See La Vecchia Credenza On Line Feburary in Ancient Rome
FEBRUARY IS UPON US, birth month of great presidents and martyrs, and for lovers around the world, the month of Saint Valentine’s Day. While births of martyrs and presidents may be mere coincidence of time, not so the celebration of love. To explicate the matter, one must search to the very foundations of ancient Rome. When Rome was first founded, wild and bloodthirsty wolves roamed the woods around the city. They often attacked and mauled and even devoured Roman citizens. With characteristic ingenuity, the Romans begged the god Lupercus to keep the wolves away. Lupercus was the god of the wolves, so he was expected to have some influence on their behavior.
This tale begins when Numitor, king of the city of Alba Longa, was ousted by his brother, Amulius. Numitor had a daughter, Rhea Silvia. His wicked brother had her made a vestal virgin to prevent her bearing any offspring with a right to the throne. Mars, the god of war, had his way with her anyway, and she bore twin sons, Romulus and Remus. Afraid of these half-god twins, Amulius cast them into the flooded Tiber River in a basket and set them adrift. They were found by a mother wolf who suckled and nurtured them as her own pups. Later they were found and raised by shepherds, who were grateful for the seeming immunity to wolf attacks on their flocks and the resulting fecundity of the sheep. The shepherds rightly gave thanks to the god Lupercus, protctor of flocks against wolves.
Still later, Romulus and Remus led a shepherd revolt against Amulius and slew him, restoring the throne to their grandfather. They then decided to build their own city, but Romulus quarreled with his brother over petty issues regarding the size of the walls, and killed him in the resulting fight. Thus the city was named Rome over the remaining twin.
As a rite of spring and the oncoming fertility brought to all of nature, the early Romans chose February 15th as a proper day to honor Lupercus, Faunus, and other gods and goddesses of fertility and protection. The ritual was named Lupercalia and involved two naked young men slaughtering a dog (symbolic wolf?) and a goat.
In addition to the blood sacrifice, vestal virgins affixed cakes of grain from the previous year’s harvest to the very fig tree believed to be the spot where Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf. The naked young men were ritually smeared with the blood of sacrifice, then wiped clean with milk-drenched wool. Our symbolic Romulus and Remus then donned loincloths made from the skins and ran about the altar and into the city. The young women of the city proffered their flesh to the young men as they passed, for which they were lightly lashed with goatskin flails made from the sacrificial goat. These whips were named “februa”, and give us the name of our current month. The lashing ostensibly promoted great fertility among the women and it was a joyous moment when the goatskin struck their flesh.
As the years passed and The Roman Empire adopted Christianity, the Pope, in 494 AD transformed Lupercalia into the feast of the Purification of The Virgin Mary, trying to water down the still immensely popular holiday with Christian virtue.
In another of early Christianity’s veiled attempts to embrace the flesh, a certain Saint Valentine was lionized, having his day tied to the former Lupercalia by establishing it the day before, on February 14th. There are three equally likely candidates for the honor of being the original saint, who was either deeply in love with one of his female converts, or very compassionate towards young lovers at a time when such latitude for anything sexual was vehemently forbidden by the church.
In any event, the supernatural fertility of The Virgin Mary and the terrestrial fertility of young lovers around the Christian world are now inextricably linked by having their feast days so joined. So, share some goat’s milk along with the chocolate as you woo your lover on Valentine’s Day.
…and maybe howl like a wolf and give them a few lashes while you’re at it.