As noted in previously newsletters, many of the traditions of our modern religions have been modified forms of ancient Pagan rites. One of the oldest of these festivals was called Lupercalia, the pre-Roman ritual for purification of health and fertility. This tradition was carried on by Greek and Macedonian predecessors for centuries until the collapse of the Roman Empire in the 4th Century A.D. Every year between February 13th and 15th, inhabitants would celebrate the Cleansing brought upon by Spring weather, and a refinement of air, body, and soul for all.
The primary tradition that took place in the Lupercalia tradition was known as Februa. Here, two young men, naked with the exception of a small girdle, would run in criss-cross patterns across Rome's main hill, known as the Palatine Hill. Each of these young men would carry a sheet of goat skin, and would hit the present woman with this thong. Through striking these women with the goat skin, it was believed that these runners were transferring the gift of fertility upon them. Many believe that the Februa tradition actually began well before Lupercalia, and during the height of the Roman Empire, the Lupercalia rite subsumed Februa. It is for this ceremony that we get the name of our second month, February.
Additionally during Lupercalia, both a dog and two male goats would annually be sacrificed within the Lupercal, a cave in the Palatine Hill. Legend holds that it was at the Lupercal where Romulus and Remus as infants survived through the gentleness and feeding of a she-wolf named Lupa. Through their survival in this Cave, they were able to establish and begin to build the great city of Rome. Around 44 B.C., the Lupercal Cave began to decay due to an excess of human activity within it, so the then Roman Emperor Augustus, decided to rebuild it to preserve this significant landscape.
In the 5th Century A.D., the collective mindset began to change as Christianity became widespread, though there are scholars who hold true that the deterioration in the celebration of Lupercalia began in the 1st century A.D. At this time, the infamous Marcus Antonius (better known as Mark Anthony) ran with the Luperci (the youths with the goatskin), which led the ruling class to see this rite as below them as it had not been before. In decline for four centuries, Pope Gelasius I finally abolished the festival all together. His exact words to those who still found significance in Lupercalia were, "If you assert that this rite has salutary force, celebrate it yourselves in the ancestral fashion; run nude yourselves that you may properly carry out the mockery." Soon after, many Romans became embarrassed to take part in this tradition.
There is reference to Anthony's actions during Lupercalia in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. But other than this, you may ask, what significance does this pre-Roman Pagan festival hold in today's world? It is not like the Yule Tree on Christmas or the similarities between Odin and Santa Clause. I had recently spoken to a Pagan historian, who had informed me that the notion of Spring Cleaning had emerged coinciding with the demise of Lupercalia. Though I cannot think that spraying the windows with Windex and vacuuming the Carpet is nearly as momentous as a Rite that facilitates a woman's fertility, I can see the connection through the idea of purification.