Lupercalia: Ancient Rome’s Valentine’s Day

On February 15th, the ancient Romans celebrated their pagan “Valentine’s Day” with an annual festival called Lupercalia. Unlike Valentine’s Day, this event was a bloody, violent celebration inundated with animal sacrifices. Throughout the practice of Lupercalia, matchmaking, and hopes of repelling ill wishes were a constant part of the ancient Valentine’s Day, Lupercalia. 

The precise origin of Lupercalia is unknown but has been traced back as far as the 6th Century BC. Many ideas about this origin have been made, but one prominent concept was based upon a Roman legend. The ancient King Amulius ordered his nephews, the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, to be drowned in the Tiber River so they could not challenge his authority when grown up. However, a sympathetic servant put the twins in a basket so that the river god could carry them into the safety of a fig tree. A she-wolf rescued Romulus and Remus from the branches and brought them to her den at the base of Palatine Hill, where Rome would later be founded. 

The twins were cared for by the she-wolf until a local shepherd and his wife adopted them. After killing their uncle who originally tried to kill them, the twin brothers revisited the cave of the she-wolf that had taken care of them and named it Lupercal. It is thought that Lupercalia was created by Romulus and Remus to honor the she-wolf and please the Roman god Lupercus who was the worshiped protector of sheep against wolves. 

Lupercalia rituals took place in many locations including the Lupercal cave on Palatine Hill and within the Roman Comitium. The festival begins with sacrificing a few male goats and a dog at the Lupercal cave. These sacrifices were performed by the Luperci, a group of Roman priests. Two members of Luperci would have their foreheads smeared with the animal’s blood which they then removed with milk-soaked wool. After the ritual sacrifice, the Romans feasted, and afterward, the Luperci cut strips of goat hide from the newly-sacrificial goat. 

One other tradition for Lupercalia was more romantic: a man randomly chose a woman’s name from a jar, and they would become a couple for the remainder of the festival. Usually, the couple stayed together until the following year while other couples got married.

Like many other ancient traditions, the origins and rituals are very vague and to this day there is not much known about the legend of Lupercalia and its influence on Valentine’s Day. Over time, Lupercalia’s celebrations have gone out of practice because of the brutality of killing animals and gore. However, some pagans continue to recognize this event on February 14th and celebrate in private. 

Now, in place of Lupercalia is the celebration of Valentine’s Day, a romantic, non-sacrificial day. Though some parts of Lupercalia have disappeared, dating and the banishment of ill wishes have remained a pillar of Valentine’s Day. Even if Lupercalia isn’t as brutal today, the romance and “coupling” have stayed strong throughout many years. The story of Romulus and Remus, a core part of this celebration, is still well known and many aspects of this celebration have changed, some blowing away like ashes in the wind. 

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