Oil on canvas by Andrea Camassei, c.1635, Museo del Prado
Long before St. Valentine, there was an ancient annual pastoral feast called Lupercalia. It was celebrated in Rome between February 13 and 15 in the Lupercal Cave at the Palatine Hill.
Legend tells of the twin-founders of the city, Romulus and Remus, who were thrown into the Tiber on the orders of their usurping uncle Amulius. The babies washed ashore near a wild fig tree and were found by a she-wolf, who suckled them and raised them with her mate in their den. Years later, they were found living feral by the shepherd Faustulus and his wife Acca Larentia, who took them in. Upon reaching adulthood, they discovered their true identities, and set out to avenge themselves. They killed their great uncle and founded the Eternal City.
Once restored to their regal place, the brothers rediscovered the den and called it the Lupercal (wolves' cave). It became a sacred site, along with the remains of the shepherd's hut.
The Lupercalia ritual was held in the cave itself. The festival had its own priesthood, the Luperci ("brothers of the wolf"), aged from about 20-40, whose institution and rites were attributed either to the Arcadian hero Evander, or to Romulus and Remus, shepherds who had each established a group of followers. Essentially, the Luperci sacfificed a goat and a dog, anointed their foreheads with the blood, and then ran around naked whipping women with the hides of the animals they had just slain, believing it would help them conceive or ease the delivery of those already pregnant. The rituals meant to avert evil spirits and purify the city, releasing health and fertility.
Drawing of The Lupercalian Festival in Rome, by the circle of Adam Elsheimer, c. 1578–1610
The Lupercalia name was believed to have some connection with the Ancient Greek festival of the Arcadian Lykaia, a wolf festival, and the worship of Lycaean Pan, assumed to be a Greek equivalent to Faunus. Lupercalia was also called dies Februatus, after the instruments of purification called februa, which gave February (Februarius) its name.
Happy Valentine's to all who celebrate and Happy Birthday to all you February babies.