2012-02-15

The Wolf Festival

What's black, white, and red all over?
If it's two goats and a dog, then the answer is "The Wolf Festival", the ancient tradition which gave way to Valentine's Day. ["Lupercalia" - Wikipedia]

Mid-February is Lupercalia, the Wolf Festival, an ancient Roman festival of purification and fertility. During the festival, the Luperci -- the "brothers of the wolf" -- would sacrifice two male goats and a dog. They would then smear the blood of that sacrifice on the faces of new initiates into the Luperci. The initiates would then cut lashes of goat flesh and run through the city. Young women would present themselves along their route in order to be whipped by these lashes, which tradition held would ensure fertility.

Eventually, Lupercalia was banned (along with other out-of-fashion rituals) by Pope Gelasius, but we'll come back to that. Before we move forward into what Lupercalia became (spoiler: Valentine's Day), let's learn about where it may have had its origins.


Legend has it that Rome was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus, suckled as infants by a she-wolf. Much of Roman culture was of Greek origin, Lupercalia is no exception. The Luperci formed in honor of this she-wolf (lupa) and Lupercalia was born atop the rituals of a Greek festival of wolf lore called "Lykaia" [Wikipedia]1.

Back to the future, Christianity eventually became the popular religion, so public displays of the old religions were banned. Many of the festivals and holidays of antiquity were replaced with new Christian equivalents. Winter solstice became Christmas. Spring equinox was replaced by Easter. Harvest festivals, celebrated with the cornucopia of Zeus or the wheat of Ceres, gave way to All Saints Day (and its All Saints Eve, aka Halloween).

When you're supplanting traditions with a multitude of deities and demigods with monotheistic beliefs, it is -- by definition -- easy to get out-numbered. That is, until you throw in your own versions of the divine on Earth: saints. So, Gelasius replaced Lupercalia with St. Valentine's Day, in recognition of a few early Christians (name Valentine) who were martyred for their then-unpopular beliefs.

Valentine's Day (and the other "new" holidays) anchored well into society and was largely untouched for almost a thousand years, at least until Chaucer put the spin of chivalry and courtly romance into it.
"For this was Seynt Valentyne's Day. When every foul cometh ther to choose his mate."
The popularity of this idea spread faster than the brief second it actually takes for avian insemination, Valentine's Day became a day of courting and affection.

Over the centuries to follow, Valentine's Day went through a slow metamorphosis into something "new": a ritual of fertility. Now, at the least, I hope that ritual doesn't involve the bloody flesh of a goat. Please let me remain blissfully ignorant, if that is not the case.


1 The Lykaia festival of ancient Greece is part of the legendary heritage of the origin of werewolves. I'm sure it was no coincidence that Anne Rice released her newest novel "The Wolf Gift" yesterday during Lupercalia.
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