Every year on February 15th, the ancient Romans celebrated the Lupercalia festival in honor of the she-wolf who suckled their founders – twin brothers Romulus and Remus – when they were infants. The festival was meant to purify the city and ensure fertility… however, the rituals involved were perhaps some of the strangest traditions ever practiced in ancient Rome. Oddly enough, by the time the festival was at the height of its popularity in the 1st century BC, the Romans had forgotten most of the festival’s origins, even to which gods it was originally dedicated.
The religious ceremonies of the Lupercaliawere directed by the Luperci, or “brothers of the wolf”, and began at a cave on Rome’s Palatine Hill – where Romulus and Remus were believed to have lived with the she-wolf as children. These male priests were responsible for the ritual sacrifices of two male goats and a dog, after which two young Luperci would be led toward the altar to have their foreheads ‘anointed’ with the sacrificial blood.
The priests wiped the blood off their knives with a piece of wool soaked in milk before smearing it on the mens’ foreheads, after which these young Luperci were expected to laugh and rejoice. Some studies have speculated that the ritual blood-smearing was a remnant from another ancient ritual originally practiced at the festival, but long forgotten: human sacrifice.
After the sacrifice came a feast for all the participants, after which the priests would cut thongs from the skin of the sacrificed goats and dress themselves in the rest of the skin. Then, the priests would run around the boundaries of the city holding the leather thongs and whipping people with them – in fact, young women would line up along the city limits and bare their flesh praying to be whipped, as this ‘ritual whipping’ was believed to bring fertility and ease the pain of childbirth.
This festival was so popular that it continued to be celebrated long after the Christianization of the Roman empire, until 494 AD when the Pope shifted the festival’s focus and refashioned it as the “Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary.”