The Roman festival of Lupercalia is thought to be one of the earliest instances of celebrations surrounding “love”. Yet, the festivities interpreted “love” as something far from what we know today, with what would be considered as barbaric acts taking place in an attempt to promote fertility in women.
No one knows the exact origin of Lupercalia, but the best placed guess is that it stretches back as far as the 6th century BC – making it thousands of years old at the earliest.
Many rituals and sacrifices took place during the festival that run completely contrary to the Valentine’s celebrations of today.
Certain rituals would take place in specific places, such as Lupercal cave – the famous cave where Romans believed Romulus and Remus to have been nursed by a wolf – on Palatine Hill, and within the Roman open-air, public meeting place, the Comities.
The festival started at the cave with the sacrifice of one or two male goats – a representation of sexuality – and a dog.
The ancient ritual is worlds away from what we now consider as an appropriate way to show affection
Priests during the feast of Lupercalia
A group of Roman priests would perform the sacrifices, afterwards stripping naked and smearing the blood of the animals on their forehead with the sacrificial knife.
The crowds would then go on to enjoy grand feasts, cutting strips and eating from the freshly killed goats.
Things would then take an odd turn, to modern day standards, as men would run naked around Palantine whipping any woman within striking distance – many women welcoming the lashings and even bared their skin to receive the fertility rite.
Men would, at random choose a woman’s name from a jar, subsequently coupling with them for the duration of the festival.
Saint Valentine, 1493, found in the collection of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
Julius Caesar refuses the Diadem when it was offered during the Lupercalia
A painting of Constantine I, or Constantine the Great
“I don’t think it was a sadistic beating, it was a symbolic beating.”
Mr Vukotic goes on to describe the mosaics and reliefs from the period which depicted women accepting the blows of the whip.
He said this is unsurprising “given the sexual aspect of the festival”.
As the years passed, Lupercalia became more chaste, especially as Christendom prevailed following Roman Emperor, Constantine I’s, conversion to Christianity on his death bed in 337 AD.
Ancient Egypt and Rome have close ties and often crossed over in ancient times
Though the festival continued, celebrations became more subtle, with women being whipped on their hands by fully-clothed men.
Many have attempted to make a link between Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day, though many historians say there is no relationship between the two.
Equally unclear is where the whipping and acts of savagery derived from.
The most plausible theory for the whipping was that is served as an initiation, according to Mr Vukotic.
Ancient murals of Roman figures
He says a ritualisation produced a form of “sexual play” that marked a boy’s transition into adulthood.
Nevertheless, there are several disagreements and confusion within academia over the intention of the festival and its discontents.
Some evidence even suggests that Roman’s themselves were puzzled by the naked priest’ behaviour.