By Helen Charlie Nellist - Volunteer Guide 

I have chosen to research Lupercalia for my post as the celebration holds some personal significance for me.  It is a festival of fertility and prosperity celebrated in Ancient Rome between the 13th and 15th of February (a date which holds much importance to me as it is my birthday). In this blog I intend to explain how it is likely tied in with St Valentine's day.

The origin of the name, Lupercalia also known as the Feast of Lupercal, is derived not only from the Roman Fertility God, Lupercus but also from the name given to the cave where Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome were alleged to have been nurtured by a she-wolf.  The legend goes that in the 6th century BC the twin's father, King Amulius ordered that they should be drowned as infants in the river Tiber after their mother broke her vow of celibacy. Having been placed in a basket by a servant that took pity on them, they were carried downriver by the river God and were caught in the branches of a fig tree. They were discovered by a female wolf who raised them in her den at the base of Palantine Hill (where Rome was founded) that would later be named Lupercal.

The festival of Lupercalia was in itself a very violent and sexually charged affair that was carried out in two separate locations, firstly in the cave itself and secondly in the Roman, open-air, public meeting place called the Comitium.

At the Lupercal cave, a dog and one or more male goats, to represent sexuality were sacrificed by the Luperci, a group of priests. Two of them, at this point naked, would be smeared by the blood from the sacrificial knife. As the Luperci priests laughed, the blood was removed with wool soaked in milk. Strips of the freshly sacrificed goats were then cut to form what are referred to as thongs or februa. These were to be used later in the celebration and it's likely to be where the name for our month of February found its origins.

The festivities were then transferred to the city of Ancient Rome. Naked or near-naked, the Luperci ran around using the februa to whip all women who were in striking distance. This was a fertility rite, welcomed by many of the ladies present who often bared their skin to be lashed. Location was often important, for example, a lashed breast may lead to lactation.  As time progressed, this tradition became more chaste as nudity fell out of favour and women were whipped on their hands by fully clothed men.

Next, women’s names were randomly drawn from jars by the men to decide who would couple with whom for the duration of the feasting and subsequent revelry.  Many couples would choose to stay together until the following year’s celebration. Quite a number of them would fall in love and often got married.

Closer to home, the museum of Vindolanda, boasts a very beautiful betrothal pendant made from jet. Most of the jet at Vindolanda probably come from Whitby in North Yorkshire. Perhaps this trinket was brought up the coastal road to our fort by a man who wanted to present it to his sweetheart, how romantic! Fertility and love was very important to the Romans and we have many objects in our museums that attest to that. At Vindolanda we have a wonderful example of Priapus, who is carved in stone and is very definitely a fertility god and excavations over 50 years have unearthed numerous representations of the male phallus also known as a fascina made of different materials. These were often used as symbols of good luck and fertility and were worn as jewellery, carried upon the person and even carved into structures and buildings.  At the Roman Army Museum, you can see a fantastic statuette depicting Venus, the Roman goddess of love which proves just how important it was in Roman society.

It is not coincidental that the Christian festival of St Valentine’s day should also fall on the 14th February which is right in the middle of Lupercalia. As is evident in other examples of pagan festivals that were co-opted by Christianity (Yule/Saturnalia becoming Christmas, Samhain becoming Halloween/All Hallows Eve and Eostre/Ostara becoming Easter), it appeared to be easier to the early Christians to simply assimilate the local customs and develop a more sanitised, chaste way to celebrate them as a way to gently control the populace.

In the 5th century AD, Pope Gelasius I decided to outlaw the practice of Lupercalia and mandated that that 14th February would instead be to mark the martyrdom of St Valentine instead. Many legends circulate regarding Valentine himself. (Link to Valentine blog)

Just how much of the celebration of Lupercalia influences the traditions of St Valentine's Day can be a little vague but genuine comparisons can be drawn with the use of colours. It is thought that the use of red could stem back to the blood of the sacrifices carried out for the Feast of Lupercal and perhaps the contrasting use of white could be compared to the milk used to cleanse the blood from the anointed Luperci and signify new life and procreation. Whatever comparisons can be drawn, it is very apparent that many of our current traditions and practices are still heavily influenced by those of the Roman Empire some 2000 years ago. It proves that priorities of humanity as a whole has not changed through history.

This blog has been written as part of our Roman Holiday Project.


History of Valentine's Day

 St Valentine 

The Dark Origins of Valentine's Day