I apologize if this post is a bit uncoordinated; I’ll probably do some editing later, but I wanted to get this posted early.
Today is February 15th, the date of the infamous Lupercalia festival.
If you haven’t heard of this festival before or have heard of it but don’t quite know the details of this magical event, then sit tight for a quick explanation – if you have heard of it, then please, bear with me for a moment.
To start the festival, a dog and a goat would have been sacrificed, and the goat would have its hide cut into strips. Then the foreheads of two young men from noble families would be smeared with blood, and, immediately after this, the blood would be wiped off with wool soaked in milk. Then, the two boys had to laugh.
They would next have to strip down until all they were wearing were belts around their waists. Then comes the fun part: they would run around the city (possibly around the Palatine Hill, but sources don’t agree on the actual route), flogging people with the strips of goatskin. Women of childbearing age especially would try and get whipped by the thongs, as this was supposed to help with fertility and easy childbirth.
Now, while what occurred on the Lupercalia might be agreed on, there are several theories as to the origins of the festival.
An obscure Greek poet by the name of Butas wrote that he believed that the Lupercalia originated via the agency of the followers of Romulus after they had defeated Amulius (the usurper king of Alba Longa). The followers, according to Butas, happily raced to the cave where the twins were suckled by the she-wolf: thus, the race was reenacted each year in the form of the festival.
In this version of the origin of the Lupercalia, the knife that was used to smear the foreheads of the noble twins with blood represented the danger and murders of the time of Romulus, and the milk-soaked wool represented the milk that the twins suckled from the she-wolf.
Another theory comes from Gaius Acilius, a Roman author writing in the 2nd century BCE. According to him, the festival originated before the founding of Rome. Romulus’ allies had lost their flocks of sheep and prayed to Faunus – the rural god of forests, plains and fields – for help in finding them. They then ran around naked so that sweat would not bother them: this is why the two nobles would run around nearly naked for the festival.
The famous poet Ovid recounts several stories of the Lupercalia in book 2 of his Fasti. He says that the festival is one dedicated to Faunus – or Pan, as he later calls the god, who was imported to Italy by the Greeks. Ovid writes that Pan loved to run naked in the mountains, and so his followers must carry on this tradition as well. The Lupercal Cave where Romulus and Remus lived was named for Mount Lycaeus in Arcadia, Greece, which is yet another connection with the possible Greek origin. He also mentions that the festival might have started with Romulus and his followers losing their flock of sheep, however.
One final theory is that due to the time of the festival – that is, that it occurs within the Parentalia – the Lupercalia is a festival of the dead. Varro mentions in On the Latin Language that he believes that the people of Rome are purified (or februatur, a verb form very close to the month February) on the day of the Lupercalia (called the dies februatus, or Day of Purification), but others believe that the month of February was named after the dii inferi, spirits of the underworld, and that the Lupercalia has some connection with this.
On the 15th February, 44 BCE, something else took place: Mark Antony offered Julius Caesar the diadem of – and thus position of – a king. There are two major theories as to why this date was chosen: some think that it was merely because a lot of people attended the festival and would see the ‘coronation’, while others think that the festival had ties to the time of the Kings of Rome and the confirmation of royal power.
And with that, I’ll end this post. Have a safe and happy Lupercalia!
(sources for this post are Religions of Rome Volume 2: A Sourcebook by Beard, North, and Price; Fasti by Ovid)