Romantics beware: I’m going to ruin your Valentine’s Day. Nah, I’m just kidding. We know Valentine’s Day as a time to celebrate love, romance and cupcakes, but the origins of this day is definitely ancient, likely involved nude people and quite political, because, well, it was ancient Rome.
This holiday that evolved to what we know as Valentine’s Day today was a very ancient pre-Roman pastoral festival to avert evil spirits and purify the city. According to Plutarch, from February 13 to 15, romantic Roman fellows stripped naked, grabbed some goat-skin whips and whipped consenting young maidens in hopes of increasing their fertility.
This festival was Lupercalia, said to be connected to the ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia and the worship of Lycaean Pan, the Greek equivalent to the Roman god Faunus. The Greek word λύκος (lukos) means “wolf”, so does the Latin word lupus. In Roman mythology, Lupercus was a hunter of wolves associated with the Roman god Faunus, the god of agriculture and fertility. Lupercalia was a festival held in his honor to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of his temple.
However, Lupercus was only a part of the celebration. The Lupercalia festival was best known as a celebration in honor of Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, which explains the name of the festival, Lupercalia (“Wolf Festival”). According to tradition, the legendary twin brothers Romulus and Remus established the Lupercalia with 2 gentes, one for each brother. Each gens then contributed members to the priestly college that performed the ceremonies, with Jupiter’s priest in charge from at least the time of Emperor Augustus. The priestly college was called the Sodales Luperci and the priests were known as Luperci (“brothers of the wolf”).
The Luperci were divided into two collegia, called Quinctiliani (or Quinctiales) and Fabiani, from the gens Quinctilii, representing Romulus and gens Fabii, representing Remus. The Fabii were almost annihilated in 479 CE at Cremera and the most famous member of the Quinctilii has the distinction of being the Roman leader at the disastrous battle at Teutoberg Forest. In 44 BC, a third college, the Julii, was instituted in honor of Julius Caesar, the first magister of which was Mark Antony. Antony offered Caesar a crown during the festival – an act that was widely interpreted as a sign that Caesar aspired to make himself king and was gauging the reaction of the crowd.
Etymologically, Luperci, Lupercalia, and Lupercal all relate to the Latin for ‘wolf’ lupus, as do various Latin words connected with brothels. The Latin for she-wolf was also slang for prostitute.
The festival began with the sacrifice of two male goats and a dog. Then two young patrician Luperci were led to the altar, to be anointed on their foreheads with the sacrificial blood, which was wiped off the bloody knife with wool soaked in milk.
The sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs from the skins of the animals, which were called februa, dressed themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats and ran round the walls of the old Palatine city, the line of which was marked with stones, with the thongs in their hands in two bands, striking the people who crowded near. Girls and young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from these whips to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ease the pains of childbirth.
Striking women is thought to have been a fertility measure, but there was also a decided sexual component. Symbolically, if the act was to ensure fertility, it could be that the striking of the women was also to represent penetration. Of course, the husbands would not have wanted the Luperci actually copulating with their wives, but symbolic penetration, broken skin, made by a piece of a fertility symbol (goat), could be effective. The women may have bared their backs to the thongs from the festival’s inception. After 276 BC., young married women (matronae) were encouraged to bare their bodies. In his time, Augustus ruled out beardless young men from serving as Luperci because of their irresistibility, even though they were probably no longer naked.
The cavorting Sodales Luperci performed an annual purification of the city in the month for purification – February. Since early in Roman history March was the start of the New Year, the period of February was a time to get rid of the old and prepare for the new.
By the second century CE, some of the elements of sexuality had been removed from the Lupercalia. Fully dressed matrons stretched out their hands, instead of baring their backs, to be whipped. Later, the representations show women humiliated by flagellation at the hands of men fully dressed and no longer running about. Self-flagellation was part of the rites of Cybele on the ‘day of blood’ dies sanguinis (March 16).
It’s this blend of fun, fertility, and erotic elements, as well as the date, that ties Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day, but Lupercalia is not the direct, legitimate ancestor of the Valentine’s Day holiday. However, the ancient Romans may also be responsible for the name of our modern day of love. Emperor Claudius II executed two men — both named Valentine — on February 14 of different years in the 3rd century CE. Their martyrdom was honored by the Catholic Church with the celebration of St. Valentine’s Day. Later, Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the 5th century by combining St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals. But that didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love. Coincidentally, around the same time, the Normans celebrated Galatin’s Day. Galatin meant “lover of women.” This was likely confused with St. Valentine’s Day at some point, in part because they sound similar.