Lupercalia …NOTHING to do with Valentine’s Day

Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrgh. The older I get the less patience I have with this one … every year in the first couple of weeks of February, piles of journalists and/or their editors parade their stunning lack of critical thinking throughout the world (but mostly in the North American press) by claiming some sort of link between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day. This year, I had determined I was not going to comment on this idiocy, and indeed, was just complaining on Twitter t’other night that I had to wade through piles of such digital detritus. But then I found myself at a health and safety meeting, idly deleting similia and I came across this in a student newspaper called the Pine Log:

Valentine’s Day started off as a Roman festival where men stripped naked, grabbed goat- or dog-skin whips, and spanked young maidens in hopes of increasing their fertility, according to Noel Lenski, classics professor of the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Say it ain’t so Dr Lenski! Then I poke around a bit and find an interesting little news item from U of C from back in 2002:

On a snowy February 15, Professor Noel Lenski sponsored a traditional Roman Lupercalia using students in his course on Paganism to Christianity as participants. Several students volunteered to play the role of Luperci, traditionally naked male priests who ran around the Capitoline Hill striking maidens with strips of goat hide every February 15.

Fun stuff! But then it went on:

The festival, designed to honor the god Pan and to ensure fertility for young maidens, forms the basis for the modern festival of St. Valentine.

Alas … I think it goes beyond salutory to point out something I also mentioned on the Classics list a few days ago. As noted above, Lupercalia was a festival held on February 15 … some newspaper sources also give February 13 as a date for Lupercalia, then connect it to Valentine’s day. It’s probably time that someone pointed out that THE DATE ISN’T THE SAME! It’s close, but no Romeo y Julieta Churchill. So let’s be charitable and ponder (briefly) what went on at Lupercalia … a bunch of folks sacrificed beasties, smeared themselves with blood, then ran a route where they went around whipping women. If we take the February 13 date, that’s the beginning of a long period where folks honoured their dead ancestors. I think most logical-thinking people (except, perhaps, sado-masochistic necrophiliacs) would be hard-pressed to make any connection between such activities and the romantic sort of love which is celebrated on Valentine’s day. What makes it worse is that we have a Classics professor (a department head, no less!) who appears do be promoting this — come on people!  Let’s take this to its illogical extreme and claim a Roman origin for St. Patrick’s day, where at least the date connection is bang on! The Romans celebrated Liberalia on March 17 and this was one of the days where it was common, we are told, for young Romans to don their toga virilis. OBVIOUSLY there must be a connection between that and holding big parades and drinking green beer. No … wait … April Fool’s Day must be Roman in origin because on April 1 Roman women would sacrifice to Fortuna Virilis , which clearly is connected to playing pranks on people (I know there are cynical women out there who might buy that).

Come on people (and Classics professors in particular) … our discipline is not so attention-deprived that we have to buy into this ‘ad hoc ergo propter hoc’ reasoning!

12 thoughts on “Lupercalia …NOTHING to do with Valentine’s Day

  1. I strongly disagree. It’s well established that Roman festive days were not restructured in the calendar, but retained and refitted with a Christian meaning. When the imperial political order was no more, the people still clinged to their festive traditions. The festive days themselves don’t change, only their (religious) meaning.

    (a) The Liberalia argument speaks against you. It’s the same day. It’s totally feasible to assume that St. Patrick’s day was a substitute for an earlier festival, which directly or indirectly originated from the Liberalia. (After all St. Patrick is said to have lived in ancient Roman times.) Furthermore there’s evidence of the Liberalia’s (and Bacchanalia’s) connection to Easter traditions as a fertility festival and the Via Crucis:
    Tertullian tells us that Easter was originally celebrated in March. It’s therefore possible that March 17th became a blank festival day, after Easter became movable, and was refitted with “local” Saints.

    (b) April 1 (Fortuna Virilis?) also speaks against you. It’s on the same day.

    (c) So we can easily make a very similar argument for Valentine’s Day and the Lupercalia. The traditions themselves are closer than e.g. April 1 and Fortuna Virilis. Some sources (as you yourself point out) have the Lupercalia from Feb 13 to Feb 15, because the Lupercalia were also connected to Faunus (Feb 13; cf. Latte 1960)—both festivals dealt with the herds and their safety. That would already make a case for a later connection via Feb 14 as lying inbetween. Furthermore we have to take imperial calendar changes into account, starting with Caesar and Augustus: These could have also changed something, either because Augustus stole a day from February to add it to his own month of August, or because he also invented the Lupercus cult after rebuilding the Lupercal, and he might have needed an additional day for that. The only free day was Feb 14. Plutarch (Rom 21.3–8) writes that the Lupercalia festival was held on several days, on the dies nefasti. All three days (13–15) were dies nefasti, Feb 14 being nefastus, and Feb 13 & 15 being nefastus publicus. In general the Lupercalia fell within the period of the Parentalia (Feb 13–22; cf. Beard 2005, ref: Michels 1953). Christians celebrated the Lupercalia until the 5th century AD, many even longer. (The Gelasius source also tells us that the Christians had already started to alter the festival’s rituals and meaning.)

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see any validity to your arguments.

  2. One addition on where the attribute “day of lovers” comes from: My dictionaries of Christian Saints say that it was connected to the beginning of the bird mating season mid February. This in turn was part of the Juno festival, where the goddess was worshipped with flower offerings, and women were given flowers as well. In my calendar that festive day is however on Feb 1, but it was closely connected to the Lupercalia, because the latter was in later times especially interpreted as a festival of women’s fertility (cf. e.g. Wissowa 1912, Latte). Another dictionary says that Feb 14 was the actual festive day of Juno, after it had been connected with the Lupercalia via women’s fertility. (They use only secondary sources and don’t state which one applies for this information.)

  3. @Kaeso … standard “classics” arguments but you’re missing the point. Just because some “modern” festival happens to occur on the same day as an ancient one (or near to it) doesn’t argue for a CAUSAL connection. Sure, there might have been some deliberate appropriation of the date, but that doesn’t make the ancient festival an ORIGIN for the modern festival. For something to be claimed as an ORIGIN, there has to be more than simply a date, no?

    I won’t get into a discussion of whether or not Lupercalia was a fertility festival (as was the big theory at the turn of the previous century) or even what divinity was at the centre of it (T.P. Wiseman covered that in a JRS article) — the fact of the matter is that we really don’t know much of what the purpose of the thing was and the description in Plutarch suggests he didn’t know himself. What is clear to me, however, is that there is no element — other than a date which seems to move for convenience sake — which connects Lupercalia to Valentine’s Day. Rather scant straw from which to make rhetorical bricks, as one of my former profs would say.

  4. Another example that just popped into my head … in my wife’s home town of Siculiana, they celebrate the SS. Crocifisso on May 3 … it involves parading their (black) Christ on the Cross and the usual things you associate with small town Catholic festivals in Sicily. Now May 3 is a significant date, of course … on the one hand, it’s the traditional date when Helena is supposed to have found the “true cross”. It’s also the date when ancient Romans honoured the divinity Flora (off and on). So, do we automatically assume that the rites associated with Flora gave rise to the festival in Sicily? Or might the Helena connection make more sense? Do we connect Valentine’s day to guys running around a hill whipping women? Or does a connection to a priest performing ‘forbidden marriages’ make more sense? I’m talking about origins, not synchronicity.

  5. I’m sorry, RC, but you shouldn’t always listen to the polemics of professors and shouldn’t regard ancient rites with modern eyes—like harping on the “whipping” of women, even referring to it as some kind of an S&M practice (i.e. a barbaric ritual). You seem to forget that (a) it was not only women who were struck, and (b) it was the women themselves, who wanted to be touched by the strips of goat skin. You should also not appeal to authority, but read the primary source(s), and Plutarch makes it absolutely clear that the Lupercalia were also a festival of fertility. Women longing for being struck with strips made from the sacrificial victim for them to become pregnant or have an easy birth has *everything* to do with fertility—any argument to the contrary is simply hot air—, and there is a causal correspondence of this “fertility and violence ritual” to celebrating being in love in modern times. If one doesn’t see (or chooses to ignore) that connection, the connection between fertility and love/relationship, he is either too prudish (in other words: “civilized”) or not learned enough. Or the aspect of violence: Why do you think roses are now so popular, especially on that day? Do you think they only resemble the positive side? Only love and happiness? Or do they also resemble the other, much more violent side: passion, pain and dolor? I suggest you read “The Nightingale and the Rose”, if you still believe that today there is no more blood sacrifice on Valentine’s Day, because we “only” give away red roses as a present.

    And the synchronized correspondence (the date) is also there, and I’m not only referring to the direct connection with Faunus and the 3-day-span. The Augustan reform in 8 BC opens some possibilities for speculation. Depending on the day that was extracted and transferred from February to August, it could explain why the principal day of the Lupercalia was Feb 15 (the original Roman date) and why Valentine’s Day is on the 14th. (But I’d have to dig deeper into the possible calender changes to come to a theory.)

    On Sicily: Of course May 3 was not chosen by coincidence. Or do you seriously think that Helena can arbitrarily find the True Cross on just any day? The church doesn’t move dates “for convenience sake”; they stay put on their historical (and often pre-Christian) spots and all have very specific historical meanings, which are transposed and redefined over the course of time.

  6. Wow … you clearly don’t know me well if you’re claiming I’m looking at ancient things through modern eyes. Outside of that, you really can’t criticize me for focussing on the whipping aspect when that is precisely what all the various news reports I’m commenting on and alluding to are doing; it isn’t “harping” … if you don’t like my phraseology, you have to remember that this is a blog and not some dusty academic journal. As for appeals to authority, you can’t really cast aspersions at me for that when you have just dropped Wissowa and Latte into the conversation.

    That said, I HAVE read Plutarch (and much else besides; I do have a Classics background after all)… and not just the thing in the life of Julius Caesar, which you seem to want to focus on. I do know that it was more than just women who were struck. But if you read the Roman Questions 68 (where he is wondering about why the Romans sacrifice a dog), it seems that there is more about ‘purification’ than fertility going on there (if there is `fertility` it`s one step removed from the purification aspect). If you read the account in his life of Romulus, he seems to stress the purificatory side as well, and somewhat dismisses the ‘conception’ side of things. And those two accounts are sufficient to raise doubts in my mind as to what Plutarch was writing about when he was talking about in the Caesar passage, which is what most of the newspaper accounts are based on. And as far as I`m aware, it is from Plutarch alone that we get the `maidens proferring their hands to be struck`story. And I’m sorry, but I don’t want to look at this rite — whatever it may be — and see in it something connected to what we call Valentine’s Day.

    That said, let’s look at your calendar speculation … Lupercalia occurs on the fifteenth before the kalends of March in every extant calendar I’m aware of. Changing the length of February does not change the date on which the festival is held … the day is listed as the fifteenth day no matter how many intercalary days you want to put in there.

  7. (1) Your own words in the article prove you wrong: You have evaluated the ancient rites by using a modern term (something that “sado-masochistic necrophiliacs” would like) and using it as an argument to deny any connection to that modern “romantic sort of love”. That is in fact looking at the Lupercalia through modern eyes. (Whether this is a blog post or not is not really relevant.)

    (2) On the “whipping”: Sure, that’s what other media like to focus on. But wouldn’t it be adequate for someone with a Classics background to do better and not iterate but criticize?

    (3) The “appeal to authority” was restricted to the aspect of fertility. My only argument was that instead of referring to Wiseman and the other big academic discussion (and then avoid the topic altogether) it would be better to just look at the sources. But in general, there is nothing wrong with quoting/using secondary sources. I’d never criticize you for doing that.

    (4) I don’t know what Julius Caesar has to do with this discussion? He was part of that famous Lupercalia incident, but I don’t think it has any direct relevance here. Maybe there is a relevance, but I haven’t looked into it. So much for my want to focus on Caesar. 😉

    (5) On the purification: Yes, there is no doubt that the festival apparently had many aspects to it, and one very prominent one (next to the wolf thing) was most probably purification and atonement. (The latter, which would be closely connected to the purification, is attested by many sources, specifically also referring to the old traditions, so it’s feasible that the “fertility” aspect was a later, albeit popular addition.) Plutarch is unsure about some aspects in his Roman Questions, as you stated above, but he gives some good parallels to Greek customs. You could be correct that the fertility is more removed from the purification. And your observation that Plutarch is somewhat dismissive is correct, but he’s not dismissive about the actual existence of the fertility aspect, but of the women’s beliefs, their fancy. (Whether Plutarch’s choice of words shows his ritual conservatism or anti-superstitious condescendence? I can’t say.) However, that doesn’t change that the women actually did believe in these sort of things and made it their interpretation of the ritual. The fact that it’s (apparently) just one source shouldn’t be too bothering. The source exists, and I know of no reason, why one should dismiss the information in it as irrelevant. Apparently we also only have one source on the milk, the laughter and the bloodied knife.

    (6) You’re free to believe that the ritual (or this popular fertility aspect of the ritual) has nothing to with Valentine’s Day. I just happen to disagree.

    (7) On the calendar: I haven’t yet speculated, but I would say (at this time) that the intercalary day (bis sextus) could have an influence here. We know for a fact that Augustus transferred one day from February to August. This could have been the original “old” sextus (6th day calculated backwards from the Kalends of March). In any case, the removal of one later day could have “moved” the Ides as well. The Ides would of course still have been the Ides, because if you count backwards from the Kalends, the removal of a day doesn’t change anything. But if you switch to the modern dating, it does become important, because then only in leap years the festival would have been on the 15th (counting from the 1st of February), in all other years on the 14th. This might explain the date difference. But as I said: That’s pure speculation. 😉

  8. (1) There are however elements of fertility in the other ritual aspects of the festival as well: Milk as the “river of life” was a strong ancient symbol of fertility, birth, rebirth etc., blood as the essence of life itself. If the alternative explanation is correct that the wolf-related ritual has to do the mythical origins of Rome (Capitoline Wolf, Romulus/Remus), then this would yet be another symbol of fertility (she-wolf suckling the twins). A worship of gratefulness of the wolf for saving the founder of Rome would also explain the later Augustan additions, would explain the dog sacrifice, and the connection to Faunus. Since Plutarch is unsure about the dog sacrifice, and since he has in fact been criticized for inventing Greek-Roman parallels (his weird etymological origin theory of the name ROMA being a prime example) one shouldn’t dismiss this alternate possibilty.

    (2) In the Gelasius source it is also stated that the women during the old pagan festival actually appeared naked to receive the lash. It is in itself interesting that a Pope actually came to the defense of the original Lupercalia, explicitly mentioning the fertility rites in this “defense”. So what else does this piece of information tell us other than that the aspect of fertility—obviously including a very eroticized side (not much different from the watered-down Valentine’s Day customs)—was a prominent part of the festival, celebrated with “piety” and “reverence”, all of which seemed important to the Bishop of Rome? The question would then be, why Plutarch made his slightly condescending remark about the women’s “fancy”. Did he object these popular beliefs of the people? Was the festival too far removed from similar Greek festivals? Too peasant Roman for his taste? Or was he simply to prudish? It almost seems as if Pope Gelasius was more Roman than Plutarch! 😉

  9. @Kaeso … clearly you’re not going to convince me and I’m not going to convince you; similarly clearly, you seem to want the last word, so it’s yours.

  10. It’s not about wanting the last word. It’s about sharing knowledge and providing honest arguments in a discourse, which I did, including a solution for the date problem, which seems to have been your main argument in the OP. The Gelasius source also disproves the idea that there’s only one source about the fertility/women/sex aspect. It would now be your turn to come up with counter-arguments or a falsification, but you don’t seem to be willing. Why? Is it because you don’t have any more arguments?

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