Lupercalias Past

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The History of Lupercalia

Lupercalia was a festival held for over a 1000 years in Ancient Rome each February 15th, the Ides of February. It honoured the gods Faunus ("Pan" to the Greeks) and Lupercus, and to honour Romulus. Though it began as a religious rite devoted to agriculture, over time it evolved into a festival of merriment and kinky sexual horseplay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The very first ceremonies occurred in the Lupercal, the cave where Romulus and Remus, Romeís legendary founders were said to have been suckled by a she-wolf as infants. After animal sacrifices and a long feast, Priests of Lupercus left the cave. They jogged around Romeís seven hills, naked but for a loincloth, wielding several strips of leather from a sacrificed goat. Swinging this improvised whip, a Priest purified anything and anyone in his path. Women lined the streets in advance of the running priest, extending hands or baring their body to be briefly and symbolically whipped, as he passed by.

Fertility of course is meaningless without sex, so as time passed, sex became Lupercaliaís focus for the average Roman. It was a popular, merry occasion where ordinary social rules were relaxed, and where men and women engaged in shameless flirting and sexual horseplay.

In Roman Gaul a Lupercalia custom began, parts of which survive today. Eligible women wrote their names on clay tablets and placed them in an earthen jar. Eligible young men then picked out a womanís name at random, and the two were paired off. Depending on whose version of history you accept, this would last a few hours, a day, or even a year. It is believed this evolved into the medieval custom where secret admirers sent anonymous greetings on St. Valentineís Day, which in turn led to the modern practice of "sending a Valentine."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lupercalia was one of hundreds of Roman festivals, and the way it was celebrated changed over centuries. This is depicted in the only surviving artistic depictions of Lupercalia, two stone relief carvings, one about 150 years older than the other. The earlier carving shows a woman calmly undressing while a Priest, naked but for his loincloth, stands by with his goatskin whip. The second depicts a woman being forcibly disrobed by two men, before the priest. Whether this was actual violence or role-playing is unclear, but it is certain that interest in Lupercalia never waned. In fact Romans probably viewed Lupercalia in much the same way that children today view Halloween, a time of fun and role-playing, albeit rough role-playing. Remember, this was a time when life was tenuous and uncertain, where crop disease meant starvation, where invaders took slaves, not prisoners, and where appendicitis or diabetes were a death sentence. Pleasures and diversions were taken at will, and Romans had a healthy respect for power.

Rome was Christian by the 4th Century CE, and the church banned the old pagan festivals. Even so, the church was only partly successful. People stubbornly resisted the end of Lupercalia, and it was the last to go. A substitute became necessary and St. Valentineís Day emerged to celebrate a more innocent love. Traces of Lupercalia remain in our culture today. February, the month in which it is held, is named for the februa - a Latin term describing anything used "to purify ", including a priestís goatskin flogger. Gaulís "love lotteries" evolved into the exchange of Valentineís Cards.

Finally, Cupid remains an enduring Valentineís Day symbol, even though he was a Roman god. But take note, the Cupid we know bears little resemblance to the Cupid known to the ancients. Cupid had long been associated with love and Lupercalia, but in the 4th Century CE, churchmen deemed it necessary to revise his image and reputation. The Cupid of ancient Rome (also known as Eros to the Greeks) bears little resemblance to the cute winged baby with a bow and arrow we know. He was a virile, randy youth, answerable for impregnating many, many females - mortals and goddesses alike.

Magister Henrik Dixit

At heart, Lupercalia was dedicated to purging all afflictions and ills before the spring growing season. By the ancient calendars winter had ended by the Ides of February, the time of Lupercalia, and spring, a season of new beginnings, had arrived. Lupercalia prayers originally asked for abundant crops and many healthy new born animals, and that wolves leave the herds alone. But practical Romans saw no reason to stop at praying for their plants and animals, and sought divine help to assure their own good fortune, health, and fertility. Lupercaliaís stress on fertility made it very significant for females. Infertility was then considered a disease, so women desiring children and easy childbirth implored the gods at Lupercalia. Ancient medicine was little removed from soothsaying, so when illness was beyond cure, people asked the

gods to "purify" them of the disease, hex, or curse causing it. In Roman belief (as in several modern religions) purification resulted from a light, ritual scourging. Thus women seeking pregnancy and easy childbirth sought a "lustration" - a cleansing thrashing - from a Priest of Lupercus.

Augustus Caesar revitalized Lupercalia for purely political reasons, and radically changed how it was celebrated. Romeís birthrate was declining, a serious problem for an empire depending on armies to defend its broad frontiers. Rightly or wrongly, Augustus blamed declining birthrates on Roman women, who he believed were widely ignoring his ban on contraception. So he changed Lupercalia to focus attention on childless women. While in earlier times, women waited along the roadside to be ritually purified, Augustus made it a public spectacle. Probably the idea was to focus attention and playful embarrassment on childless women who came forward to receive a ritual flogging. Despite the spectacle, Roman women didnít seem any less enthusiastic about Lupercalia. Nor did men.

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