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Monday, February 11, 2013

Valentines, Lupercalia and 50 Shades of Whipping It Good

Researching the origin of Valentine's Day, I found that the holiday did not begin as a loving tribute to commemorate the anniversary of St. Valentine's death or burial--which probably occurred around A.D. 270. Like Halloween, Valentine's Day can be traced to pagan beginnings. In this case, the Roman holiday was known as Lupercalia. In truth, the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine's feast day in the middle of February in an effort to "Christianize" Lupercalia.

Lupercalia is believed to have started at the time of the founding of Rome (traditionally 753 B.C.) or even before. Lupercalian festivities continued until Pope Gelasius I outlawed them in 494CE. Then, the Church instituted the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, and the feast day of St Valentine was added to the calendar two years later.

The Romans celebrated Lupercalia on the ides of February, or February 15. The event was a festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of fertility and forests, as well as to the Roman founders, the twin boys Romulus and Remus.

History of the Roman Founders

According to legend, the grandfather and great-uncle of the twins, Romulus and Remus were Numitor and Amulius, who between them divided the wealth and kingdom of Alba Longa (a city founded by Aeneas' son Ascanius), but then Amulius seized Numitor's share and became sole ruler. To prevent retaliation by the offspring of his brother, Amulius made his niece, Rhea Silvia a vestal virgin.

Vestal virgins of the ancient convent could be buried alive if they violated their chastity vows, so Amulius assumed that Rhea Silvia would remain childless. But, when it was discovered that the virgin had been impregnated by the god Mars, Amulius's plans went awry. Rhea Silvia's life was spared because of the special pleading of Amulius' daughter Antho, but Amulius still kept her imprisoned.

Of course, Amulius wished to have Romulus and Remus killed, so he ordered that the infant twins be drowned in the river Tiber. But, through a miraculous series of natural interventions, the boys survived. The infant orphans washed ashore by a wild fig tree where they were found by Lupa, a she-wolf, who suckled them and raised them with her mate.

Finally, the shepherd Faustulus and his wife Acca Larentia found the twins living in their feral state, took them in, and raised them as their own children.

Upon reaching adulthood Romulus and Remus discovered their true identities, and set out to avenge themselves on their wicked great-uncle. Having killed him, they decided to build a city in the place where they had been born. Each brother decided to rule one part of the city. They each chose a hill from which to rule the new Eternal City of Rome.

This explains the name of the festival, Lupercalia, or the "Wolf Festival."


Lupercalia was held near what became known as the cave of Lupercal on the Palatine Hill -- the central hill where the she-wolf kept Romulus and Remus.

The rites of the festival were directed by the Luperci, the "brothers of the wolf (lupus)", a corporation of sacerdotes (priests) of Faunus, dressed only in a goatskin, whose institution is attributed to Romulus and Remus.

To begin the festival, the Luperci would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus were believed to have been cared for by the she-wolf. The Vestal Virgins, who cultivated the sacred fire, brought sacred mola salsa (salt wafer) made from the first ears of last year's grain harvest to the occasion. These wafers were sprinkled over the head of the animal sacrifices: two male goats, for fertility; and a dog, for purification. The priests then sacrificed these animals.

Next, two young patrician Luperci were led to the altar to be anointed on their foreheads with the sacrificial blood of the animals, which was wiped off the bloody knife with wool soaked in milk. This ceremony has been interpreted as an act of death and rebirth ritual in which the "signature" with the bloody knife is the death of the previous condition of "secular" while cleaning with milk (infant nutrition) represents rebirth in the new condition of priesthood.

After this, the two new "priests of the wolf" were expected to smile and laugh. (Why laugh? Don't ask me. I guess this is about the only "cool" Roman noble reaction to this kind of messy treatment.)

A huge feast followed, after which the Luperci cut the goats' hides into strips, dipped them into the sacrificial blood, and handed the goat hides to the two, now naked, young men. The bloody hides were known as februa. In fact, the month of February is derived from the Latin februare, "to purify" (meant as one of the effects of fever, which has the same linguistic root).

The two new initiatives, each leading a group of all the other priests, then ran around the walls of the old Palatine city, the line of which was marked with stones, to inspire fertility and harvest. With the goat thongs in their hands, they gently struck the crop fields and the bystanders who crowded near.

Scholars believe that in this second part of the festival, Luperci were themselves both goats and wolves: (1) first, as goats they were infused with the fertility of the animal (considered sexually potent), and (2) second, they become wolves in the last part of the rite.

These historians say running around the hill should be read as an invisible fence created by magical incantations of primitive shepherds to protect their flocks from the attack of wolves, the same offer of the goat was to appease the hunger of wolves attacking.

Roman girls and women particularly welcomed the touch of the hides, and they would line up on the route to receive lashes from these "whips." This lustration (light flogging) was supposed to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ease the pains of childbirth. Some even bared their flesh to get the best results of the "love lashing." As anyone might expect, this merriment was often accompanied by much rowdiness and horse-play. And, naturally, love was "in the air."

Greek historian Plutarch described Lupercalia this way:
"Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy."
Later in the day, according to some historians, young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city's bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage. Many historians dispute the Romans employment of this lottery.

My Take

The popular image of the origins of Valentine's Day found in the rule of Roman emperor Claudius II certainly differs from the origins of the celebration of Lupercalia. So, are we now celebrating a holiday more like Valentine's or Lupercalia Day?

Most know the popular story of the holy priest Valentine who lived during the time Claudius ruled Rome. Then, the empire was involved in many bloody, unpopular campaigns, and the emperor found it difficult to recruit the male populace into joining the military, so he believed Roman men were adverse to leaving their loved ones and their families.

To get rid of the problem, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. But, the priest Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. And, even though Valentine eventually lost his head for his illegal activities, he became a popular martyr and a saint as the savior of love and romance.

What does Valentine's Day mean to most lovers today? It seems to me the holiday has become very commercial – a rather “offhand” obligation-type occasion filled with token purchases of flowers, Hallmark cards, candy, and other material objects meant to remind couples of their renewed vows of love.

And, it seems love today has many detached definitions. From the platonic to the hedonistic, love abounds, yet Valentine's Day seems to sell out more and more to the sexy and the sensual aspects of affection. In this manner, perhaps unintentionally, people in the 21st century seem to celebrate Valentine's Day in the pagan “Lupercalia” style.

I'm not saying people today search for successful means to increase their fertility on February 14; however, I am saying the basic connection with food, wine, celebration, nakedness, and sensual/sexual attraction is strong during this time of the year. I think most of those pursuing new love this Valentine's Day consider the celebration more of a “hot” holiday than a “romantic” holiday.

Adults are fascinated with the sensual allure of pagan celebrations. So many now celebrate Halloween with particular fervor. Would these same folks enjoy a return to the wild abandon of Lupercalia this Valentine's Day? Would they see modern connections with the spirit and craziness of the Wolf Festival?

I wonder in these shockingly explicit mainstream media days of 50 Shades of Grey how many real life Christian Greys and Anatasia Steeles bent on exploring their erotic, secret desires would find Lupercalia exciting and fun. Especially the new, sexually adventurous women seemingly so fixated on this raw and erotic, no-holds-barred descriptions in 50 Shades that were once taboo to “good girls”?
After all, Anastasia herself voices what many women think about the E.L. James series of books:

This is wrong, but holy hell is it erotic.”

Those goat-skin whips stick in my mind. Speculation abounds as to the reason for the striking with the thongs or lagobola. Perhaps the Luperci struck men and women to sever any deadly influence they were under.

Although playfully striking women is thought to have been a fertility measure, there was also a decided sexual component. If the act was to ensure fertility, it could be that the striking of the women was to represent penetration. Obviously the husbands wouldn't have wanted the Luperci actually copulating with their wives, but symbolic penetration, broken skin, made by a piece of a fertility symbol (goat), could be effective.

50 Shades of Grey, the wildly successful best seller, features female protagonist Anastasia Steele, a college-age virgin who has never been kissed (Never kissed? Oh, did I tell you the book is fiction?), who meets Christian Grey, the 27-year-old billionaire CEO of Grey’s Enterprises Holdings.
Upon further acquaintance with Grey, and later on, in a developing relationship with him, Anastasia finds out that there is a darker side to "control freak" Christian, quoted as being "fifty shades of fucked up." Despite this, she falls in love with Christian and finds herself in a complicated yet passionate submissive relationship with him. (And, believe me, she "submits" it all in the name of love.)

I was thinking. Could Christian be defined as a modern-day Faunus, the Roman god? Faunus is often associated with the Greek Satyr, a mythical creature with a goat-tail, goat-like ears, and sometimes a goat-like phallus.
A Satyr is known to sing a melody straight from the human soul that feeds higher feelings. As Dionysiac creatures, they are lovers of wine and women, and they are ready for every physical pleasure. They roam to the music of pipes, cymbals, castanets, and bagpipes, and they love to dance with the nymphs, young maidens they often pursue.

Certainly, one may describe Christian's looks with the cliché of a “Roman God.” In the book, he is unbelievably handsome with his “tousled hair” and “expensive body wash.” Yet, he is also unbelievably kinky. (Yes, you must consider the sarcasm of a “kinky” guy named Christian.)
Christian lost his virginity to a dominatrix when he was fifteen, and, after five years as her submissive, he became a dom himself. (I kind of thought he would be more likely to be super-submissive after five years, but something evidently caused this role reversal.)
He used his vast wealth to turn a room in his penthouse apartment into a virtual dungeon, nicknamed the “Red Room of Pain.” And he wants to share his love of BDSM (and fine wine, classical music, and Bruce Springsteen) with Anastasia.

Does Anatasia (By the way, the name is Greek for “resurrection.), through the guile and control of Christian, become a willing nymphomaniac, a wildly hypersexual being? While Christian and his virgin Ana start out with “vanilla” sex acts, they gradually add spanking, bondage, riding crops, and other sexual objects into their repertoire. Of the use of the riding crop while being in bondage, Anatasia says...

At the touch of leather, I quiver and gasp. He walks around me again, trailing the crop around the middle of my body. On his second circuit, he suddenly flicks the crop, and it hits me underneath my behind … against my sex … The shock runs through me, and it’s the sweetest, strangest, hedonistic feeling … My body convulses at the sweet, stinging bite. My nipples harden and elongate from the assault, and I moan loudly, pulling on my leather cuffs.”

Is this love or confusion or what? Ana believes all this “Dominant and Submissive” stuff really confuses what she calls her Inner Goddess -- the adventurous, sex-crazed part of her psyche that eggs her on to go farther with Christian. Here are some of the nympho-maniacal deity’s best moments from the book:

* You beguile me, Christian. Completely overwhelm me. I feel like Icarus flying too close to the sun.”

* “My inner goddess is doing the merengue with some salsa moves.”

* My inner goddess sits in the lotus position looking serene except for the sly, self-congratulatory smile on her face.”

* “My inner goddess jumps up and down with cheer-leading pom-poms shouting yes at me.”

* “My inner goddess looks like someone snatched her ice cream.”

On the opposite side of Ana’s psyche is her prudish, super-judgmental subconscious. Here are a couple of her most judgmental moments in the book:

* “My subconscious purses her lips and mouths the word ‘ho.’ I ignore her.”

* “Sitting beside me, he gently pulls my sweatpants down again. Up and down like whores’ drawers, my subconscious remarks bitterly. In my head, I tell her where to go.”

In conclusion, maybe I see the Lupercalia connection with 50 Shades entirely wrong. No matter what time in history, it seems dealing with love and sex in all their mysterious forms provokes new means of stimulation to achieve varied forms of satisfaction.
We know the ancient Romans were no prudes when it came to sex. Fertility rites were intertwined with pleasures of all sorts, yet these people did have sexual norms and strictures on sexual transgressions. As much as we might like to think that love and sex today have gone to Hades in a Louie Vuitton handbag, maybe “kinky” is in the eye of the device holder. We, too, maintain some definite cultural rules.
So, enjoy “love” with your partner this Valentine's Day, no matter how you choose to celebrate the emotion. Maybe a mixture of soft romance and red-hot passion would serve you well. And, if I see some of you running naked down the street swinging whips of goat skin, I'll understand your howling exultation.

“Look, dear, there goes another one of those wild Luperci dudes mending invisible fences! Look at that long februa he's swinging.”

Be sure to read this great article "Whip My Roman Sex Gods / You want the true Valentine's Day? Forget roses and candy, sweetheart, and kneel before the Lupercalia" from the San Francisco Chronicle:

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