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Valentine's Day Origins: Lupercalia, Pan and Werewolves

Valentine's Day Origins: Lupercalia, Pan and Werewolves

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Published by Jo Hedesan
This article investigates the origins of Valentine's Day, tracing it back to the Roman festival of Lupercalia, and then to the god Pan / Faunus and his mastery over wolves.
This article investigates the origins of Valentine's Day, tracing it back to the Roman festival of Lupercalia, and then to the god Pan / Faunus and his mastery over wolves.

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Published by: Jo Hedesan on Feb 11, 2009
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Valentine’s Day Origins – Lupercalia, the God Pan, and the Werewolves

By Jo Hedesan. Published in Esoteric Coffeehouse www.esotericoffeehouse.com on 10 Feb 2009.

We’re barely out of the Chinese New Year and the next celebration is almost here: Valentine’s Day. Since I can’t miss an opportunity to investigate a festival’s origins and mythology, I will proceed without much further ado. A quick search on the internet will immediately inform you that the Valentine’s Day originates from the Roman festival of Lupercalia. But what was Lupercalia and how did it evolve into our modern Valentine’s Day? In its classical manifestation, Lupercalia (“The Wolf Festival”) was a bizarre ritual where skimpily clad young men would run around whipping women with goat skin thongs. The women were also almost naked (1). The running men were called Luperci, the wolf people, and were divided into two “colleges” (2). The festival had enough importance to have Julius Caesar establish a third college, the Iuliani, which was first headed by his loyal general, Mark Anthony, of Cleopatra fame (3). The celebration perpetuated well into Christian Rome, before an archbishop of Rome forbade it. Despite the fact that numerous Roman writers left testimonials about the Lupercalia, scholars are divided about the origins and meanings of this tradition. For instance, it is not clear what god was celebrated at the Lupercalia, if any at all. Some writers associated the celebration with the Luperca, the she-wolf who fed the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus (4). Other times it was associated with Evander, a legendary Greek hero who came to Rome from Arcadia (5). Most often, however, the celebration was associated with the god Pan, or Faunus as the Romans called it (6). In light of evidence, this is by far the most likely possibility. In Greek mythology, the god Pan was the son of Hermes. Pan was a half-man halfgoat divinity, notoriously wearing horns on his forehead. It is considered that much of the imagery of Satan came from his figure (7). A god of sheepherders, Pan was a divinity of the forests, wild life, and, remarkably, fertility. He was portrayed frequently ravishing female nymphs. His Roman counterpart, Faunus, had similar traits and was in fact merged with Pan in later times. The sexuality of Pan would indeed explain the young men’s lashings of women at the Lupercalia festival. The whippings were supposed to induce fertility and can be seen as a symbolical sexual act. If the festival of the Lupercalia was in honor of Pan, how could we explain the name of “Wolf Festival”, as well as the military associations the celebration had in ancient Rome? Pan was not obviously associated with wolves, but rather with goats, and he was not traditionally a martial god. However, the Pan celebrated in Rome was, we are told, Pan Lykaios, the wolf-Pan. St Augustine tells us that this Pan was so named because he held the key to the mystery of men becoming wolves (8). In other words, Pan was the master of werewolves.

Now, the wolf if a complex symbol which I will only briefly sketch here. Today, the wolf is associated mostly with negative traits (9), but in ancient times it was a more ambivalent figure. The wolf is a fierce predator, whose cunning and courage would have impressed the early Europeans. His aggressiveness made Romans associate him with the god of war, Mars. At the same time, the wolf was also regarded as instinctive and sexually active. Many fairy tales portray him as raping virgins (10). His famed gluttony also probably implied sexual relations. Remarkably, scholars now consider that the wolves of ancient Italy would have mated only in the month of February, thus explaining the Lupercalia festival’s name (11). In light of all this symbolism, Pan the Wolf was a god that combined fertility and aggressiveness in one shape. He was a male god par excellence, whose sexuality was symbolized by the young men ‘fertilizing’ women through flagellation. These “Luperci” were more than “priests” as some scholars or popular articles portray them: they could be seen as the embodiment of Pan Lykaios himself. It has been observed that the young men were in fact symbolizing “werewolves” (12). How did this rampantly sexual wolf-festival become translated in our romantic St Valentine? As the Roman Empire evolved, the sexual connotations and animal symbolism became subdued (13). At this stage, Pan was no longer animal-looking but portrayed as a beautiful young man; often his cult was superseded by the god Mars (14). The Lupercalia runs, though still performed, had degraded enough to be only performed by the lower classes (15). Eventually they were officially abolished; yet the Christian authorities probably thought it was wiser to maintain the festival and its associations with love and marriage. It is a well known fact that Christianity often superseded pagan celebrations with Christian ones. In Lupercalia’s case, a Christian patron was found in the person of a mysterious St Valentine. A medieval Christian legend had St Valentine uphold love and marriage in front of Emperor Claudius who wanted to abolish it altogether (16). Today, most scholars think that the story was probably made up. Yet under the patronage of this St Valentine, the love connotations of the Lupercalia could be retained and survived until today. References (1), (4), (5), (6), (13), (14), (15) Wiseman, T. P (1995). The God of the Lupercal. The Journal of Roman Studies, 85, pp. 1-22. (2), (3) Wiseman, T.P. (1995). Remus: A Roman Myth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (7) Wikipedia. (2009). Pan (Mythology). Online. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pan_(mythology). Accessed on 8 Feb 2009. (8). St Augustine. City of God. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Online. Available at: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf102.toc.html#P3325_1825420. Accessed on 9 Feb 2009. (9) Griffith, M. (2008). The Wolf: Evil or Spiritual. Sandplay Therapists of America. Online. Available at: http://www.sandplay.org/symbols/wolf.htm. Accessed on 8 Feb 2009. (10) Werness, H.B. (2004). The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. Continuum: New York.

(11), (12) Michels, A. K. (1953). The Topography and Interpretation of the Lupercalia. Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, 84, pp. 35-59. (16) Wikipedia. (2009). Saint Valentine. Online. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Valentine. Accessed on 8 Feb 2009.

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