Lupercalia(redirected from Feast of Lupercalia)
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Date of Observation: February 15
Where Celebrated: Rome
Symbols and Customs: Blood, Februa, Goat, Milk, Wolf
Colors: Red and white, in the form of BLOOD and MILK , both played a part in the earliest observance of the Lupercalia. Nowadays these are the colors associated with Valentine's Day, to which this ancient festival has been linked.
Related Holidays: Valentine's Day
The Lupercalia was a festival in the ancient Roman religion, which scholars trace back to the sixth century B . C . E . Roman religion dominated Rome and influenced territories in its empire until Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the third century C . E . Ancient Roman religion was heavily influenced by the older Greek religion. Roman festivals therefore had much in common with those of the ancient Greeks. Not only were their gods and goddesses mostly the same as those in the Greek pantheon (though the Romans renamed them), but their religious festivals were observed with similar activities: ritual sacrifice, theatrical performances, games, and feasts.
The Lupercalia festival was held in honor of the WOLF who mothered Romulus and Remus, the legendary twin founders of Rome. During the original Roman celebration, members from two colleges of priests gathered at a cave on the Palatine Hill called the Lupercal-supposedly the cave where Romulus and Remus had been suckled by a she-wolf-and sacrificed a GOAT and a dog. The animals' BLOOD was smeared on the foreheads of two young priests and then wiped away with wool dipped in MILK . The two young men stripped down to a goatskin loincloth and ran around the Palatine, striking everyone who approached them, especially the women, with thongs of goat skin called FEBRUA . It is believed that this was both a fertility ritual and a purification rite. It may also have been a very early example of "beating the bounds" (see ASCENSION DAY), or reestablishing the borders of the early Palatine settlement.
There is some confusion over which god the Luperci or priests served; some say it was Faunus, a rural deity, and some say it was Pan, the god of shepherds who protected sheep from the danger of wolves. All that is certain is that by Caesar's time, the annual ceremony had become a spectacular public sight, with young men running half-naked through the streets and provoking much good-natured hysteria among the women. February 15 was also the day when Mark Antony offered Julius Caesar the crown. Thanks to this historic event, and Shakespeare's account of it in his play Julius Caesar, the Lupercalia is one of the best known of all Roman festivals.
It is interesting that such a rustic festival continued to be celebrated in Rome for centuries after it had been Christianized. Its survival can be partially credited to Augustus, who rebuilt the Lupercal in the first century B . C . E ., thus giving the celebration a boost. It continued to be observed until 494 C . E ., when Pope Gelasius I changed the day to the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary (see CANDLEMAS ). There is some reason to believe that the Lupercalia was a forerunner of the modern VALENTINE'S DAY: Part of the ceremony involved putting girls' names in a box and letting boys draw them out, thus pairing them off until the next Lupercalia.
SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS
Blood played an important role in the observation of the Lupercalia. The blood of the animals sacrificed at the festival was smeared across the foreheads of two young priests with a knife-perhaps to symbolize death without actually killing anyone. Some accounts of the early observation of this festival say that the youths had to laugh after the blood had been wiped off (see MILK ), which may have been another symbolic act designed to prove that they had been reborn or revived.
Red, the color of blood, is still closely identified with the celebration of VALENTINE'S DAY on February 14. There is reason to believe that what started out as a pagan fertility ritual was eventually transformed into a Christian feast in honor of St. Valentine. Then the Christian festival gradually turned into a secular celebration of young lovers. If this is the case, then the red that dominates so many modern Valentine cards may have derived from the sacrificial blood of the Lupercalia.
The skins of the goats sacrificed at the Lupercalia were cut into long, thin strips, from which whips were made. The loinskin-clad youths ran through the streets, whipping everyone they met. Women in particular were eager to receive these lashes, as they believed that the whipping would cure infertility and ease the pains of childbirth.
The goatskin thongs used as whips were called februa. Both this name and the name of the month in which the festival was observed, February, were derived from the word februum, which was an ancient instrument of purification. Whipping certain parts of the body with an instrument believed to possess magical powers was considered an effective way of driving off the evil spirits that interfered with human fertilization. The goatskin thongs were believed to possess such powers.
Running around the settlement on the Palatine Hill in Rome wearing the skins and carrying the februa appears to have been an attempt to trace a magic circle around the city to shut out evil influences. This would make the Lupercalia a precursor of the ceremony that came to be known as "beating the bounds."
In pre-Christian times, the goat was a symbol of virility and unbridled lust. Christians saw the goat as an "impure, stinking" creature in search of gratification. In portrayals of the Last Judgment, the goat is the creature who is eternally condemned to the fires of Hell, and it's no coincidence that the devil has many goatlike characteristics. In the Middle Ages, witches were often shown riding through the air on goats, and the devil appears as a male goat whose rump the witches kiss.
If the Lupercalia was primarily a fertility ritual, it makes sense that the women were whipped with thongs made from the skins of an animal identified with lust and virility. But why was a dog sacrificed as well? It is important to remember here that the Lupercalia was both a fertility rite and a purification rite, held to protect the fields and herds from evil. Perhaps dogs were involved in the sacrifice because they are the traditional guardians of the sheepfold.
Goats today are considered a symbol of sexual drive, and February is the month during which they mate.
After the Luperci were smeared with the blood of the sacrifice, the blood was wiped from their foreheads with wool dipped in milk. Just as the blood symbolized death, the milky wool was symbolic of new life, because milk represents the source of life. Some scholars have theorized that the milk was a symbol of sperm and the red symbolized menstrual blood. According to an ancient theory of procreation, new life came from the union of white sperm with red menses.
Today, red and white are the colors associated with VALENTINE'S DAY.
The Latin word for wolf is lupus, from which both the Lupercal (cave) and the Lupercalia derived their names. While the festival may originally have been held in honor of the she-wolf who cared for Romulus and Remus, wolves also represented a threat to the herds on which the early Romans depended for food. The wolf is therefore a symbol not only for the wild, unrestrained forces of nature but also for the benevolent guardian of helpless creatures like Romulus and Remus.
Why were the priests called Luperci? The word Lupercus might have come from a phrase meaning "to purify by means of a goat"; or it might have come from a combination of lupus and arcere, meaning "he who wards off wolves." Whether the Luperci were protectors from wolves or wolf-priests who took the form of wolves as a means of bringing them under control is a question that has never been satisfactorily answered. Some scholars suggest that the dead revealed themselves in the form of wolves, against whom the community had to be defended.
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in ancient Rome, celebrations in honor of Lupercus, one of the names of the god Faunus, the protector of the herds. During the celebration, Lupercal priests dressed in the skins of sacrificed goats ran around the boundaries of the Palatine Hill striking passersby, especially women, with leather thongs. The festival of Lupercalia was linked to the ancient fertility rites and was celebrated annually on February 15 until late antiquity.
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