Do you fancy yourself a wolf when it comes to the ladies? Well, today’s your chance to show your stuff! February 15 is the day of the Lupercalia, which was the major fertility festival in the ancient Roman calendar. The name might come from Lupercus, a god of fertility, but this explanation is seldom given. More likely, it is in reference to the Lupercal, the wolf’s lair, where the she-wolf suckled the infants Romulus and Remus. On the day of the Lupercalia, a boy dressed only in a goat skin wrapped around his waist and his body smeared all over with milk and goat’s blood would run through the streets whipping any woman that he met on the way with leather straps in order to get her pregnant. You can’t make this up. How in the world did we get from a wolf’s cave to this?
Lupercalia, painted by Andrea Camassei (1635).
We know from the writings of the ancient Romans, especially Ovid and Plutarch, that even they scratched their heads in bewilderment at some of the rituals that they conducted as part of their culture. No doubt they also shook their heads and laughed at the reasoning behind some of the things that they did. Thankfully, we have a few Roman writers who give us details about why the eyebrow-raising events which occurred on this day happened in this manner, namely Ovid, Plutarch, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
The Lupercalia has its roots in the ancient Greek region of Arcadia. When the Greeks settled in southern Italy, a group of Arcadians, who were devoted followers of the god Pan, came to the area where Rome would later stand. Prior to the establishment of the village of Rome in the 8th Century BC, the area that the Eternal City stood on was unsettled and was used only by shepherds to graze their flocks. On one side of the Palatine Hill, which at that time was completely covered with trees, there was a large cave, and within this cave was a spring that streamed out water towards the Tiber. The Arcadian Greeks, who had occasionally visited here, consecrated the forest to Pan and erected an altar dedicated to him inside the cave, where they would sacrifice a she-goat to Pan in exchange for safeguarding their livestock. Therefore, the festival was originally a shepherd’s festival (Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar, chapter 61; Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 15; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapters 32, 79).
Ovid claims that the reason why the Lupercalian youths run naked through the streets wearing nothing but a goat skin is partly in emulation of the free-spirited Pan (who, if you remember your Greco-Roman mythology, was half-man and half-goat) and also as an act of remembrance of how they used to live in the dark ages of prehistory, a testament as to how old some of these belief are; Ovid comments that in centuries past, the people lived as hunter-gatherers, walking around naked, making simple huts out of branches and grass, and possessing no knowledge of art or agriculture. Ovid also relays an old tale involving Pan, the hero Hercules, and his mistress. Hercules and his lover were travelling through Latium and they stopped to rest at the Tiber River, near the sacred cave of Pan. When Pan saw her, he got randy as he always did at the sight of a pretty female. The two travelers took shelter inside the cave for the night, but when Pan went inside in the dark to have his wicked way, he got a very unwelcome surprise and fled (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 15).
It was this very same cave that would play a part in the foundation of Rome. When the basket containing Romulus and Remus had washed up on the shore of the Tiber River, they were discovered by a she-wolf who had just given birth to a litter of pups. Her carnivorous temper temporarily tempered by her motherly instincts, she carried the two babies into the cave and nurtured them. A little while later, they were discovered by a shepherd who adopted them as his children – again, the theme of shepherds emerges. (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 15; Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapters 32, 79).
When they had become teenagers, Romulus and Remus were exercising in a field naked, as was the Classical custom, when the cry went up that thieves were stealing their cattle. Since it would have taken them too long to go back to their cottage to clothe and arm themselves, they immediately chased after the thieves, stark naked and weaponless, and regained their stolen cattle. This is one of the reasons why the male youth of Rome ran naked through the streets every February 15th (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 15).
Later, after Romulus became king and the infamous Rape of the Sabines occurred, the gods showed their displeasure at the Romans’ actions by making all of the women in the area sterile. After a while, husbands and wives came to the Sacred Grove of Juno and prayed for her help. The trees shook with a sudden wind, and the goddess said “Let the sacred he-goat pierce the Italian wives”. Needless to say, these words could be interpreted in several ways, some of them rather disturbingly, and the men were understandably worried about what the goddess meant. Thankfully, an Etruscan augur priest just happened to be travelling close by (amazing how all of these coincidences occur, isn’t it?) and he concluded that the women had to offer themselves up to the lash. He sacrificed a male goat, skinned it, cut its skin into long thin strips, and then whipped the women on their bare backs with it. Amazingly, it worked, and all of the women became fertile again (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 15).
Dionysius of Halicarnassus comments that by the time that he was writing, the Sacred Forest of Pan which covered the Palatine Hill had been entirely clear-cut, but the cave still existed. Furthermore, because it was such an important site to the Romans, it was regarded as a holy shrine. In his day, the cave’s entrance was framed with elaborate masonry, or “built up” as he put it, and outside was a bronze statue “of ancient workmanship” (he possibly means that the statue is either many centuries old or was made in an archaic style, or both) of the she-wolf suckling the divine twins. This is confirmed in Caesar Augustus’ list of accomplishments, in which he says with pride that he conducted a restoration project on the Lupercal cave (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapters 32, 79; Caesar Augustus, Res Gestae, part 4, chapter 19).
The date of February 15 had two titles in the ancient Roman calendar. Yes it was called the Lupercalia, but it was also known as the Februalia. This was the principal feast day of the ancient Etruscan god Februus, the god of purification. This particular feast day involved purifying the city and the landscape around it. This religious ritual was the epicenter of the month of February. The priests who presided over the purification ceremony wore crowns made from pine branches, which had to be cut from “a pure tree”, meaning that it grew straight, it had no physical defects such as a crooked trunk, broken branches, or other injuries, and it wasn’t infected with disease. The priests also wore special clothing on this day, but unfortunately no description is given as to what these purifying vestments looked like other than they were made of wool. The poet Lucan makes a comment that the priests wore their togas with a belt around the waist, “Gabii style”, and may be a reference to the Etruscan priesthood. Branches of pine were distributed to the people to burn as incense inside their homes in order to smoke out any bad smells or miasmas that might spread disease. So, it seems that the ancient Romans invented the pine air freshener – another accomplishment to their credit! The Roman priests sacrificed a dog in order to purify the city, although Plutarch wasn’t exactly sure where this tradition came from. He hypothesized that this tradition may have come from the Greeks, because the ancient Greeks used to sacrifice a dog as a means of purification, and since February was the month of purification (as I mentioned in an earlier post), this would make sense. He gives a few other hypotheses in addition to the aforementioned one, but the ancient Greek connection seems most likely, since both the Etruscans and Romans were very Hellenized people. Lucan and Vopiscus describe how the Roman citizens, led by the priests and the Vestal Virgins, conduct a ritual promenade around the city’s boundary – the “pomerium” – chanting their prayers and appeals to the gods; the goddesses Minerva, Vesta, and Cybele are called upon with much greater fervency than the rest. This particular aspect of the day’s festivities was known as the Amburbium, which means “walk around the city”. When the circumambulation is completed, a bull is sacrificed and its entrails are read to determine if their efforts have been successful in bringing good luck (Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction; Plutarch, Roman Questions, #68; Vopiscus, The Life of Aurelian, chapter 20; Lucan, De Bello Civili, book 1, lines 642-677).
Over time, these two separate holy practices of the Februalia and the Lupercalia, since they were conducted on the same day, merged together into a single celebration. During the time of the Roman Empire, the February 15th festival took on the form that we know. The festivities began with the sacrifice of a goat and a dog – the first in honor of Pan and to protect the shepherds’ flocks, and the second as a means of cleansing. Plutarch gives a description of what happened next: “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”. Not only did the Luperci supposedly grant fertility to barren women, but they also had a part in cleansing the earth. Ovid states “the Luperci cleanse the earth with strips of purifying hide”, meaning that they beat the ground with strips of leather in order to drive out the evil humors which might ruin their crops or flocks (Plutarch, Roman Questions, #68; Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar, chapter 61; Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction).
- Caesar Augustus, Res Gestae, part 4, chapter 19.
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, book 1, chapters 32, 79.
- Livy, The History of Rome, book 1, chapter 21. Translated by Reverend Canon Roberts. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1905. http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/txt/ah/livy/livy01.html.
- Lucan, De Bello Civili, book 1, lines 642-677.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 2, February 15.
- Ovid, Fasti, book 2, introduction.
- Plutarch, Roman Questions, #68.
- Plutarch, The Life of Julius Caesar, chapter 61.
- Vopiscus, The Life of Aurelian, chapter 20.
Please check out my “Today in Ancient Rome” series for more articles on the ancient Roman calendar. You can find the whole list by clicking here!
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