Lupercalia explained

There may have been a bit of confusion regarding yesterday’s post. Actually Mirinda thought that I’d gone quite mad. So, in the interests of sanity, let me clear it up.

The origins of St Valentine’s Day lay deep within the history of the Roman Empire. St Valentine, himself, was a Roman who refused to stop being a Christian and was duly executed in some grisly fashion (as they always were) on February 14. For this reason, yesterday was his Saint’s Day.

In the true nature of the Christian church, the date was appropriated from the pagans in order to tempt them into a more ‘wholesome’ form of worship.

Originally, February 14 was the eve of Lupercalia or the Festival of the Wolf, which ran for a few days and celebrated the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus (the twins, raised by a wolf) and a mythical chap called Evander, who, it was claimed, arrived in the area of Rome before the Battle of Troy and declared it a city, long before the twins.

At the time that Evander arrived, the place was just a collection of mud huts, squatting like so many port-a-loos on the slopes of the hills surrounding the future great city. The inhabitants were simple shepherds who, one assumes, didn’t speak the same language as Evander, who was Greek. The shepherds were happy to live out the millennia, tending their sheep and living a peaceful existence, praying to their wonderful god, Febru. Evander changed all that when he decided it would a great place for a quite sizeable town.

Shortly after the whole Troy debacle, Aeneas found himself in the same place and did his level best to unite the shepherds under the Greek way of life. Then, of course, came Romulus and Remus and the thing about the wolf.

Move forward to a more enlightened time (around 600BC, perhaps) and the Romans decided to celebrate the founding of their glorious city. They’d already appropriated the old god’s name into their calendar and now would don sheep or wolf skins and generally have a really, really good time. Part of this good time involved the young men running around the city walls, wearing their hairy robes and carrying light whips which they would use to lightly beat the women of Rome who would happily line up for the privilege.

The beatings were only light and, I think, merely a symbolic gesture. Someone had claimed that the beatings improved fertility and lessened the chance of a painful childbirth. Like people these days who believe in homoeopathy, the power of prayer and ghosts, there was a lot of buy in from most of the population, from the gritted teeth of the females to the gleeful application by the males.

Lupercalia was a festival of rebirth and fertility, an offering of thanks to the pantheon of Roman gods (and any other handy deities). To begin the celebrations, a special opening ceremony was enacted on the night before which was February 14. Called the Love Lottery, it involved all the names of the young girls of Rome being placed in a big box. The young boys would then choose one each. They would then become a ‘couple’ for the duration of the festival.

In ancient Rome, boys and girls were pretty much segregated from an early age and the Love Lottery was seen as a way of making connections between the sexes. Sometimes the pairings would last beyond the festival and, very rarely, result in marriage. I’m assuming that anyone who did make a permanent pairing would be excluded from the next year’s lottery.

Around the same time as the lottery, there was the usual sacrifice at the altar of the Vestal Virgins though, unusually for the Romans, it included a dog as well as the more obvious goat. I say unusual because the Romans felt pretty much the same about their dogs as we do in the 21st century. This gives the ceremony a certain cachet and indicates how important the Romans thought the festival was. Like Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to his god, a sacrifice should be difficult in order to be effective.

As well as the sacrifice, the Vestal Virgins would then burn some simple cakes. I can only guess why they did this. Perhaps it signified the rude environment of the original shepherd’s huts and their simple fare. Perhaps the first time they cooked the cakes, they burnt them. The Romans were obsessed with superstitions and luck and would be a bit loath to change things like that.

Enough history! Let’s now move forwards in time to last night, as I sat at my keyboard.

The reason for my post was the fact that I get annoyed at how gushy people get on Valentine’s Day. Blip, Facebook, Twitter and probably most social networking sites were full of it. I once saw an episode of an American sitcom where children in primary school would exchange Valentine’s Day cards (there’s also the ‘I choo-choos you’ episode of the Simpsons where Lisa gives Ralph a pity card and it backfires on her) and thought this was a bit odd. But, when you look into the origins, there was, actually a very good reason for it although I’m pretty sure the same reason is not relevant any more.

I have no problem with people taking a day to celebrate their love for each other and glorying in each other’s company for a night but I’m not that keen on how public it all is. I blame the Victorians who, more or less, invented the Valentine’s Day card. They liked the fact that postage made it possible for them to be from a secret admirer because it allowed them to be very rude. Which reminds me…when did it stop being secret?

The Latin at the end translates to Long live wine, women and song and the embedded song was a big hit when I was a 23 and also featured extensively in Strictly Ballroom.

I have just realised that I posted a Gaz style history of Valentine’s Day two years ago! I must be getting old if I’m repeating myself. Though, in my defence, it is somewhat different…it’s here in case you wish to compare.

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