Like the emo phase you selectively remember from the early aughts (nostalgia concerts — good, dramatic status updates — bad), Valentine’s Day is rumored to have a bloody backstory that’s distinctly different from the saccharine holiday we celebrate today.
And, like many of our favorite holidays, that alleged backstory is distinctly pagan, baby!
My Bloody Valentine, Lupercalia
Lupercalia was an ancient Roman festival celebrated around February 15th and overseen by a fancy gang of priests called Luperci. We know that the derivation of “lupus,” Latin for wolf, suggests a possible connection to the legendary she-wolf best known as the wet nurse of Rome’s fabled founders Romulus and Remus. That a nurturing she-wolf would inspire a holiday dedicated to love and fertility isn’t the wildest thing to imagine — by ancient Roman standards, anyway.
Lupercalia, however, was one of the wildest celebrations you could imagine.
Like any Roman party worth going to, there had to be a feast, lots of booze, nudity of varying degrees, and ritual sacrifice.
Live, Laugh, Love, Luperci
The Luperci kicked things off by sacrificing goats and dogs at the Lupercal. This was the site where the she-wolf was said to have suckled R&R. Then, two of the young priests would proceed to an altar to touch their foreheads with bloody knives before wiping said blood off with wool dipped in milk. Delicious. This ritual had a strange requirement: The men had to laugh. Whether they favored a titter, giggle, or guffaw is anyone’s guess, but we like to think they shrieked like hyenas.
After the manic laughfest they held a sacrificial feast. Then came arts and crafts time, baby! The Luperci cut thongs and/or loincloths from the dead animals they had lying around as their full Roman tummies marinated. Did some poor centurion shmuck have to skin the goats and dogs while everyone else ate and drank? The Luperci didn’t mind getting their hands dirty, but until proven otherwise, our money is on Claudius the Intern.
With thongs in aforementioned dirty hands, the Luperci split off in two bands, leading perfumed, tipsy, garlanded, possibly loincloth-clad aristocrats about town. As they frolicked, they flagellated any women who drew near.
A good thwack would ensure her fertility and help with the birthing process. These types of fertility rites were never something like a friendly hug or high-five, but hey, put your suggestion in the amphora and we’ll see about next year.
Some women may have volunteered for the promise of a baby boost, but we can also reasonably suspect not everyone adored being chased and held down while hammered guys hit them with animal skins.
Where Lupercalia Loses Us
Winning the Lupercalia Lottery
Another aspect you see bouncing around the internet — the Lupercalia love lottery. This is where the men of the festival drew slips of paper with women’s names from a box.
The two then paired off and presumably hooked up for the duration of the party and sometimes beyond.
While we wouldn’t put it past Romans to do a little swinging, this seems to be a semi-recent fabrication, with the earliest mention dating back to 1756. Alban Butler’s Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints states:
“To abolish the heathens lewd superstitious custom of boys drawing the names of girls, in honour of their goddess Februata Juno, on the fifteenth of this month, several zealous pastors substituted the names of saints in billets, given on this day.”
Sounds like it happened, right? Except that, again, no evidence. It’s more likely Butler pulled that little tidbit from the report of French traveler Henri Mission, who was describing…England and Scotland. Saucy!
Long-Lost Love Fest
There are a few key things about this ancient funfest that we’ll probably never be certain of. Such as when and why it originated, who it was for, and how, if at all, it ties into Valentine’s Day.
First, we can’t pin down which god(s) and/or goddess(es) the Romans celebrated Lupercalia for. According to the Journal of Roman Studies, the name of these festivals often had ties to the deity they celebrated. Think Saturnalia, Neptunalia, Liberalia, etc.
Then, there were the priests overseeing the celebrations. Called flamines, these groups of religious leaders dedicated themselves to one divinity, and bet your butt their names reflected that. There were the Carmentalis for Carmentalia, the Cerealis for Cerealia; you get it.
It would stand to reason, then, that Lupercalia and its Luperci honored the wolf goddess Luperca. Except…we don’t have definitive evidence connecting the practiced rites with the wolf. The sacrificing of the goats — not the usual sacrificial fare — and all the Romulus and Remus adoration point us to wolves again. Except…ancient Roman historian Livy casually mentions the twins getting ambushed and abducted (well, just Remus) while celebrating Lupercalia.
Okay, so the festival possibly predates the raised-by-wolves Roman founders, but still celebrates wolves. And fertility, and laughing. Possible! Too bad Ovid muddles things by claiming Lupercalia honored Faunus, the bestower of fruitfulness on fields and flocks. Our boy Livy claimed it was all about Inuus, the god of fertility. Who does a historian have to sacrifice around here to get some answers?
Even with all the theories and conjecture, we’re still just not sure when Lupercalia started or why.
What About Valentine’s Day?
One neat and tidy idea is that instead of banning Lupercalia — which Romans celebrated for a remarkably long time — Christians adopted and renamed it. This stems from a strongly-worded letter by Pope Gelasius circa 494 B.C.E., where he criticized fellow Christians for participating in something that used to showcase naked people whipping each other.
By Gelasius’ time, that wasn’t how the revelers rolled anymore, but that didn’t matter. The Pope was also especially annoyed about the fun-runners being low-class plebs when they used to be important figures like Mark Antony. Snobby.
People like to posit that the disapproving Gelasius replaced Lupercalia with a fresh seemly festival in honor of St. Valentine, who had a feast day on February 14.
Ask most historians, and they’ll tell you there’s really no evidence to support that hypothesis. That St. Valentine’s feast day is almost the same day as Lupercalia isn’t enough on its own. In Gelasius’ angry missive, he fails to talk about adapting any pagan customs — he mainly complains about them.
I’m Bringing Sexy (Festies) Back
If you’re sick of worshipping at the altar of Hallmark cards and candy, give Lupercalia a try! Skip the sacrifice (and the whipping), pop on a thong, grab a drink and run like crazy. Your significant other will never forget the Valentine’s Day you spent in jail.
Continue down the rabbit hole:
The University of Chicago Press Journals: The Lupercalia in the Fifth Century.
Encyclopedia Britannica: Lupercalia
Alberta Mildred Franklin: The Lupercalia, CHAPTER IV, The Wolf Deity in Italy
Jstor.org: The Topography and Interpretation of the Lupercalia
Mental Floss: 8 Facts About Lupercalia—the Ancient Festival Full of Whippings and Ritual Sacrifice