Lupercalia was an ancient, possibly pre-Roman pastoral annual festival, observed in the city of Rome on February 15, to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility. Lupercalia was also called “dies Februatus” (“purification day”) after the instruments of purification called “februa”, which give the month of February (Februarius) its name. The festival was later known as Februa (“Purifications” or “Purgings”). It was also known as Februatus and gave its name to Juno Februalis, Februlis, or Februata in her role as its patron deity, to a god called Februus, and to February (mensis Februarius), the month during which it occurred. Ovid connects februare to an Etruscan word for “purging.” Some sources connect the Latin word for fever (febris) with the same idea of purification or purging, due to the sweating commonly seen in association with fevers.
The name Lupercalia was believed in antiquity to evince some connection with the Ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia, a wolf festival (Greek: λύκος, lýkos; Latin: lupus), and the worship of Lycaean Pan, assumed to be a Greek equivalent to Faunus, as instituted by Evander. Justin describes a cult image of “the Lycaean god, whom the Greeks call Pan and the Romans Lupercus,” as nude, save for a goatskin girdle. It stood in the Lupercal, the cave where tradition held that Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf (Lupa). The cave lay at the foot of the Palatine Hill, on which Romulus was said to have founded Rome.
The rites associated with Lupercalia were confined to the Lupercal cave, the Palatine Hill, and the Forum, all of which were central locations in Rome’s foundation legend. Near the cave stood a sanctuary of Rumina, goddess of breastfeeding, and the wild fig-tree (Ficus Ruminalis) to which Romulus and Remus were brought by the divine intervention of the river-god Tiberinus. Some Roman sources name the wild fig tree caprificus, literally “goat fig”. Like the cultivated fig, its fruit is pendulous, and the tree exudes a milky sap if cut, which makes it a good candidate for a cult of breastfeeding.
The Lupercalia had its own priesthood, the Luperci, whose institution and rites were attributed either to the Arcadian culture-hero Evander, or to Romulus and Remus, who had each supposedly established a group of followers. The Luperci were young men (iuvenes), usually between the ages of 20 and 40. They formed two religious collegia (associations) based on ancestry: the Quinctiliani (named after gens Quinctia) and the Fabiani (named after gens Fabia). Each college was headed by a magister. In 44 BCE, a third college, the Juliani, was instituted in honor of Julius Caesar. Its first magister was Mark Antony. The college of Juliiani disbanded or lapsed during Caesar’s civil wars, and was not re-established in the reforms of his successor, Augustus. In the Imperial era, membership of the two traditional collegia was opened to iuvenes of equestrian status.
At the Lupercal altar, a male goat (or goats) and a dog were sacrificed by one of the Luperci, under the supervision of the Flamen dialis, Jupiter’s chief priest. An offering was also made of salted mealcakes, prepared by the Vestal Virgins. After the blood sacrifice, two Luperci approached the altar. Their foreheads were anointed with blood from the sacrificial knife, then wiped clean with wool soaked in milk, after which they were expected to smile and/or laugh.
The sacrificial feast followed, after which the Luperci cut thongs (known as februa) from the flayed skin of the sacrificed goat, and ran with these, naked or near-naked, along the old Palatine boundary, in an anticlockwise direction around the hill. In Plutarch’s description of the Lupercalia, written during the early Empire,
…many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.
The Luperci completed their circuit of the Palatine, then returned to the Lupercal cave.
Descriptions of the Lupercalia festival of 44 BCE attest to its continuity. Julius Caesar used it as the backdrop for his public refusal of a golden crown, offered to him by Mark Antony. The Lupercal cave was restored or rebuilt by Augustus, and has been speculated as identical with a grotto discovered in 2007, 50 feet (15 m) below the remains of Augustus’ residence. According to scholarly consensus, the grotto is a nymphaeum, not the Lupercal cave.
The Lupercalia festival is marked on a calendar of 354 CE alongside traditional and Christian festivals. Despite the banning in 391 of all non-Christian cults and festivals, Lupercalia was celebrated by the nominally Christian populace on a regular basis, into the reign of the emperor Anastasius. Pope Gelasius I (494–96), claiming that only the “vile rabble” were involved in the festival, sought its forceful abolition. The senate protested that the Lupercalia was essential to Rome’s safety and well-being. This prompted Gelasius’ scornful suggestion that “If you assert that this rite has salutary force, celebrate it yourselves in the ancestral fashion; run nude yourselves that you may properly carry out the mockery.” The remark was addressed to the senator Andromachus by Gelasius in an extended literary epistle that was virtually a diatribe against the Lupercalia. The claim that Gelasius abolished the Lupercalia is frequently made but there is no evidence to support it.
Some authors claim that Gelasius replaced Lupercalia with the “Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” but there is no written record of Gelasius ever intending a replacement of Lupercalia. Some researchers have made a separate claim that the modern customs of Saint Valentine’s Day originate from Lupercalia customs, but this is the same nonsense as people claiming that Christmas is “really” the Roman Saturnalia in new guise.
It is known that the Lupercalia was associated with some elements of feasting. In particular, the entrails of the sacrificed goat were roasted and taken around the city for people to sample. I am not a huge fan of entrails of any sort, even though I am a tripe aficionado. Here is a video from India on how to cook goat entrails, a specialty of Hyderabad.