Today is Valentine’s Day — a holiday both loved and hated the world over. If you happen to belong to that latter camp of haters, you might be excited to learn about the ancient Greek festival that Valentine’s Day replaced. Observed between February 13th and 15th, the Lupercalia festival once served to ward off evil spirits and purify the polis, thus releasing good health and fertility for the coming year. Interestingly enough, the holiday, subsumed by Valentine’s Day in 496 CE under the rule of Pope Galasius, actually subsumed an earlier holiday, Februra, from which the month of February gains its name.
But what’s in a name? Lupercalia is loosely connected with the ancient Greek festival of the Arcadia Lykaia (λύκος — lykos, “wolf”), which was held on the slopes of Mount Kykaiaon (“Wolf Mountain”), the tallest mountain in Arcadia, in the beginning of May. Lykaia was a primitive rite of passage that may have possibly entailed cannibalism and the possibility of werewolf transformation for the adolescent male participants.
In Roman mythology, however, Lupercus can be associated with the Roman god Faunus (the equivalent of Pan, the god of shepherds). Lupercus’ festival, celebrated on February 15, was also called Lupercalia, and his priests wore goatskins during all rites and celebrations. The Lupercal is also the cave where Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were suckled by a she-wolf, also named Lupa — which closely ties the god and the holiday to the origins of the Roman Empire.
Plutarch describes the event as celebrated in the Late Roman Empire in The Life of Caesar:
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.
It’s hard to imagine how one would currently celebrate Lupercalia (both cannibalism and streaking are unfortunately frowned upon today). Neverthless, some people still mark their calendars, celebrating the 15th through feasts, at-home rituals, or by even just thinking of the coming of spring. An alternative to Valentine’s Day? Maybe. But if nothing else, Lupercalia is a good reminder of what came before the commercialization of February 14th.
The above painting is “Lupercalia” by Domenico Beccafumi