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Lupercalia - Adapting an Ancient Roman Festival for Modern Times

Copyright © by Robin Herne 2004

The Roman Festival

In Ancient Rome, the festival of Lupercalia was held on February 15th. In legend the twin-founders of the city, Romulus and Remus, were thrown into the River Tiber on the orders of their usurping uncle Amulius. The babies washed ashore by a wild fig tree, and were found by a she-wolf, who suckled them and raised them with her mate. Years later they were found, living feral, by the shepherd Faustulus and his wife Acca Larentia who took them in. Upon reaching adulthood they discovered their true identities, and set out to avenge themselves on their wicked great-uncle. Having killed him, they founded the Eternal City.

Once restored to their regal position, the brothers rediscovered the den and called it the Lupercal (the wolves cave.) It became a sacred site along with the remains of the shepherd's hut.

The Lupercalia ritual in Rome was held in the cave itself. Similar rituals held in other parts of the Empire had to use venues symbolic of the cave on Mount Aventine. Two high-born young men stripped naked and sacrificed a dog and a goat. They smeared blood on their foreheads, then wiped it off with wool dipped in milk. The men made a show of laughing (it being important to be jovial, in both senses) and wrapped strips of the goat's hide about themselves. A great feast was then held - perhaps involving the remains of the goat.

Finally each man lead a group of near-naked men around the hills and bounds of Rome. These two colleges of priests were called the Luperci Quinctiales and the Luperci Fabiani ~ Mark Anthony being one of the more famous members. Women would line up to be thwacked by the priests with strips of goat skin (presumably the untanned hide would not have been hard enough to hurt!) The belief was that this would improve their chances of pregnancy.

The festival was so ancient that by the Republican Period no-one quite remembered what it was originally in aid of, nor were they even certain which deity it had been instituted for. Most likely the two priests represent the Twins, the killing of a herd animal and a herd defender presumably echoing the feral days living in the Lupercal. Perhaps initially it was a way of celebrating the foundation of Rome itself, giving honour both to the Twins and the wolves who nurtured them. Faunus Lupercus, the alpha male, was one deity associated with this ritual. Scant written mention is made of Lupa, the she-wolf, but it seems likely she would have been honoured too. Others linked the ceremony to Pan, who has much in common with Faunus.

Lupercalian festivities continued until Pope Gelasius I outlawed them in 494CE. The Church instituted the Purification of the Blessed Virgin. The feast day of St Valentine was added to the calendar two years later. The habit of sending love tokens on this date goes back to at least the 14th century. The Pope's motives in creating the new saint's day are unknown. It may have been to adapt the enthusiasm for Lupercalia to a more socially acceptable pattern, though there isn't much connection between sending soppy love letters and slapping women with bits of dead goat.

Some accounts suggest that in Roman-occupied Gaul, at Lupercalia, single women wrote their names on clay tablets and placed them in an earthen jar. Unmarried young men then picked out a name at random, and the two were paired off. Depending on which account you accept, this lasted a few hours, a day, or even a year.

Capturing the Spirit of Lupercalia Today

Lupercalia poses a challenge for modern Pagans who wish to celebrate it. Clearly most of the activities conducted in Ancient Rome would result in arrest, or prosecution by the RSPCA. Either one must engage in an act of quite bizarre civil disobedience, or find a way of adapting the spirit to a new form. To do this, one has to establish what that spirit was (bearing in mind that not even the old Romans were entirely sure!)

Those who are deeply enamoured of Roman culture might want to continue giving thanks to the founders and protectors of the Empire. Naked rituals in private might be fun, but the procession could be replaced by a socially-acceptable celebration of Roman culture, eg a living history display for the public, or something similar.

Those less keen on Rome might well be pulled, nonetheless, by the call of the wolf. These days, with wolves a short trip from extinction, the festival might focus on preserving the species and contemplating the gifts humanity might gain from studying them ~ lessons in loyalty, team work, functional hierarchies etc. How best to use magic to preserve a species? Well, improving their fertility rate (the Gods surely know that humankind needs no help here, with 6 billion plus swarming across the planet), and changing the attitudes of those who would exterminate them, or destroy their habitats. Putting money towards conservation work is also a good idea. The goat sacrifice could transform into a financial sacrifice so that wolves in a zoo or a breeding programme can eat.

Though the she-wolf is a dominant feature, there is a decidedly masculine feel to Lupercalia, with the men gathering in the cave. Brotherhood could be part of the focus. Hopefully not in the guise of one of those ghastly male-bonding roll-in-the-mud for a mere £200 things that psychobabble merchants flog. Rather, a chance to think on the importance of male friends ~ especially difficult for British men who tend to shy away from the ease of Continental male-bonding for fear of being called gay. Whether you get naked or not is another question again. In the UK men only normally get naked with each other in the showers after football matches, and then they have to swagger and talk loudly about their girlfriend's tits, just in case the slightest suspicion might creep in. Regardless of whether the togas stay on or not, it could be a useful opportunity for the spiritually developing pagan male to try and confront their emotional hang-ups and feel more secure in their masculinity. Drinking a toast to brothers, of blood or spirit, might form a good centrepiece to the modernised ceremony.

Amulius deprived his nephews of their parents. The Gods stepped in and gave them wolf parents. Another aspect that could be reflected upon is the way in which the Gods provide alternatives when we suffer losses in our lives. Thanks might be offered to the benevolence of Providence, especially if those taking part have had just such experiences of the kindness of strangers.

Those who enjoy a bit of consensual thwacking could still do so after the sacrifices have been made. If there are no women present who want to get pregnant, then the concept of the men imparting a blessing using something sacrificed earlier could be reworked. If not fertility of body, then creativity of mind might be far more desirable. Those wanting to be so blessed could be touched with some object previously dedicated to the Gods. Few butchers retail the skins of the animals hanging in their windows, but the band of brothers could cook up a feast to be served (a sacrifice of time, money, skill and meat) and bless the hide of some other animal, strips of which could be used to impart blessings. Perhaps the bulk of the hide could be used to make something useful as a sacrificial gift. If sufficient men are present, one group could do the food and the other prepare the hide, thus maintaining the practice of the two priestly bands.

Vegetarians who refuse to use animal skins could make a veggie feast, and pelt the women with potato peelings. Or, more seriously, use a symbol of virility which they have made and dedicated to sacred use. Whether you prefer being hit with goat skin or prodded with an organic dildo being largely a matter of personal choice.

The process of taking old habits and finding new expressions for them is one common to pagan reconstructionists of all traditions. Considerably creativity is needed, but it is still possible to retain the spirit of the old in the form of the new ~ if the wolf howls to you.