"You know it is the feast of Lupercal": February Traditions Then and Now

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar opens on a holiday — but a holiday no one in Shakespeare’s England any longer celebrated. Unlike Twelfth Night, Shrove Tuesday, Whitsuntide, or any other liturgical holiday of the Christian calendar, the Lupercalia was something no one in Shakespeare’s audiences would have had personal experience with, and we are even further removed from it today. But what correlations does it have to Tudor-era traditions and to our modern late-winter festivities? More than you might immediately guess.

Abbi Hawk, Gregory Jon Phelps, and Benjamin Curns
in Julius Caesar, 2013. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

So what is this strange Roman festival? Plutarch discusses the Lupercalia, held February 13th-15th, in his “Life of Romulus,” the first of his Twelve Lives. He describes it there as the Romans celebrated it early in the Republic, as a feast of purification, but also as a memorial to the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus after their exposure in the wilderness. He gives the following description of the ceremonies:

… the priests slaughter goats, and then, after two youths of noble birth have been brought to them, some of them touch their foreheads with a bloody knife, and others wipe the stain off at once with wool dipped in milk. The youths must laugh after their foreheads are wiped. After this they cut the goats’ skins into strips and run about, with nothing on but a girdle, striking all who meet them with the thongs, and young married women do not try to avoid their blows, fancying that they promote conception and easy child-birth. …

A certain Butas, who wrote fabulous explanations of Roman customs in elegiac verse, says that Romulus and Remus, after their victory over Amulius, ran exultantly to the spot where, when they were babes, the she-wolf gave them suck, and that the festival is conducted in imitation of this action, and that the two youths of noble birth run “Smiting all those whom they meet, as once with brandished weapons, Down from Alba’s heights, Remus and Romulus ran.” And that the bloody sword is applied to their foreheads as a symbol of the peril and slaughter of that day, while the cleansing of their foreheads with milk is in remembrance of the nourishment which the babes received. But Caius Acilius writes that before the founding of the city Romulus and his brother once lost their flocks, and after praying to Faunus, ran forth in quest of them naked, that they might not be impeded by sweat; and that this is the reason why the Luperci run about naked. 

The Lupercalia had, by Caesar’s time, also grown to incorporate an earlier festival called the Februalia, which was more strictly a purification ritual having to do, it seems, with spring cleaning and washing. The name of the month February (Februarius to the Romans) derives from this holiday. Perhaps in recognition of the connection, the strips of goat flesh used during the Lupercal were called februa. The Lupercalia was so popular that it hung on as a tradition in Rome long after the advent of Christianity. In 494 CE, the Pope finally took measures to halt the pagan practice (telling the wealthy men of Rome that they should go run naked in the streets themselves if they liked the holiday so much), transforming the Lupercalia into the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary — better known as Candlemas.

Shakespeare gives a fairly faithful rendition of the Lupercalia in Julius Caesar. Antony enters “for the course” (though presumably, in 1599, not naked or clad only in a goatskin loincloth — but if anyone knows of a production of the show that has had Antony appear in the historically-accurate altogether, I have a purely intellectual curiosity about such a staging). Caesar himself gives the audience a brief run-down of the ritual and its significance to the Roman populace:

CAESAR
[to Calphurnia]
Stand you directly in Antonio’s way,
When he doth run his course. Antonio.

ANTONY
Caesar, my lord?

CAESAR
Forget not, in your speed, Antonio,
To touch Calphurnia; for our elders say,
The barren, touched in this holy chase,
Shake off their sterile curse.

Though most of the events of the day occur off-stage, the narration of them closely resembles what Plutarch has to say about them. Antony, though consul at the time, did run with the luperci priests on that day (and earned criticism from the conservatives for what they saw as action too undignified for his rank). Shakespeare’s greatest aberration is that he conflates several days into one, merging the 44 BCE Lupercalia together with a series of triumphs that Caesar celebrated following his defeat of Pompey and Cato. The incidents involving Murellus and Flavius un-decorating Caesar’s statues and involving Antony attempting to give Caesar a crown both occurred on the Lupercalia of 44 BCE, a month before Caesar’s assassination. This was also the first day that he wore the purple toga of the Dictator-for-Life in public, a visible signal of his power that would have been unmistakable and tremendously significant for the Romans. By conflating this day with his triumphs — during which a Roman general was literally considered a god on earth — Shakespeare presents us at the top of the play with an image of Caesar at his utmost pinnacle, possessing more power and authority than any Roman man before him ever had.

The Capitoline Wolf, honoree of the Lupercalia

As with most cultural transmission, historians have trouble drawing any direct links between the Lupercalia and other social and religious  holidays, but there are a cluster of similarly-timed, similarly-themed festivals at this time of year. St. Valentine’s Day, Chinese New Year, Candlemas, Imbolc, and even Groundhog Day all speak in some way to rebirth and to the turning of the year, as the first hints of spring begin showing themselves (at least to those of us in temperate climes of the northern hemisphere). The sacred animal attached to the holiday was a goat for the Romans, a lamb for the Britons, a badger or a bear for the Teutons, and a groundhog for modern Americans. Each, in some way, either deals with weather prognostication or with ideas of nourishing milk and fertility (and some, like the lambs, cover both).

There is an interesting juxtaposition of the themes of purification and the themes of mating and fertility present in the various holidays celebrated at this time of year. The Lupercalia itself, thanks to the melding of traditions from the Februalia, mixed cleansing aspects and the sweeping of ashes with the ideas of conception and safe childbirth. The Celtic and Teutonic festivals of Imbolc all relate to the earth’s renewed fertility at this time of year, as visible by the lambing of ewes and the mating rituals of various animals. Though Candlemas, an answer to the Lupercalia, focuses on purification, another Christian holiday, St. Valentine’s Day, focused initially on marriage and now on love of all kinds (read about its history and development on the Intern Blog). St. Valentine’s also took on some of the connotations of mating in the animal world. As Shakespeare tells us in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, St. Valentine’s is traditionally when “woodbirds begin to couple.” Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, which together mark the dualism of excess and indulgence contrasted to sobriety and spiritual purifying, often fall during this time of year as well, or else fairly early in March — and the incorporation of ashes into a religious purification ritual is something that Ash Wednesday shares with the Februalia.

The major instigation behind all of these holidays seems to be things, whether human or animal, floral or vegetable, natural or spiritual, in potential, not yet come to the full flourishing of the spring that we’ll celebrate in March and April with holidays like Easter, Ostara, Earth Day, and Arbor Day. These celebrations focus more on mating and pregnancy, less on birth (or rebirth). We clear away the snow and dead earth in preparation for flower buds and fresh plantings. Warmth and growth aren’t quite back yet — but we know they’re coming, and that is itself cause for merriment.

Whether or not any of these myriad traditions inherit from each other, there certainly seems to be something in the air at this time of year that affects the bent of human thoughts. Perhaps it’s just that, by mid-February, halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox, the buzz of Christmas has long since worn off and the grey of winter seems too dreary to endure, so we’re all eager to hurry it on its way. Whether you’re sending Valentines this week, smudging ashes on your forehead, sweeping the dust out of your home, or looking forward to swapping out winter wools for spring sundresses, you’ll be part of traditions that stretch back not just hundreds but thousands of years.

Now, if you feel the best way to get in touch with your cultural ancestry this week is to run naked through the streets, it’s certainly not my place to judge (though your neighbors and local police department may feel differently). But, if you’d like to celebrate less ostentatiously (and with less potential for arrest, frostbite, or potentially-damning Youtube videos), come to the Blackfriars Playhouse this week to see Julius Caesar or one of the other shows of the Actors’ Renaissance Season.