The Lupercalia

nothing to do with Valentine's day!
There’s a load of trash out there on the internet about the Lupercalia and its relationship to Valentine's Day. Most is sentimental and some are lies. The two do not even share the same date, as the Lupercalia was celebrated on the 15th of February. In order to marry the two (so to speak!) the imaginary tale of Roman maidens putting their names into a ballot seems to have been placed on 14th February. From that tale come a whole host of associations with cupid, cards etc.

Well, sorry to disappoint, but it isn’t true.

So, what is true?

We have some fairly good descriptions of the ritual, and how that developed over time. What we don’t have, is any clear idea that a god was involved. Even the purpose of the festival seems to have changed. So let’s start with what we know, and then move onto what got tacked on, later.

The Roman calendar

fragment of Roman calendar
Fragment of a Roman calendar,
showing a few days
This was so complicated that it was the responsibility of several officials to work it out every year. They were absolute calendar obsessives: they just couldn’t leave the damned thing alone. They revised the whole thing twice - starting with the Romulan, then the changes made by Numa and good old Julius (Caesar). And then they pop in an intercalary month that has to be declared by the High Priest and which becomes immured in politics. So Julius, as Pontifex [high priest], manages to lengthen a year of his office to 445 days by a little calendar manipulation.


And counting backwards - now there's a thing! Let's not call this day by the month it actually falls in. Let's not even call the days in a given month by the name of one month. Oh no, that's far too simple! So, if the date falls in the first half of the month, it's named after the month it's in; but if in the second half of the month, it's named for the next month. And don't let's have any regularity, shall we? Oh no! So the first half of the month has the luxury of two counting points - nones and ides, but after that there is only the one - the next kalends. (Kalends is the beginning of the month, ides the middle, and nones roughly halfway between the two).

If all that playing around with the year and the length of months, and the hokey cokey with the extra month and how that affects the festivals during February isn't enough, then they really get enthusiastic, and play around with the days. You get the feeling that, by this point, they were getting a high from all this playing around with naming time.

Sooooooooo...we'll just dip our toe in the water with days, shall we? How about if we begin by throwing in a market cycle of precisely 8 days, year in, year out. OK, got that one going? Great, now let's regulate all the other days. Hmm... how about if we set which days you can go to court and which days you can't? And the days you can hold meetings, and the days the King Priest can summon an assembly, and the days for public holidays. Oh, and that's a bit simple, isn't it. I mean, having a rule for the whole day? so how about if we say that on some days, you can't do something in the morning or the evening, but you can do it in the afternoon? That'll get them going! And we'll assign a letter to each of the market days, that changes each year, and other letters to what you can do or not do. Yep, now every day in the year is a complete jumble of letters - our deed is done!

Gods, they must have been so disappointed at that point. Best to go and take over a country somewhere, and impose all that on its population and see what they make of it.

Anyway, let’s get back to the months in a year.

So they started off with ten months which roughly alternated between 30 and 31 days each. In true Roman style, they were called: Mars, April, Maia (the mother of Mercury), Juno, and then they ran out of ideas, so the rest are just numbers: five six, seven, eight, nine and ten. This added up to 304 days. So, in effect, there was a long winter in a time period with no name. You couldn’t make it up!

So what did King Numa do?

Well, the Romans thought odd numbers lucky. (Don’t ask!) So he took off days here and there to make all the months odd in number. Then he added two new months: January and February, on the end. One was named after Janus, the doorkeeper; and February after something used in purification. February was the only month with an even number of days, and the Romans plonked their heavy purification rituals in this month, perhaps to clear out the old year before the start (as it was originally was) of the new year in March. Now this might all seem a bit dry as a subject, but it’s important – because the Lupercalia is really a purification festival, and nothing to do with sex or love. But let’s look at February more closely.

There was a nine day festival to assuage ancestors and malevolent spirits of the dead, called the Parentalia, which began February 13th and ended with the Feralia on the 21st, when the head of the household appeased the Manes – the unquiet dead. The next day everyone had a feast in honour of the nice dead – the Lares.

Now I can hear you already: if this was going on between February 13th and February 21st, where did the Lupercalia fit in?

So what is this ritual?

Let’s begin with the ritual itself. We’ll deconstruct it later, but for now, let’s just concentrate on what went on.
youths being prepared
the blood ritual

It took place on 15th February, and the first stage was held at the Lupercal – a spot celebrating the cave of the she-wolf who rescued Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, after they were left to die by their mother. During the Republic the ceremonial space the place contained an altar and a grove sacred to the god Lupercus. The priests [Luperci] sacrificed a dog and several goats, dipped a sword in their blood and touched the blood-tipped end to the foreheads of two youths. That must have been a bit tricky, especially as the youths had to be from the aristocracy. It wasn’t going to go down to well if the sword slipped and damaged the youth. Maybe that was why the rule about it being aristocracy only changed during the Empire. The priests wiped off the blood with wool dipped in milk. At this point the youths were obliged to laugh.

While some of the Luperci were conducting the blood ritual, others were busy skinning the goats and cutting the hide into strips to be used as lashes, and others busy cooking the feast. Other bits of hide were draped round the Luperci, but not for the reasons of modesty! Or, at least, not until Augustus changed things.

It's doubtful they stuffed themselves at the feast as, immediately after, the priests had to leg it naked down the Palatine (the Sacred Way), singing raunchy and satirical songs about prominent people, hitting everyone they met with their goatskin lashes; especially women, who held out their hands for the purpose, as it was supposed to bring fertility and an easy birth. And, in the past, women were said to have exposed their bodies for more than a token lashing.

Why naked? No one knows. The run began at the Lupercal and ended at the Comitium. And, though they might not have eaten a lot, they were known for drinking a lot. Cicero has a go about a naked and well-oiled (in both senses!) Mark Anthony performing as one of the Luperci.

So: What’s it all about, anyway?

OK, time for a bit of Roman history. No, talking about the calendar wasn’t Roman history. Roman history is really the myths they made up about themselves, to give explanations for why they were so great and where they’d all come from. Don’t tell me that’s not real history – that’s what they thought of as history.

OK, so here’s the myth of the founding of Rome: there were two brothers called – no, not Romulus and Remus. We’re starting with their grandfather and his brother, the wicked grand-uncle. Don’t groan – I could go even further back! And I promise to make this as short as I can.

So there were these two brothers: Numitor and Amulius. Let’s call them Num and Am, because it saves me writing. Num’s a king and his brother isn’t but – surprise, surprise – wants to be one. Not king of Rome – that hasn’t been built yet, remember?

Anyway, Num had a daughter: Rhea Silvia. Let’s call her Silv. She has some brothers. Well, she did have, for a while. Until am gets hold of the family silver, buys an army, takes over, and kills all her brothers. He makes Silv become a Vestal Virgin. Now, I have no idea if they were around back then, but the point is that he’s effectively made her a nun. For life. As though that’s going to prevent her having children. ;)

So one night the god Mars sneaks in and rapes makes love to her. Or maybe it was Hercules. Or Am. Or maybe it wasn’t Silv at all but a bint called Acca Laurentia. Who then gets married off to a shepherd called Faustulus. Anyway, whoever the father – or the mother – is, she has twins, and Am has the babies throw into the river Tiber. He wants them to die, but they live. Maybe Mars is looking after them. Or maybe his servant doesn’t like murdering babies and pops them in a Moses basket to float away and get found by a wolf. The wolf takes them to her cave (no, don’t ask me how!) and suckles them. And they end up with a shepherd called Faustulus and his wife Acca Laurentia. Yep, the same Acca Laurentia.

Anyhow, Rom and Rem grow up thinking they’re shepherds. They’re natural leaders and acquire devoted gangs and equally devoted lieutenants. Bean is devoted to Rem and Fiver to Rom. (Later, Bean and Fiver – real names Fabius and Quinctilius – become the ‘founders’ of the two colleges of the Luperci, the priests of the Lupercalia.

Of course, the twins kill Am when they find out he murdered their mother. Or possibly didn’t. But anyhow, he tried to murder them, and that’s not on. Then they decide to found a new city, but they argue about where to put it. In fact, they keep having arguments, so it isn’t surprising that Rom kills Rem. Or possibly Rem is killed by Bean, who then switches sides, over to Rom, and Rom create Rome. (It’s in the name, gettit?).

So…although the purpose of the Lupercalia isn’t to celebrate the founding of Rome, that crops up. So the two youths from the aristocracy represent Rom and Rem. And the Lupercal is the wolf’s cave.

What, no gods? Well, yes, there was a god Lupercus, but he was probably made up later, to try to fill the obvious vacancy. Others suggested Faunus or pan, due to their associations with shepherds and the countryside. And Pan, back in Greece, had associations with a king who got turned into a wolf – so he was a good candidate. Except it was all lip service and created later. This ritual goes way back, possibly before Rome itself. Possibly back to the Etruscans. And it lasted for 1200 years. And, during that time, it got overlaid with a lot of Roman stuff. Again and again. And then people forgot which bits were added later, and thought it all came from the same time. And then they forgot why those bits were added, and made up new stories. So, although Rom and Rem (unnamed) get a role, it’s not really about them.


This is where it starts to get interesting.

You may have guessed by now, that Lupercalia, Luperci and Lupercal all relate to the Latin for 'wolf' lupus. So, as it happens, does the Latin slang for a prostitute: Lupa, which might be responsible for the story about Mars raping Silv. But why would there be a festival celebrating wolves in February?

You remember that February is the ‘unlucky month’ with an even number of days? And that, as a consequence, February is a month almost entirely comprising purification rituals of one sort or another, to clear the ground before the new year begins in March. And that the Lupercalia sits within a series of such festivals, called the Parentalia. During the Parentalia, Rome was closed to business: all temples were shut, marriages were forbidden, and magistrates didn’t show their status in public, which meant no official business was conducted.

The Parentalia began on the Ides of February. Normally, that was the 15th of the month; but, as February is short, it occurs earlier. Now this means the Lupercalia takes place within the first couple of days. Given that the Parentalia goes on for nine days (or eight, by modern counting), that makes the Lupercalia important for the purpose of the Parentalia.

Although most of the rites of the Parentalia were domestic and private, the whole festival opened on 13th February with a very public rite, conducted by one of the Vestal Virgins, on behalf of all the ancestors of Rome, at the tomb of Tarpeia. This is a collection of intensive symbology. The Vestals looked after the sacred fire of Rome. It was said that, if the fire went out, Rome would cease to exist. In effect, they were the guardians of the continuation of Rome. Tarpeia, in legend, tried to betray Rome and failed. A rock was named after her, which became the execution ground of traitors. The domestic rituals over the whole festival concentrated on the Manes – the dead, with the closing ritual of the Feralia concentrating on the malevolent dead: the Lemurae. (However, the major festival of the unquiet dead, the Lemuria, occurs 2 months later).

These observances were meant to strengthen the mutual obligations and protective ties between the living and the dead, in order to strengthen the family and, through the families and tribes, strengthen Rome herself. By finishing with the Feralia, that was a final exorcism before the new year. The Caristia on the following day, was a family feast to celebrate harmony between the living and the benevolent dead: the Lares.

The Lupercalia, then, is a purification ritual. The representatives of Romulus and Remus are ceremonially bloodied and then cleansed. This ritual and its parts have precedents in other religions or ceremonies. Blood represents life. In Greek necromancy, reflected in Homer, the shades of the dead must be fed blood before they can talk. The sprinkled blood of a sacrificial victim was used to cleanse men from murder and from madness. In the Taurobolium, the worshipper gained purity by being covered in the blood of the sacrificed bull. The Taurobolium was associated with the cult of Cybele-Attis, and spread from there into the Orphic cult. In their ceremony of the Omophagia, Orphics drank the blood and ate the raw flesh, of the newly slain animal.
the Run
The run through the streets of Rome
Wool was regarded as a purifying force. Ovid, in his list of the materials that have cleansing power, mentions wool first of all. And milk was employed among both Greeks and Romans as a libation to chthonic deities. Again, milk was used in orphic rites, which may indicate the blood ceremony was a late addition. Whether it is or not, it would fit with the main theme of the festival as purification.

The use of a dog and goats is suggestive of including both herds and the protectors of herds. Goats were also associated with Juno, and that association may have strengthened the fertility aspect of the festival, with women seeking blessing through the token lashing. Juno, after all, governed the home and married life. But there is no suggestion in any source that Juno was a deity of this festival. And the concentration on the women seeking the feel of the goatskin may be a late addition.

Given the nature of the festival, it is more likely that all members of the public were to be lashed and purified, for the sake of Rome. The running of the Luperci down the sacred way and around the city, indicates a beating of the boundaries, to ensure all is made pure. The sacrifice of the dog may represent the Luperci as protectors of the city, as dogs protected the flocks of goats and sheep, with the herds to be protected echoed in the goatskin and the use of wool.

In later times, the lashing became a token penetration, and affiliation with a goat – thought to be a lascivious and fertile animal. It may be that, at the same time, the lashing moved from being one of the entire population, to concentrating more on women, who could also feel safe, due to the association of the goat with Juno. However, there are stories that women may have bared their backs to the thongs from the very beginning of the festival. Augustus ruled out young men from serving as Luperci for moral reason. Spoilsport! He may also have made the Luperci wear goatskin loincloths, as they were doing this by the 1st century B.C.

One indication of the purification origins of the festival, before any fertility rites took over, are the words associated with it. Its acts were called februare and lustrare by Ovid. The goat-skin itself was called februum, the festive day dies februata, the month in which it occurred Februarius, and the god himself Februus. All words to do with purification and sacrifice.

So what about the lottery for sex partners for a year?

Are you still on about that? Ok, I’ll leave the last word to Bill Thayer, who began the LacusCurtius site of collected texts on the university of Chicago’s server:
“Finally, leaving aside the vagaries of those who seek to reduce Christianity to a hotch-potch of pagan rituals — in case you haven't noticed, gentle reader, we're dealing with an agenda — the Lupercalia themselves have been described as including a "lottery" in which young girls would write their names on slips of paper and young men draw them out of a box (or vice-versa), under the supervision of the Luperci: this is sheer fabrication, and a recent one at that. The first mention of such an idea dates only to 1756, in Alban Butler's Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints, where the author blithely asserts (Vol. 2, s.v. February XIV, St. Valentine, Priest and Martyr) that "To abolish the heathens lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honour of their goddess Februata Juno, on the fifteenth of this month, several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets, given on this day." No trace of any such custom has been found. A Frenchman named Douce, in 1807, then dragged in the actual name of the Lupercalia; then as usual with this kind of thing, everyone repeated it until it became "true": but there is no ancient witness to any of it. It is not true. There are a lot of things we don't know. Many people, abhorring a void, fill it up with nonsense.”

Classical sources

Sextus Aurelius Victor (attributed) The Origins of the Roman People XXII.1.:
Therefore, as a result of the actions which we have described above and the divine event which had occurred in the spot which now is called the Lupercal, festive fellows raced about striking with skins of sacrificial victims whomever was approaching them, with the result that they established what is a solemn sacrifice for themselves and for their descendants and separately named their own, Remus the Fabii, Romulus the Quintilii. The name of each of these two survives even now in ceremonies.
Plutarch, Life of Caesar 61
Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. 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 in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.
Ovid, Fasti II
So we worship the god, and the priest performs The rites the Pelasgians brought in the ancient way. Why, you ask, do the Luperci run, and since it's their custom, This running, why do they strip their bodies naked? The god himself loves to run swiftly on the heights, And he himself suddenly takes to flight. The god himself is naked, and orders his servants naked, Since anyway clothes were not suited to that course. They say the Arcadians had their land before the birth Of Jove, and their race is older than the moon. They lived like beasts, lives spent to no purpose: The common people were crude as yet, without arts. They built houses from leafy branches, grass their crops, Water, scooped in their palms, was nectar to them. No bull panted yoked to the curved ploughshare, No soil was under the command of the farmer. Horses were not used, all carried their own burdens, The sheep went about still clothed in their wool. People lived in the open and went about nude, Inured to heavy downpours from rain-filled winds. To this day the naked priests recall the memory Of old customs, and testify to those ancient ways... A she-wolf, which had given birth to her whelps came, wondrous to tell, to the abandoned twins [Romulus and Remus] ...She halted and fawned on the tender babes with her tail, and licked into shape their two bodies with her tongue ...fearless, they sucked her dugs and were fed on a supply of milk that was never meant for them. The she-wolf (lupa) gave her name to the place, and the place gave their name to the Luperci. Great is the reward the nurse has got for the milk she gave.
Livy, History of Rome 1.5
It is said that the festival of the Lupercalia, which is still observed, was even in those days celebrated on the Palatine hill. This hill was originally called Pallantium from a city of the same name in Arcadia; the name was afterwards changed to Palatium. Evander, an Arcadian, had held that territory many ages before, and had introduced an annual festival from Arcadia in which young men ran about naked for sport and wantonness, in honour of the Lycaean Pan, whom the Romans afterwards called Inuus. The existence of this festival was widely recognised, and it was while the two brothers were engaged in it that the brigands, enraged at losing their plunder, ambushed them. Romulus successfully defended himself, but Remus was taken prisoner and brought before Amulius, his captors impudently accusing him of their own crimes. The principal charge brought against them was that of invading Numitor's lands with a body of young men whom they had got together, and carrying off plunder as though in regular warfare. Remus accordingly was handed over to Numitor for punishment.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 1.80
But Aelius Tubero, a shrewd man and careful in collecting the historical data, writes that Numitor's people, knowing beforehand that the youths were going to celebrate in honour of Pan the Lupercalia, the Arcadian festival as instituted by Evander, set an ambush for that moment in the celebration when the youths living near the Palatine were, after offering sacrifice, to proceed from the Lupercal and run round the village naked, their loins girt with the skins of the victims just sacrificed. This ceremony signified a sort of traditional purification of the villagers, and is still performed even to this day.
Augustinius of Hippo, City of God 18.17
In support of this story, Varro relates others no less incredible about that most famous sorceress Circe, who changed the companions of Ulysses into beasts, and about the Arcadians, who, by lot, swam across a certain pool, and were turned into wolves there, and lived in the deserts of that region with wild beasts like themselves. But if they never fed on human flesh for nine years, they were restored to the human form on swimming back again through the same pool. Finally, he expressly names one Demaenetus, who, on tasting a boy offered up in sacrifice by the Arcadians to their god Lykaios according to their custom, was changed into a wolf, and, being restored to his proper form in the tenth year, trained himself as a pugilist, and was victorious at the Olympic games. And the same historian thinks that the epithet Lykaios was applied in Arcadia to Pan and Jupiter for no other reason than this metamorphosis of men into wolves, because it was thought it could not be wrought except by a divine power. For a wolf is called in Greek lykòs, from which the name Lykaios appears to be formed. He says also that the Roman Luperci were as it were sprung of the seed of these mysteries.
Justin, Epitome 43.6ff
After [Saturn], third in descent, they say that Faunus was king, in whose time Evander came into Italy from Pallanteum, a city of Arcadia, accompanied with a small band of his countrymen, to whom Faunus kindly gave land, and the mountain which he afterwards called Palatium. At the foot of this mountain he built a temple to the Lykaian god, whom the Greeks call Pan, and the Romans Lupercus, the naked statue of the deity being covered with a goat-skin, in which dress the priests now run up and down during the Lupercalia at Rome.
Plutarch, Life of Iulius Caesar 61.1-2
There was added to these causes of offence his insult to the tribunes. It was, namely, the festival of the Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. 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.


Calendar: By Juliana Bastos Marques (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
youth being prepared: "Annibale Carracci, study for Lupercalia" by Annibale Carracci - [1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
the run: "Camasei-lupercales-prado" by Andrea Camassei - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Non-Classical Bibligoraphy

Lupercalia Leonhard Schmitz, in A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities ed William Smith, John Murray, London, 1875.
The Lupercalia A M Franklin, doctoral thesis, Faculty of Philosophy, Columbia University, New York, 1921
The LacusCurtius website:

© Alexa Duir 2014