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Lupercalia: Celebrate the Coming of Spring

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February was considered the final month of the Roman year, and on the 15th, citizens celebrated the festival of Lupercalia. Originally, this week-long party honored the god Faunus, who watched over shepherds in the hills. The festival also marked the coming of spring. Later on, it became a holiday honoring Romulus and Remus, the twins who founded Rome after being raised by a she-wolf in a cave. Eventually, Lupercalia became a multi-purpose event: it celebrated the fertility of not only the livestock but people as well.

To kick off the festivities, an order of priests gathered before the Lupercale on the Palatine hill, the sacred cave in which Romulus and Remus were nursed by their wolf-mother. The priests then sacrificed a dog for purification, and a pair of young male goats for fertility. The hides of the goats were cut into strips, dipped in blood, and taken around the streets of Rome. These bits of hide were touched to both fields and women as a way of encouraging fertility in the coming year. Girls and young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from these whips. There is a theory that this tradition may have survived in the form of certain ritual Easter Monday whippings.

After the priests concluded the fertility rites, young women placed their names in a jar. Men drew names in order to choose a partner for the rest of the celebrations -- not unlike later customs of entering names in a Valentine lottery.

To the Romans, Lupercalia was a monumental event each year. When Mark Antony was the master of the Luperci College of Priests, he chose the festival of Lupercalia in 44 BC as the time to offer the crown to Julius Caesar. By about the fifth century, however, Rome was beginning to move towards Christianity, and Pagan rites were frowned upon. Lupercalia was seen as something only the lower classes did, and eventually the festival ceased to be celebrated.

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