A Brief History of Lupercalia
Lupercalia was an ancient, possibly pre-Roman fertility festival that took place in Rome every year. Its purpose was to boost fertility, rid the city of evil spirits, pray for good health and to celebrate the founding myths of Rome. It traditionally took place from the 13th-15th February annually. The root of the word ‘Lupercalia‘ comes from ‘lupus‘ (wolf) and is a reference to the she-wolf (Lupa) which suckled Romulus and Remus.
Rites at Lupercalia were confined to areas which were central locations in Rome’s foundation myths; the Lupercal cave, the Palatine Hill and the Forum. Lupercalia had its own priesthood known as Luperci – ‘brothers of the wolf‘, whom would perform the rites at special altars.
At the Lupercal altar, male goats and a dog were sacrificed. Offerings were made to please the deities which was then followed with a sacrificial feast (and much wine). After this, the priests would cut thongs from skins of the sacrificed animals (known as Februa – the root of the word ‘February‘) and run naked or near-naked along the old Palatine boundary anti-clockwise. They would flog people with the thongs in the belief that this would boost fertility. Many women would purposely get in the way and present their hands to be whipped, believing that it would help with pregnancy or childbirth, as well as agricultural fertility.
Lupercalia was a huge and important festival which encouraged rowdiness, drinking, messing about and partying. Although modern scholars have an idea of what it was about, the festival itself is so ancient it may be that even the Romans weren’t really sure! But any excuse for a party, eh?
Lupercalia was so popular amongst Rome’s citizens that it was not banned alongside many other ancient holidays when Rome became Christian, though Pope Gelasius I stated that only the ‘vile rabble‘ were involved in the festival and campaigned for its abolition. He believed that the drunkenness and nudity were embarrassing to Rome and certainly un-Christian. The Senate however, protested that Lupercalia was essential to Rome’s safety and well-being.
Although there is no evidence that Lupercalia was abolished by Pope Gelasius I, the festival did eventually fall into obscurity. Some believe that Lupercalia was replaced with the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, also known as Candlemas which falls on February 2nd, and others believe that Lupercalia is quite likely the pagan origins of the holiday of St. Valentine’s Day, which happened to be established by Pope Gelasius I in AD 496.
In modern times, Lupercalia is celebrated on February 15th by various groups of Satanists (including The Satanic Temple which lists it as an official holiday) and Pagans. TST’s interpretation of Lupercalia is as a ‘Celebration of bodily autonomy, sexual liberation and reproduction‘ as well as a ‘hail yourself‘ day.
The 13th and 14th of February are marked as feast days and traditional foods are eaten – milk, figs and lamb (as opposed to goat). On February 15th Lupercalia is then celebrated with rituals, mock sacrifices, bodily autonomy, animalistic nature, orgies, BDSM and icons/images of wolves. Orgies, you say? The idea of the sexual liberation here is likely associated with both the tradition naked whippings, the idea of sexual fertility and the love association of the modern Valentine’s Day. Asexuals (or others who would prefer something a little tamer) are not left out of course. Lupercalia is also a time to indulge in food, self-care, self-love and well, whatever you want! It is the ultimate celebration of self.
Other modern celebrations include honouring animals and pets (such as the Satanic Bay Area’s Wolf Night), spring cleaning, purification rituals and gardening. Many witch/pagan blogs have come up with modern rituals for Lupercalia which honour Lupa and other associated deities.
So why is Lupercalia so popular amongst Satanists and Pagans? In my opinion, Lupercalia represents a kind of anti-Valentine’s day. Valentine’s Day is heavily commercialised and is a known Hallmark holiday, as well as being Christian in origin. Many people believe that Valentine’s Day was deliberately created to replace Lupercalia and to erase the more raunchy traditional celebrations.
Lupercalia can therefore be seen as an anti-Christian, pagan celebration of love, sex, indulgence, bodily autonomy, drunkenness, partying and many things which would make many strict Christians sweat under the collar. It’s the idea of having a celebration where we can truly get in touch with our animalistic, primal roots and let go, not dictated by societal norms (within reason and in the comfort of private spaces, of course!)
There are many arguments over why the modern celebration should be called Lupercalia and not something else, especially as it does not have much connection with the original festival. There are those who argue that there are misunderstandings, that modern Lupercalia is irrelevant in modern times and that Satanists and Pagans have no right to celebrate it.
But truly, this is not doing anyone any harm. What consenting adults do amongst themselves is nobodies business, and a celebration of this type can only be good. Especially in this modern age, a sense of self, self-love and freedom of expression is vitally important. We are not just gears in a machine, we are individuals and each one of us is different and we SHOULD celebrate that.
I suppose my main point here is that modern Lupercalia intends to carry the energy and rowdiness of the original holiday, the exact same that made Pope Gelasius I so uncomfortable. It is not, and cannot really be compared with the ancient festival of the same name but instead is a modern interpretation. It is a symbol of returning to our roots, our ancestors and of liberation from tyrannical authority.
So go forth, feast and be merry! Have a devious Lupercalia, however you celebrate!