Lupercalia, “day of the wolf”- the Roman fertility festival celebrating the sexual frenzy of the goddess Juno! Togas, random draws for sex partners, the occasional goatskin splatter from a priest, and oodles of intoxicants. Oh, you didn’t know about the traditional Valentine’s Day? Think it’s just a commercial holiday intended to sell chocolates, jewelry and dinners, and make single folks feel like drinking alone? Lupercalia is not only designed for singles, they are one of the feature attractions!
Valentine’s is one of my favourite pagan observances, inspiring modern women and men to at least consider how much the imposed cultural system has on their views of their own love relationships and sexuality. So many find the modern practices to be bloodless, dispassionate, superficial, commercial, and vaguely depressing. I personally find it inspiring that this Holy Day is so powerful that it’s made it to the modern era relatively intact, despite the best efforts of Christian priests to defuse and replace its practices. As a sacred and religious celebration of human sexuality and passion, many of the elements and themes have been retained: valentine’s cards, red heart shapes, single people going home with partners, married women wanting children, lust, sex, fertility… It does prove how much we in the modern world, just as our ancestors did, need to acknowledge, idolize, ritualize and even worship our own most powerful drives, emotions, and relationships.
Possibly one of the reasons it was so hard to eliminate was that nearly every incarnation of the holiday specifically encouraged women’s empowerment of their own sexuality under the auspices of the Goddess and occasionally her subordinate consort. Women’s choice, agency, pleasure, fertility, and multiple partners with societal blessings, or at least sexual equality, have always featured. (And not the patriarchal co-opted version of worshipping women’s bodies and sexuality with “pics, plz” requests or that we should ‘empower’ ourselves by sleeping with everyone who asks.) A celebration of one of six classical forms of Love, eros or sexual passion and desire was usually considered “dangerous, fiery, and irrational form of love that could take hold of you and possess you” by the ancient Greeks, but the Romans often channelled strong passions into socially controlled and acceptable rituals. We seem to hunger for that, too, since it has survived in a recognizable form ever since.
The eve and night of February 14th to the next day of the 15th were the Ides of the month of Februa, sacred to Juno Februata or Juno Februa. This day also honoured the Roman gods, Lupercus and Faunus, who you may recall as the lusty Faun in current tales. It was a vital religious observance as children of the Great Wolf, symbolising the very fecundity of Rome herself, and the unpartnered participants who presented themselves were considered highly religious and praiseworthy, deserving of the blessings of the priests. ‘Course, they didn’t go home emptyhanded. After being the focus of some mild flagellation, the single folks would be randomly assigned to each other through a lottery system. Each pairing resulted in a sacred ‘going steady’ until the next year, where one thing was encouraged to lead to another. Married women weren’t left out, since they were also under Juno’s patronage, and at this time of year, they came to celebrate and bless their sexuality with conceptions.
On this day, Lupercalia,.. the Luperci or priests of Lupercus dressed in goatskins for a bloody ceremony. The priests of Lupercus, the wolf god, would sacrifice goats and a dog and then smear themselves with blood. These priests, made red with sacrificial blood, would run around Palatine Hill in a wild frenzy while carving a goatskin thong called a “februa.” Women would sit all around the hill, as the bloody priests would strike them with the goatskin thongs to make them fertile. The young women would then gather in the city and their names were put in boxes. These “love notes” were called “billets.” The men of Rome would draw a billet, and the woman whose name was on it became his sexual lust partner with whom he would fornicate until the next Lupercalia or February 14th.
Thus, February 14th became a day of unbridled sexual lust. The color “red” was sacred to that day because of the blood and the “heart shape” that is popular to this day. The heart-shape was not a representation of the human heart, which looks nothing like it. This shape represents the human female matrix or opening to the chamber of sacred copulation. 1
While the women presented themselves for random selection and the men chose, one shouldn’t make the modern mistake of assuming it was because the women were somehow property. As a holiday sacred to Juno, with the priests offering the wolf blood as the Wolf Hero’s virility, it is the women’s fertility that is the focus of the ritual. They were in fact presenting themselves to Juno to select a man for them for their personal pleasure, not a husband, and the men are volunteering to perform that service. It was a sacred duty, as well as wild and joyous.
For His sacred virility, a Hero is usually required for the Goddess Queen. For Februa, her divine lover was Lupercus, the “hunter of wolves”, who kept the wolves at bay from the shepherds and their flocks, and lent his blood to fertilize the Goddess and her daughters.
The Greeks called Lupercus by the name of “Pan“. The Semites called Pan “Baul,” according to the Classical Dictionaries. Baal – mentioned so often in the Bible – was merely another name for Nimrod, “the mighty hunter” (Genesis 10:9) It was a common proverb of ancient time that Nimrod was “the MIGHTY hunter before the Lord.” Nimrod was their hero – their strong man – thier VALENTINE! How plain that the original Valentine was Nimrod, the mighty hunter of wolves. Yet another of Nimrod’s names was “Sanctuc” or “Santa“, meaning Saint. It was a common title of any hero-god. No wonder that the Roman Lupercalia is called “St. Valentine’s Day”!
But why do we associate HEARTS on a day in honour of Nimrod – the Baal of the Phoenicians and Semites? The surprising answer is that the pagan Romans acquired the symbol of the heart from the Babylonians. In the Babylonian tongue the word for heart was “bal” .. The heart – bal – was merely a symbol of Nimrod – the Baal! or Lord of the Babylonians!”2
So for centuries in Rome and its dominions and even after its fall as an Empire, the festival happily went along – the Ides of Februa featured red everywhere and heart symbols abounding, with love cards or tickets, complete with the mighty hero-love whose title was Santa. It was so well known and associated with sex and lust that when
the Gnostic Catholic Church began to get a foothold in Rome around the 3rd century A.D., they became known as Valentinians. The Catholic Valentinians retained the sexual license of the festival in what they called “angels in a nuptial chamber”, which was also called the “sacrament of copulation.” This was said to be an reenactment of the marriage of “Sophia and the Redeemer.” As the participants of the February 14th ritual began their sexual sacrament, presided over and watched by the priests known as Valentinians, the following literary was spoken: “Let the seed of light descend into thy bridal chamber, receive the bridegroom… open thine arms to embrace him. Behold, grace has descended upon thee.””3
The Orthodox Church thoroughly disapproved, of course, and as well as exterminating the Gnostics, did their darnest to suppress or ban the festival.
When Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire there was some talk in church circles of discarding this pagan free-for-all. But the Roman citizens wouldn’t hear of it! So it was agreed that the holiday would continue as it was, except for the more grossly sensual observances. It was not until the reign of Pope Gelasius that the holiday became a “Christian” custom. ” As far back as 496, Pope Gelasius changed Lupercalia on February 15 to St. Valentine’s Day on February 14.” (p. 172 of Customs and Holidays Around the World by Lavinia Dobler). 4
The attempt to substitute or water down the more obvious components met with limited success.
As Christianity became prevalent, priests attempted to replace old heathen practices. To Christianize the ancient pagan celebration …church officials changed the name to St. Valentine’s Day. To give the celebration further meaning and eliminate pagan traditions, priests substituted the drawing of Saints names for the names of the girls. On St. Valentine’s Day the priest placed saint’s names into an urn or box. The young [men] then drew a name from the container. In the following year, the youth was supposed to emulate the life of the saint whose name he had drawn.
By the fourteenth century they reverted back to the use of girl’s names. In the sixteenth century they once again tried to have saintly valentines but it was as unsuccessful as the first attempt…
Later, in France, both sexes drew from the valentine box. A book called Travels in England, written in 1698, gives an account of the way it was done:
“On St. Valentine’s Eve an equal number of Maids and Bachelors get together, each writes their true or some feigned name upon separate billets, which they roll up and draw by way of lots, the Maids taking the Men’s billets, and the Men the Maids’; so that each of the young Men lights upon a Girl that he calls his Valentine, and each of the Girls upon a young Man which she calls hers. By this means each has two Valentines–but the Man sticks faster to the Valentine that is fallen to him than to the Valentine to whom he is fallen. Fortune having thus divided the company into so many couples, the valentines give balls and treats to their mistresses, wear their billets several days upon their bosoms or sleeves, and this little sport ofen ends in Love. This ceremony is practised differently in different Countries, and according to the freedom or severity of Madame Valentine. This is another kind of Valentine, which is the first young Man or Woman chance throws in your way in the street, or elsewhere . . .”5
So despite some of the best efforts of the new priesthood to alter the festival, the original idea of sexual licence and expression, particularly for women, never went away. The practices still lingered in nearly all the places Rome had taken it, mostly what is now known as the “Western World”.
It only stands to reason that countries colonized by peoples from Europe brought the practice with them. So in North America, we still see the remnants to this day. Even hidden, suppressed, altered, and derided, we retain many of the most recognisable features of the only ancient festival left in the popular culture that celebrates human sexuality. However, it still seems to generate fear, particularly in this age where women are reClaiming their sexuality and heritage. So the attempt to secularize and desexualize it goes on today. The commercialization, with its obvious monetary rewards, the insistence on already created couples, rather than singles finding mates, and the more disturbing marketing to children, appears to be an attempt to finally remove the more worrisome lustful elements still left.
Some will claim that the holiday has adapted itself to our modern needs, and that the encouragement of children in grade school to participate in Valentine’s Day by giving out cards is more than just adapting. In fact, it appears to continue to be mutating every generation. No longer is the Valentine a secret, given from a child to someone they fancy, as it was in two childhoods ago; it is now a class event, where everyone must bring one for everyone else, so as to ensure “no one gets left out’. It is bizarre, disquieting, and has always been inappropriate for children, expressed even by those completely ignorant of its history.
In a time when women are working to reClaim their sovereignty over their sexuality instead of being objectified, traditional rituals which celebrate joyous lust and sexual licence without bonded partners are needed more than ever. Safely sublimating its lustful nature into permitted ‘couple’s only’ commitment activities, or reducing it by infantalization as a classroom friendship ceremony covered in pink leaves out the most vital and powerful element of the celebration: shameless consensual adult lust. With all the disempowering of women and inappropriate sexualizing of children, we could use a good ol’ fashioned Lupercalia to reClaim our bodies, divine passions, and sacred sense of self.
So this Valentine’s Day, consider adding something in the spirit of the ancient practices of Lupercalia to your celebrations. Why make it just about already paired couples? Consider getting your friends together and having some joyous grown-up fun. Toga parties, love lotteries for the singles, erotic games for the group… (An Edmonton version.) Give yourself an opportunity to worship sexual passions in a consensual, safe environment, without the requirement of commitment or permission from anyone but yourself! Maybe some half-naked hotties playing the priests can occasionally slap one of the crowd with a whip dipped in red food colouring… Oh, wait. That might be just me..
My daughter’s class is supposed to bring Valentine’s cards for everyone, if they bring any at all. Raising her as a witch, I have told her as much as I think she needs to know at 12 years old. So she has no interest in bringing cards. As a nod to the current rituals of her class, though, we both decided to send her with enough homemade candy for everyone. That seems to be a good compromise…