the aforementioned fluid with the use of milk-soaked wool. Even the smallest detail of laughing whilst the blood is being removed is accurate to the celebration.

Historically, instead of two sexual partners, a group of Roman priests, known as Luperci, embarked on this tradition. Two members of the party would be selected, naked, to carry out the tradition of smearing blood and then removing it on one another’s foreheads. It’s not exactly romantic, but the way Chilling Adventures of Sabrina handles the tradition is close to doctrine.

The final ritual of Lupercalia is the most notorious. The Feast of Lupercalia was as much about feasting as it was about flesh. Following the ritual sacrifice of the goat and eating its meat, men would cut strips of the goat’s hide and were set loose upon the city. Nearly-naked, the men would use the strips of hide to whip any woman within their reach. It’s not entirely known what the strips represented, but women would often welcome the lashes from these strands of hide by baring their skin, believing to receive the fertility consecration. The ravenous holiday eventually lost the tradition of nudity in favor of a more chaste celebration. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina finds young women dressed in cloaks of red, chasing after their wolf-costume-clad male partners through the woods.

While the Netflix series takes a romantic, if carnal, spin on the ritualistic holiday, the traditions bear a similarity to the festival’s origins that are unmistakable. But instead of following each practice down to the literal bone, the series follows specific details with differentiations and interpretations that only go to serve the narrative of Greendale’s favorite, wicked teenage witch.

Julia is an entertainment writer with featured work at The Playlist, Film School Rejects, HelloGiggles, PopSugar, The Young Folks, and Screen Rant.

5. Lupercalia is when Julius Caesar was offered the crown.

Today, Lupercalia is probably most famous for what happened on February 15, 44 BCE. That day a “ naked, perfumed, drunk ” Mark Antony was one of the runners while Julius Caesar watched the proceedings from a throne. Antony went up to Julius Caesar with a diadem (a type of crown or headband) and—in what later historians have said was almost certainly scripted—attempted to give it to Caesar and proclaim him king.

The crowd's initial response to this action was tepid, but when Caesar refused the crown they cheered. Antony tried again, Caesar refused again, and the crowd exploded. Caesar ordered the crown taken to the Temple of Jupiter because Jupiter was Rome’s one king. The purpose of this exercise has been debated. Some propose Antony did it on his own to either flatter Caesar or embarrass him, while at the time it was thought that Caesar orchestrated the stunt as a way to test the waters for whether the people would accept a king. Either way, it didn't really work out for Caesar he was assassinated one month later.

The Festival of Lupercalia

Later on, the cave where the boys were suckled, the Lupercal Cave, became the place where a Roman festival known as the Lupercalia was held annually on the 15th of February. During this festival, the Luperci (the priests of the god Lupercus) would assemble at the Lupercal Cave, and sacrifice goats and young dogs to their god.

Another ceremony performed during the Lupercalia was a fertility rite that is perhaps most famous for its reference in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar . For this fertility rite, the Luperci would first cut the skins of the goats which they had sacrificed into pieces. Some of these would be used to cover parts of their bodies so as to imitate their god, who was represented as half naked and half covered with goat-skin. The other pieces of skin would then be cut into straps which were held in their hands. Then, the Luperci would run through the streets of Rome, touching or striking any person they met with their straps - especially women who wanted to conceive.

The Lupercalia Festival in Rome: Cupid and Personifications of Fertility encounter the Luperci . (Public Domain )

A Roman Fertility Festival

While the origins of the Lupercalia are uncertain, it seems that it was a fertility festival related to the first stirrings of spring. The Romans were originally shepherds who grazed their flocks on the seven hills that eventually became their city. Ovid suggests that the origin of the Lupercalia lies in these early pastoral times and that it was a festival dedicated to the god Faunus in his role of god of the herds.

However, the fact the luperci were striking female bystanders makes a clear link between the festival and human fertility. For those who put themselves in the way of the Luperci and their whips often wanted to become pregnant. For it was believed that a slap from the strap would ensure a baby would follow.

This ritual slapping of women to ensure reproduction dates to the time of Romulus. After the abduction of the Sabine women, the Romans wished to ensure that their marriages produced children. So, the priests consulted the goddess Juno in her sacred grove. It was then that the Goddess of fertility and childbirth reputedly instructed them to instigate the rite of the goatskin straps.

Romulus and Remus. Picture credit: Stinkzwam. wikimedia commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Ancient Judaism

When Christianity became the legal religion of the Roman Empire after ad 313, it had already inherited from its Jewish background a concept of an organized priesthood. The Jewish priesthood had been centralized in the Temple of Jerusalem from the 10th century bce until its destruction by the Romans in 70 ce . The Hebrew-language designations for those who exercised oracular, divinatory, and ecstatic functions in ancient sanctuaries that were prominent cultic centres prior to the building of the temple, such as Mamre, Hebron, Bethel, Shechem, and Gilgal, were kohen (also romanized “ cohen”), levi, naviʾ, and roʾe, corresponding to priest, Levite, prophet, and seer, respectively. Kohen is the equivalent of the Arabic word kāhin (“diviner”), and in Hebrew it has the meaning of “priest,” denoting the occupant of the office concerned with obtaining oracles by the aid of the ephod (an apronlike garment) containing the Urim and Thummim (sacred lots) and by inspiration, as well as with officiating at a sanctuary. After the 7th century bce , when worship was concentrated in Jerusalem, the capital, the priesthood was restricted to the Levitical house of Aaron (brother of Moses, the 13th-century- bce lawgiver) after having been previously drawn from other lines of descent, such as those of David, Nathan, Micah, and Abinadab (royal, prophetic, and priestly families).

Whether in fact the Levites ever were members of a sacerdotal tribe is open to debate, but in any case they represented a special fraternity set apart to be guardians of the sanctuary and to engage in oracular and prophetic functions, over against the rival priestly kohanim in their respective independent confraternities. It was not until after the exile of the Jews to Babylon in 586 bce , when the Priestly code was drawn up, that the distinction between priests and Levites became absolute. The priesthood was confined exclusively to those claiming succession from Aaron, in spite of the Zadokites claiming priestly descent from Eleazar as an “everlasting covenant” (Numbers 18:2–7, 25:13 I Chronicles 24:37). The Zadokites may have represented the survival of an ancient Jebusite (Canaanite) royal priesthood, giving them special duties and privileges in the Temple worship above those of the Levites. Later, when the priesthood became reserved for the descendants of the family of Aaron alone, the title was restricted to members of the non-Aaronic families of the tribe acting as the servants of the Temple.

The oracle given by the priests as the inspired word of the Law, called the Torah, which was referred back to Moses in postexilic Judaism, acquired a new significance, involving a rigid observance of its ritual and legal commands that permeated every aspect of life, worship, and conduct. The cessation of the daily sacrifice and other Levitical priestly ministrations in the Temple after the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans (70 ce ) gave a new emphasis to and interpretation of the Torah in the synagogue and in domestic rituals. The prerogatives of the high priest, and those of the priesthood in general, with its exclusive lineage, were maintained after the revolt of the Jews under the leadership of the Maccabees against the Hellenistic Syrians in the 2nd century bce , and the priestly blessing (dukhan) in the synagogue remained the exclusive right of the kohanim claiming descent from Aaron. They also have had the right to be the first called upon to read the Torah in the synagogue, followed by a Levite. Their privileges, however, have been questioned by some rabbinical authorities (nonpriestly Torah scholars and religious leaders). The Sadducees (deriving their name from the Zadokites) were the high priests in Jerusalem during and after the time of the Hasmoneans, the descendants of the Maccabees (135–104 bce ). They exercised considerable influence in the Jewish Sanhedrin (supreme rabbinic court) as the conservative class of the religious aristocracy, favoured accommodations to Greek culture, and maintained the importance of the letter of the written Torah over against the oral tradition of the rival Pharisees. The high priesthood, however, was declining in status under the increasing control of the Roman authorities.

Watch the video: Ancient Rome (January 2022).