February and the Lupercalia

In the old world traditions, February is a month given over to purification, atonement, and fertility. All of these rites are to be seen as prerequisite to the coming fecundity of Spring. February, thus, is a month of anticipation and preparation of the way forward. According to Ovid, in one of his perhaps fanciful yet telling etymologies, he notes that 

Our Roman forefathers called the means of absolution “februa”
Even today much evidence attests to this meaning.

Ovid. Fasti. II.19-20.
The dark history behind Valentine’s Day

Similarly he attests to a pine bough, perhaps used to beat away sinfulness and dirt from the body as being called a “februa” when given to the flamen’s wife. It is an act similar in form to the beatings of the Lupercalia, the naked runners devoted to Pan, or in Latin Faunus, who use strips of leather to whip young women in passing, that they might become fertile in the coming year. 

For the north of Europe, in a different pagan tradition we have Imbolc, which corresponds loosely with our own Groundhog’s Day. During the season of Imbolc one is required to make offerings, of course, but also to seek blessings upon fields and livestock that they might be fruitful, whilst also engaging in ritualized spring cleaning. A clearing the way for the influence of the new year to be activated by sweeping out the old. It is also noted that the festival, which by the Christian calendar is associated with the feast day of Saint Brigid, is timed to coincide with lambing season. It is perhaps notable then, that in the Lupercalia, it is with  a whip of goat’s hide with which the young virgins are struck, as it is on the first of the month a sheep that is offered up to Jupiter Optimus Maximus  (Ovid. Fasti: II. 444-45; & 70).


Copyright ©Museo Nacional del Prado

The 15th is the traditional date of the Lupercalia, which occurs on the third morning after the ides (which is not, as we can see, always on the 15th of the month) and a day after our own Valentine’s. The Lupercalia it seems is a much more rustic tradition, however, and involved crowds of naked young runners vaunting through the ancient city, armed with strips of goat hide as we have already mentioned, and beating, symbolically anyway, the fecundity back into the women of the realm. Ovid attributes the rite to an ancient prophecy where in the matrons were ordered to be mounted by a randy billy-goat, for which act the beating by the hide was substituted by the appalled citizens.  (Ovid. Fasti: II. 441ff).

In another origin story Ovid tells us that the runners are given to nakedness both because it is fitting to run unbound by clothes, like the ancient Arcadians, but also because Pan harbors a grudge against them. This distaste for the obscuring properties of habiliments is said to derive from an unhappy encounter with Hercules and his wife Omphale. Having become enamored with the demi-god’s spouse the rustic forest god decided upon a strategy of rapine. Unfortunately for the Great God, when he came quietly unto their bed chamber the duo had exchanged clothes in order to worship Dionysius on the morrow, so, instead of seizing the beautiful Omphale he squoze close to dread Hercules instead. Interesting by omission is the fact that Ovid tells us nothing about the wine-god’s festival, which is left, I suppose, to be told by Greeks and not Romans.  (Ovid. Fasti: II. 303ff).

Wolf head, 1-100 CE, bronze, Roman, Cleveland Museum of Art. via Wikimedia

In short, February is a month for frisky sport, and love, and preparation, a truth we all know, perhaps, without being told explicitly. Yet it is informative to see that no matter how things change, some truths remain the same from time to time, and that we still follow in some sense the ancient customs, whether it is in cozying up at home to wait out winter storms, or in cleaning out the dust from off the pantry shelves, or else prepare for warmer days, by nosing through seed catalogs and starting out young shoots in window boxes in anticipation of coming spring.