Lupercalia: Everything You Need To Know About This Pagan Festival

Lupercalia Pagan Festival and Traditions

You may have heard the Pagan Festival of Lupercalia is the origin of Valentine’s Day. You might also recall one of the pivotal scenes in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar involving Caesar refusing the crown offered to him by Marc Antony during the festival of Lupercalia.

So, what is Lupercalia? Let’s take a look at this Roman Pagan festival, its origins, traditions, and bloody sacrifices.

Please note that I make every effort to ensure this information is correct and accurate through my own experiences and referencing sources throughout and at the bottom of this article.

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What is Lupercalia?

There is quite a bit of debate regarding many aspects of Lupercalia, with scholars having various stances regarding its origin, traditions, and influence.

Lupercalia was a Roman festival symbolizing purification, fertility, and removing evil spirits. It can be traced back to at least the 6th century BC, and its name derives from the word lupus, meaning wolf.

This celebration involved animal sacrifices and fertility rituals but was also a time of feasting and overall debauchery. Over time, this festival evolved and transformed into a celebration focused on fertility, health, and childbirth.

When is Lupercalia?

Lupercalia was an ancient pagan festival that took place every year on February 15th in Rome. Some scholars claim this event took place on February 13th and lasted through the 15th.

Is Lupercalia Pagan?

While Lupercalia does have Pagan origins, it’s not a commonly practiced celebration in more modern times. However, The Satanic Temple lists Lupercalia as one of its annual holidays.

Based on the Roman festival of the same name, Lupercalia falls on February 15. In keeping with the ancient tradition, February 13th and 14th are observed as feast days leading up to the actual holiday.

What we are translating this to in TST is a “hail yourself” day. This idea offers a parallel to the “others-centered” traditions of Sol Invictus.

The Satanic Temple – Holidays

Lupercalia Festival History and Origins

Lupercalia’s origins begin with Roman legend claiming that King Amulius ordered his twin nephews, Romulus and Remus, to be drowned in the Tiber river. This was meant as a punishment for their mother, who broke a vow of celibacy.

However, a kind servant placed them in a basket carrying them down the river. It was believed a river god kept them safe until becoming trapped in the roots of a sacred fig tree. Eventually, a female wolf picked them up and brought them to her den. She cared for them until a shepherd and his wife eventually took Romulus and Remus in.

As adults, Remus and Romulus named the she-wolf Lupercal, and her den became the location where many future Lupercalia rituals took place.

Ruins of Palatine Hill in Rome Italy, where some Lupercalia festivities took place

Lupercalia Pagan Festival

Lupercalia festivities took place in a few different locations, including Lupercal cave, Palatine Hill, and in the Comitium, a public outdoor space. The rituals were carried out by a group of Roman priests known as Luperci, who were typically young men.

**Trigger Warning Animal Sacrifice**

The festival started at Lupercal cave by sacrificing a male goat (symbolizing fertility and sexuality) and a dog (representing Lupercal). Sacrificing a dog was very rare, and it’s believed only to have taken place during Lupercalia.

The bloodied ritual knife was then used to anoint the foreheads of two Luperci. The blood was wiped clean with wool dipped in milk (a symbol of purification), and the two young men were said to laugh as part of the rite.

The goat hide was then cut into strips and, while still naked or wearing a girdle; the Luperci would use these strips to whip women while parading through the streets. This ritual was believed to increase fertility and was not meant to harm anyone. Instead, it was intended to be symbolic, harmless, and light-hearted.

The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.

NPR – The Dark Origins Of Valentine’s Day

With all that being said, many researchers claim there is no convincing proof or evidence to suggest a “matchmaking lottery” ever took place.

Some researchers believe Lupercalia predates Romulus and Remus mythology. There’s even evidence revealing the concept of a female wolf suckling humans long before the Lupercalia legends.

A feature of central importance in the Romulus and Remus legend and one which probably owed much to indigenous (i.e. Etrusco-Italic) influences was the appearance of a she-wolf as foster mother to the twins. There are indications that the idea of she-wolves suckling human beings already existed amongst the Etruscans – and possibly amongst the Latins – before the development of the Romulus and Remus legend.

P.M.W. Tennant – The Lupercalia and The Romulus and Remus Legend
Lupercalia derives from the word lupus, meaning wolf

Lupercalia Traditions

Like many Pagan holidays, Lupercalia was a big feast with lots of drinking and sexual escapades.

It’s unclear what exact god or deity the Romans were honoring during this festival, and it remains a topic of debate. In addition to honoring the female wolf Lupercal, it’s been suggested there was also an ancient deity who defended herds from wolves included in festival celebrations.

There are also suggestions claiming the god Faunas was honored in some fertility rituals.

Like [the Greek god] Pan, Faunus was associated with merriment, and his twice-yearly festivals were marked by revelry and abandon. At the Lupercalia, a celebration of fertility held partly in his honour each February in Rome well into the Common Era, youths clothed as goats ran through the streets wielding strips of goatskin.

Britannica – Faunus ancient Italian god

Over time, Lupercalia grew in popularity and eventually evolved into a celebration focused on fertility, purification, and childbirth. This celebration was so popular it survived the fall of the Roman Empire and was celebrated by Christians for a period of time. 

Lupercalia was a Roman festival symbolizing purification, fertility, and removing evil spirits.

Is Lupercalia the Origin of Valentine’s Day? 

The connection between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day remains unclear. There are some common themes associated with them, including fertility, matchmaking, and the symbolism of the color red. However, many historians claim it’s merely a coincidence, and the connection just isn’t there.

History.com claims Pope Gelasius I banned Lupercalia to replace it with Valentine’s Day –

In the late 5th century A.D., Pope Gelasius I eliminated the pagan celebration of Lupercalia and declared February 14 a day to celebrate the martyrdom of Saint Valentine instead, although it’s highly unlikely he intended the day to commemorate love and passion. In fact, some modern biblical scholars warn Christians not to celebrate Valentine’s Day at all since it’s thought to be based on pagan rituals.

History – Lupercalia

However, other sources, including Britannica, claim he may instead have replaced Lupercalia with Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary (Candlemas), which takes place on February 2nd.

However, when Pope Gelasius I wanted to abolish Lupercalia, he wrote a detailed letter summarizing his opinions and beliefs to Roman senators. Not once did he mention Valentine. This leads recent scholars to believe both of these claims are untrue.

Let’s break down Saint Valentine’s role behind the Lupercalia origin theory

Saint Valentine

During the age of Roman persecution of Christians, Valentine (who was a priest, bishop, or maybe different people) was executed for refusing to abandon his belief in the Christian god. Valentine, whose name means strength, facilitated secret Christian weddings even when the Roman emperor outlawed them.

Valentine was believed to have healed his jailor’s blind daughter in a different legend. Another version of this story suggests Valentine found true love with the jailor’s daughter, and right before his beheading on February 14th; he sent her a message declaring his love signing it “From your Valentine.”

Depending on the story, Valentine was executed by either Roman Emperor Claudius I or his successor Roman Emperor Claudius II. However, there’s no direct evidence showing this took place.

One difficulty concerns Claudius, the emperor who supposedly arrested the priest Valentine. No persecutions took place during the rule of the first Claudius, so some historians have suggested it must have been Claudius II.

Yet the evidence is slim there as well, because Claudius II had a very short reign (March 268 to April 270) and spent almost all of his time outside of Italy in military ventures.

Bruce David Forbes – America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories

So how did stories of Saint Valentine make their way so far into history? Around the 700’s, the Venerable Bede, an English monk who you may remember from the History and Origins of Ostara and the Spring Equinox post, summarized both Valentines’ stories and included them in his list of martyrs. These stories spread like wildfire from that point on.

It’s also important to note that Bede did not include ANY of the stories about Valentine above, and it’s believed these were added on later in history.

It’s important to note that while the Roman Catholic Church still acknowledges St. Valentine as a saint, he was pulled from the General Roman Calendar in 1969 due to a lack of credible information regarding him.

The romantic nature of Valentine’s Day may have derived during the Middle Ages, when it was believed that birds paired couples in mid-February.

According to English 18th-century antiquarians Alban Butler and Francis Douce, Valentine’s Day was most likely created to overpower the pagan holiday, Lupercalia.

Catholic.org – St. Valentine

While some still believe Lupercalia to be the origins of Valentine’s Day, it’s probably unlikely. So, where do the roots regarding the day of romance begin? Most likely in the Middle Ages with the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

In France and England in the Middle Ages, it was generally believed February 14th marked the beginning of the mating season for birds. This contributed to the belief the middle of February should be a day of love. In his 1375 poem Parliament of Foules, Chaucer was the first to mention St. Valentine’s Day as a day of love.

While there will probably always be some speculation and debate around Lupercalia, it’s undoubtedly an interesting Pagan festival with an influence on future celebrations! 

I hope you found this post on Lupercalia Pagan Festival and Traditions helpful! Lots of love to you and remember as always…

The Peculiar Brunette

Sources

Forbes, Bruce David. America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories. University of California Press. 27 October 2015

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. FaunusEncyclopedia Britannica, 15 Feb. 2018, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Faunus.

Seipel, Arnie. The Dark Origins Of Valentine’s Day. National Public Radio. 13 February 2011. https://www.npr.org/2011/02/14/133693152/the-dark-origins-of-valentines-day

Tennant, P. M. W. “THE LUPERCALIA AND THE ROMULUS AND REMUS LEGEND.” Acta Classica, vol. 31, Classical Association of South Africa, 1988, pp. 81–93, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24591847.

History.com Editors. Lupercalia. A&E Television Networks. 13 December 2017. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-rome/lupercalia

Further Suggested Reading

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Romulus and Remus”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 9 Dec. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Romulus-and-Remus.

History.com Editors. History of Valentine’s Day. A&E Television Networks. 24 January 2022. https://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day-2

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “St. Valentine”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 5 Jan. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Valentine. 

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