This post, by Cristina Smith, originally appeared on the OM Times site on 2/9/12. The article provides some interesting historical background on Valentine’s Day, and may be useful for anyone working on a Valentine’s Day -themed manuscript or story.
Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15th every year in honor of Lupercus, a god of fertility whose Greek counterpart is Pan. The word lupus is Latin for wolf, an essential animal in Roman history. It was a ceremony for purification and fertility. Parts of the celebration are included in February traditions even today, such as Valentine’s Day and fasting customs such as Lent.
The festival, whose flower is the yellow crocus, is as old as Rome itself when it was nothing more than a few shepherds living on a hill surrounded by a wolf-filled wilderness. Lupercalia centered around a cave on that Palatine Hill, the lupercal. According to legend, this was the cave where the lost twins Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome, were nursed by a she-wolf and saved from starvation.
The rite went something like this. Vestal virgins brought sacred cakes made from the first ears of last year’s grain harvest to a fig tree. Two naked young men, assisted by the Vestals, sacrificed a dog and a goat, animals with strong sexual instincts, at the site. The blood was smeared on the foreheads of the young men and then wiped away with wool dipped in milk. At this point, the youths were required to laugh. Then the priests, or lupercai, would run about in loincloths made from the skin of the sacrifices, slapping everyone with strips of goat skin. Most believed the thongs to be februa that cleansed their sins and assured good fortune so they tried to be struck. Young wives were particularly eager since they believed it promoted fertility and easy childbirth. There was also lots of feasting and drinking, which is not too unusual when the ceremonial highlight of the festival is being slapped with goat strips.
Long after Palentine Hill became the seat of the powerful city, state and empire of Rome, the Lupercalia festival lived on. In fact, Lupercalia was not dropped from the liturgical calendar until 1969. Historic records indicate that Mark Antony was master of the Luperci College of Priests. It was at the Lupercalia of 44 BCE that he ran up to Julius Caesar who watched from the Rostra and offered him a laurel wreath as a symbol of kingship. Caesar rejected it and exactly one month later, he was assassinated. Conquering Roman armies took the Lupercalia customs with them as they invaded France and Britain. One of these was a lottery where the names of available maidens were placed in an urn and drawn out by the young men. Each man accepted the girl whose name he drew as his love – for the duration of the festival, or sometimes longer. Some speculate it is from this practice that our modern Valentine’s Day has evolved.