Lupercalia, a purification festival from Rome’s past, was perennially popular among females, from luscious young things bursting with hormones to marriage-ready young women and anxious-to-get-preggers matrons.
Why? Because Lupercalia, held on February 15 since only Venus knew when, was all about becoming pure: not to abstain from sex but to get ready for sex.
Even the Romans didn’t agree on the top dog deity being celebrated. Although candidates for the honor included Lupercus, Pan, and Faunus, the frontrunner appeared to be a god we haven’t heard much of but who would fit right into the twenty-first century. His name? Inuus, the god of sexual intercourse.
As February 15 approached, the estrogen level climbed in Rome. Women got up early to nab the best street corners. From there, they could ogle a number of spectacular young men, their skin glistening with oil and not much else, race barefoot through the streets. Unlike Greek men, who got naked in public at the drop of a loincloth, Roman males, especially highranking ones, usually kept their gravitas under wraps.
The Lupercalia, which began as a shepherds’ festival, also honored legendary twins Romulus and Remus, who were shepherds as well as the city’s first kings. For its first five centuries, only patrician males could join the cult of the Lupercii, a word that may mean wolf or possibly goat. (In later Christian times, the bar was lowered, allowing young men of humbler origins to take part, which caused a great deal of sneering and sighs about “back in the good old days …”)
During the Lupercalia Festival, seminaked men ran through Rome, lashing women with goatskins to ensure their fertility. One celebrant was Mark Antony, who tried to “crown” Julius Caesar during the festivities.
For the event, the boys gathered on the outskirts of Rome at the dingy cave of the Lupercal, where they began by sacrificing a goat and a dog to the deity. Two lads then had their foreheads dabbed with animal blood, wiped with wool and milk, followed by mandatory laughter. Ritual accomplished, they all dug in to a feast, well splashed with wine.
As if things weren’t messy enough, the guys then peeled off the goat’s hide and sliced it into ribbons, draping the bloody pieces around their body parts. Each gathered enough goatskin to make a nice whip, which would be used to ritually flog any females and random males they came across.
One memorable Lupercalia took place in 44 B.C. At the peak of his powers, Julius Caesar sat on a golden throne on the speakers’ platform in the Roman Forum, watching the antics of the barefoot, bare-buttocked men as they raced into the open space where the public awaited. The leading Lupercus happened to be Mark Antony, who was well oiled in every sense of the word.
Clambering onto the platform, he went up to Caesar and tried to “crown” him with a laurel wreath. This gesture drew mixed boos and cheers, turning to applause when Julius pushed it away. Antony tried again— Caesar refused more strenuously. Was this a clumsy drunken homage from Antony to his commander? Or a trial run to see if Romans would tolerate a king again? The incident ended with someone else putting the crown on one of Caesar’s statues, after which others tore it down, to great cheers.
Elsewhere in the Forum and around Rome, the festival roared on, the goatskin thongs hitting skin with a whistling sound. Married women and girls of marriageable age crowded in, anxious to get a ritual smack. Being whipped on the hands, back, or bottom with goatskin thongs not only chased off evil spirits, it made a gal receptive in the most basic sense to the guy in her life. The Lupercalia ritual also promised easy and uneventful pregnancy and childbirth, the dream of every fertile woman in those medically treacherous days.
As they made a circuit around the boundaries of the city, the Lupercal runners also performed a lustration or cleansing. This magical ritual, thought to repel the powers of evil and liberate the powers of good, promoted the fertility of humans as well as their animals and their crops.
Naughty songs, peeks at male equipment not normally on display, and other merrymaking took place at the Lupercalia, but it wasn’t an orgy scene in the least. Notwithstanding, later Christian leaders fulminated against its “licentious” character.