Lupercalia was celebrated on February 15th every year in honor of Lupercus, a god of fertility whose Greek counterpart is Pan. The word lupus is Latin for wolf, an essential animal in Roman history. It was a ceremony for purification and fertility. Parts of the celebration are included in February traditions even today, such as Valentine’s Day and fasting customs such as Lent.

The festival, whose flower is the yellow crocus, is as old as Rome itself when it was nothing more than a few shepherds living on a hill surrounded by a wolf-filled wilderness. Lupercalia centered around a cave on that Palatine Hill, the lupercal.  According to legend, this was the cave where the lost twins Romulus and Remus, who founded Rome, were nursed by a she-wolf and saved from starvation.

The rite went something like this. Vestal virgins brought sacred cakes made from the first ears of last year's grain harvest to a fig tree. Two naked young men, assisted by the Vestals, sacrificed a dog and a goat, animals with strong sexual instincts, at the site. The blood was smeared on the foreheads of the young men and then wiped away with wool dipped in milk. At this point, the youths were required to laugh. Then the priests, or lupercai, would run about in loincloths made from the skin of the sacrifices, slapping everyone with strips of goat skin.Most believed the thongs to be februa that cleansed their sins and assured good fortune so they tried to be struck. Young wives were particularly eager since they believed it promoted fertility and easy childbirth. There was also lots of feasting and drinking, which is not too unusual when the ceremonial highlight of the festival is being slapped with goat strips.

Long after Palentine Hill became the seat of the powerful city, state and empire of Rome, the Lupercalia festival lived on. In fact, Lupercalia was not dropped from the liturgical calendar until 1969. Historic records indicate that Mark Antony was master of the Luperci College of Priests. It was at the Lupercalia of 44 BCE that he ran up to Julius Caesar who watched from the Rostra and offered him a laurel wreath as a symbol of kingship. Caesar rejected it and exactly one month later, he was assassinated. Conquering Roman armies took the Lupercalia customs with them as they invaded France and Britain. One of these was a lottery where the names of available maidens were placed in an urn and drawn out by the young men. Each man accepted the girl whose name he drew as his love - for the duration of the festival, or sometimes longer. Some speculate it is from this practice that our modern Valentine’s Day has evolved.

It was the habit of the Christian religion to overlay pagan holidays with those associated with the Christian mythos. In 496 AD, Pope Gelasius did away with the festival of Lupercalia, citing that it was pagan and immoral. The church forbade the custom of februa & drawing of names of sweethearts and instead put names of saints in the vessel that was called the Valentine urn. The youth was to emulate the life of the saint for a year. The saint lottery lasted for a couple hundred years until finally the inevitable happened. Can you imagine a teenager’s response to saint emulation? Yep, the kids boycotted the urn.  That may be why today St. Valentine is known are the patron of living lovers, not dead saints.

In the 15th century, the lottery finally returned to its original purpose of coupling unmarried youths. It was a widely accepted custom in the medieval days of chivalry where in England the names of maidens and bachelors were put into a box and drawn out in pairs. The couple exchanged gifts and they became sweethearts for a year. He wore her name on his sleeve and was duty bound to attend and protect her.

Messages between paired up sweethearts were the forerunner of the contemporary Valentine card. By the 17th century, handmade cards had become quite elaborate. Specially printed cards were common by 1780s and a big hit in Germany where they were called friendship cards. In 1797, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was published, offering sentimental rhymes for the young lover afflicted with writer's block. The first American publisher of valentines was printer and artist Esther Howland who created elaborate lace cards in the 1870s. Since then, the valentine card business has flourished.

From an evolutionary perspective, the very first valentine cards were the slips of paper bearing names of maidens the early Romans first drew during the festival of Lupercalia. Here’s a suggestion. Rather than succumb to the throes of current Valentine’s Day commercialism, do something a little different this year. Write a card or an email to each person you care about and include a quality you appreciate about them.

May you take this month to appreciate 'what is' in your life and those who make your world a better place.

Cristina enjoys appreciates all of the people, including you, who make the world a better place by making themselves the best they can be. She is an energetic healer and Sustainable Wellness™ coach. Her website is and you may feel free to contact her at 


© 2012 Cristina Smith. All rights reserved. 

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