The abolition of the Lupercalia

Apparently there is a (false) legend that Valentine’s Day derives from the ancient Roman festival of the Lupercalia.  I admit that I had never heard this one — but the excellent Bill Thayer has gone to some trouble to research it, so clearly it does.

He has also added an article from Classical Philology about the festival in the 5th century here.  This contains a number of interesting statements, all derived from a letter of Pope Gelasius defending the abolition of the festival.

When it was finally abolished by the efforts of Gelasius, he addressed to a group of senators an epistle defending the step, which approximates the length of an apologetic treatise. He admits that the old pagan rite had continued under his predecessors, through the days of Alaric, Anthemius, and Ricimer, and had been abolished only in his own time; but he defends the earlier popes by saying that ills could not be healed at once, and that perhaps they had tried to remove this superstition but had failed to win the support of the imperial court. …

The Lupercalia, then, must belong to the class of superstitions which lingered on among a nominally Christian people. Something of the nature of this superstition may be learned from the letter of Pope Gelasius cited above.

1. As to the purpose of the Lupercalia. — A pestilence had broken out in Campania, which Andromachus and other senators ascribed to the suppression of the Lupercalia. The Pope replied that the purpose of the festival was not to avert pestilence but to promote the fertility of women; that pestilence and ills of every sort had been abundant while the Lupercalia continued; and that there was no connection between a city festival and happenings in Campania.

This reply raises a question as to the purpose of the rites. Gelasius cites an account from the second decade of Livy (292‑218 B.C.), to the effect that the Lupercalia was instituted to relieve the sterility of Roman matrons….

Now that sounds like an interesting letter!  And uses the (lost) second decade of Livy as well?  Hmmm….!

The notes say that it was published in the Collectio Avelana, in CSEL 35.1, p.390 f.  But 390 is wrong — it is in fact letter 100, on p.453-464, to Andromachus.

The letter ought to be translated into English.  My calculation is that it’s about 1,800 words long.  I might see if I can find a translator on Student Gems.


13 thoughts on “The abolition of the Lupercalia

  1. There’s a lot of difference between young men (lightly) hitting matrons with (little) sticks to bless them to have kids, and with the whole “think about love and marriage in early spring when the birds come back, and before Lent starts” of Valentine’s Day. I imagine they are entwined, if only because it is the beginning of spring in Italy and parts of Europe, which encourages thoughts of fertility.

    (Which is of course hilarious in most of the US, because the chances of birds mating in February instead of still being down south or trying not to freeze to death, are pretty low in most years.)

  2. People in North Africa still conserve the Julian Calendar for the celebration of seasons and agricultural events; until recently, each year, spring (Tafsuth,plural = Tifeswin, in berber language) is celebrated with games (kora = a sort of hockey), processions with green boughs …on February 28 (gregorian)= 15th of Julian February = ancient Lupercalia

  3. I would be very interest in reading the letter to Andromachus re: t he ending of the Lupercalia if it has been translated and uploaded.

  4. Hmm. I’d forgotten this one. So would I. Have emailed another correspondent who may know someone who could do the job. I’d do it myself, if I wasn’t chained to a wheel all the time.

  5. Well indeed. The one I commissioned is apparently “half done”, so I’m pretty much committed to that. At least mine will be available freely on the web! 🙂

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