Date(s) - 15/02/2020
The ceremony focuses on fertility, purification and protection. It also seems to serve as a reminder of the ever-present cycle of life and death which ties into the themes of the Parentalia which continues throughout this festival.
The ancients themselves clearly did not understand the original significance of this festival and were even uncertain which god was honoured, this is probably because the rites went back to pre-anthropomorphic times. According to Ovid the god honoured was Faunus, who presided over the rural wilds, but Livy named the god Inuus, a god of sexual intercourse. Both of these deities were identified with Pan which has attributes connected with untamed nature and fertility. The etymology of the word Lupercus likely derives from lupus and arcere, ‘he who wards off wolves’. The purpose of the festival appears to be focused upon fertility, protection of the community, and possibly an early celebration of the coming of the end of winter.
It is feasible that this festival plays a role in a pastoral context within the greater Parentalia that is presently honouring the dead and continues today. Wolves at the end of winter would have been a particular threat as food is scarce in the wilds at this time of year. The fields providing nourishment are also dead but soon to spring to life. The hardship of winter therefore very present but soon to depart. Like deceased family members, these dead fields provided life to the living. A she-wolf also nurtured the infant Romulus and Remus. Thus the image of a wolf bridges all themes of this festival. (1) A reminder of the death and the lack of life-giving crops at the end of winter and the longing for spring (symbolized by the rural threat of wild hungry wolves) and (2) representing the aide of the suckling she-wolf in facilitating the fertility of Rome.
The priesthoods associated with this festival are comprised of two colleges: the Luperci Quinctiales and Luperci Fabiani both founded respectively by Romulus and Remus. This priesthood was made up of young men between the ages of 20 and 40. Historically on 15 February, the priests of the two colleges met at the Lupercal at foot of the Palatine under the supervision of the Flamen Dialis. The Lupercal was a sacred cave where traditionally the she-wolf had suckled Romulus and Remus. There the ceremony started with a sacrifice of goats and a dog and an offering of sacred cakes prepared by the Vestals. One college provided the goat with the other the dog. Some of the Luperci then smeared the foreheads of the others with the blood-stained sacrificial knife, and others wiped away the blood with wool saturated with milk. At this, the youths had to laugh or smile. The Luperci next cut up the skins of the goats into strips with which they girdled themselves; they then enjoyed a rowdy feast. After this, naked apart from their goat-skins, the Luperci in two groups ran wildly in a circuit from the Lupercal, striking with goat leather thongs all bystanders, both men and women, who approached them.
This was historically one of the most popular festivals and is described as having a “street party” like atmosphere. This celebration continued until sunrise on March 16th.
This is also one of the best known of Roman festivals due to many sources existing. It was also one of the most enduring requiring suppression in 494 CE directly by Pope Gelasius I who converted it into the Feast of Purification of the Virgin Mary. Based on early Christian traditions that evolved from this ceremony it is suspected that the sharing of cakes (reminiscent of the offering of sacred cakes prepared by the Vestals) and the lighting of candles at home play a common part. Both of these traditions likely recall the coming spring and lengthening days and the components of this festival dedicated to purification with the coming spring.