By Gianna Stanley
Lupercalia is an ancient Pagan festival that was held from the 13th to the 15th of February each year in Rome. We can trace its origins back to about the 6th century BC – long before the festival became exploited by capitalism. Romulus and Remus are the mythological twins who were the founders of Rome itself and sons of Rhea Silvia – daughter of the Alban King. The story has it that Rhea’s brother forced her to become a ‘Vestal Virgin’ in order to prevent any claims to the throne on her behalf. Nevertheless, she defied male superiority and mothered twins, whose father was the war-god Mars. Rhea’s brother learned of her defiance and ordered the twins to drown in the Tiber river. Ironically enough, he sent them to their fate as being the founders of Rome, because they floated and came to rest at the site of future Rome.
The traditions became even more peculiar.
Now, what does this have to do with Valentine’s day? Well, the twins were found by a she-wolf who lovingly cared and rescued them until they were found by some shepherds who took them in. The twins soon became powerful young men and learned of their past – which led them to kill their uncle. Subsequently, they founded a town on the site where they had been saved, but most importantly, honoured the she-wolf’s memory by naming her Lupercal. Its thought that Lupercalia took place to honour her but also to please the Roman God of fertility, Lupercus.
You’d think that by honouring fertility and motherly instincts, the festival of Lupercalia would centre around love and appreciation like it does today. However, the Romans just had to have their own take on it – it would not be a Roman celebration if not. The celebration began with the sacrifice of one or more male goats – a representation of sexuality – and a dog. Luperci, (a group of Roman Priests) performed these sacrifices and participated in a rather unusual aspect of this tradition. After the sacrifice, the blood would be smothered on the foreheads of two of these naked Priests using the very knife that killed the animals – weird, huh? This blood was removed with a piece of wool soaked in milk, and it was something that the Luperci found particularly comedic.
Perhaps a more well-known part of the tradition because it has been seen in modern adaptations of film and TV – such as in Sabrina the Teenage Witch remake – is the random pairing of men and women who were coupled for the festival. Some couples stayed together until the next Lupercalia, some did not, and some even fell in love and married. It would be kind of a funny story to tell if you met your soulmate out of pure luck!
He signed it off ‘From Your Valentine’.
Funnily enough, the traditions became even more peculiar, stemming further away from the day that we know now. When the feast was over, the priests would cut strips of goat, also called thongs, from the freshly sacrificed goats. They would then run around the city naked, or partially naked, whipping the women with these strips of goats. Many women often welcomed this – showing as much skin as possible, because these whips were viewed as helping fertility. We could link this idea of fertility to the current celebrations as it could be seen as a symbol of love – however, the Romans were rather bawdy for this to be merely about love. Over time, nakedness in the celebration lost popularity, probably because self-awareness increased. Women would then be whipped on their hands by clothed men, and the festival became less sexual and more ritual based.
These traditions continued up until the popularity of Christianity arose, and the Pope Gelasius ultimately westernised and created Valentine’s day. There are many stories on how this came about, however, the most popular version is that of a man named Valentine who was executed for secretly marrying persecuted Christians who were in love. Another story describes that during Valentine’s imprisonment, he tutored a blind girl named Julia, who was found to be the daughter of his jailer. God miraculously gave sight to Julia once she prayed with Valentine. It is said that on the night of his execution, he wrote her a letter and signed it off ‘From Your Valentine’. This sign off has become popular with people who wish to keep anonymity, but the very premise of the card/letter is a tradition that carried on and is perhaps one of the largest consumer items bought on Valentine’s day.
Whilst the Christian origins contain the basis of our Valentine’s day – the romance, love, and worshipping fertility – there are some aspects that are rooted in the celebration of Lupercalia. For example, the colour red, which signifies the blood of the sacrifices, is the first colour that comes to mind when you think of this love festival. The random coupling also signifies the strange thing that is love – to meet someone out of luck and celebrate Valentine’s with them for the rest of your life! Now, I don’t want you thinking about some crazy naked Romans covered in blood when you are celebrating with your loved ones this year – but I thought it would be an uplifting story to see how the rather comedic origins of this celebration came to be a commercialised ‘day of love’.