A Benediction for Lupercalia

Today is Lupercalia. This is one of the oldest festivals in EuroWestern culture and, in fact, likely predates the Euro-bits. As with most ancient things, this holy time is a dense web of themes that don’t all mesh together well, but somehow make a lovely tapestry when viewed from a certain remove. Falling within the Parentalia, Lupercalia is strongly bound up with reverence for ancestors. The official function of Lupercalia is to honor Rome’s founding twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, and the she-wolf that saved them from starvation when they were abandoned by mankind. It is both a celebration of Rome’s ancestry and a remembrance of their original home — the wolf cave, the Lupercal, at the base of the Palatine hill near the Tiber River. 

The entire nine days of Parentalia are focused inward on the home and the family. It is a time to honor the household dead. As both the Roman Republic and the Empire were modeled on the paterfamilias, there was time set aside to honor the ancestors of the state and of the emperor’s bloodline. However, much of the ritual is centered on the immediate ancestors of each household, the recently deceased, much more so than the illustrious dead. This was a highly personal connection, with grief and longing as well as joy and love all still burning fresh in the heart. It is called Parent-alia because it honors dead parents, mother and father, not some abstracted ancestry. This immediate connection drew on strong emotion and probably for that reason took place behind closed doors.

It feels jarring to see a fertility festival attached to this time of ritual bereavement. There were nods to Juno Februa, the goddess of home and ritual purification (among other things), but much of the symbology was derived from the goat gods, figures of pure lust. The rituals of Lupercalia were celebrating sex and procreation, not ancestry, not our own dear parents. And yet… our parents were surely worshipping at the altars of fecundity in order to produce us. So perhaps it makes a certain sense.

This festival falls at the end of the year in the Roman calendar, so there was a good deal of energy spent in setting the world in order in order to start afresh. Homes were cleaned, physically and ritually. Business and legal proceedings were concluded and then put aside to wait for the new year cycle. The body was purified and blessed — with goat thong lashings during Lupercalia, but also with special bathing and sacramental feasts. Parentalia put the family in right relationship with the ancestors, the generative principle of the family and the home. So as I said, when viewed from a certain distance, all the themes weave together. 

We no longer include Parentalia or Lupercalia in our annual cycle. We do not much focus on the past dead nor on the future progeny. We are very much a present culture. We are pulled out of time and out of relationship with our world. I believe that we are suffering for this. We do not know our real stories and ways, and so we are easily misled. We do not feel connection to our places, and so we are easily uprooted and made to work toward the destruction of our home. We do not even seem to remember that sex is procreation, and so we are alone in our moments of closest physical union.

I would like to see us restore the rites of deep connection. That is a large part of why I began this writing project. I am ambivalent about goat gods, but I absolutely believe that this generative principle needs to be refastened to the home — to the places and people who will nurture and care for the children, the world, yet to come. Of course, in our world we do not have the paterfamilias, and so this home and family is of our making and has no imposed hierarchies. We are free in our loving and devotion, our nurturing and care. It is supremely sad that at this time when we are most able to feel and embody connection — because we are, at least theoretically, free to choose to whom we belong — we are instead utterly severed from everything and can feel nothing. We are unable care too much about this world and our relationship within it and still participate in our culture of independent economic actors focused on self-satisfaction. 

So thus a good deal of my writing is about economics and sociology and the disgusting mess that is mediated politics — when my actual stated focus is on home. And hope. But I feel that we have to break free from these false chains before we can forge real bonds. We need to peel away the burned and ragged masks that we have been wearing to conform to this surface-image culture before we can go running naked through the streets, overflowing with pure joy in creation. And we need to remember that we have roots before we can regrow our homes and lives.

Someone has to shine a harsh light on all that we do so that we might do better, so that we might be better, so that we might live better. I would rather write about bread and flowers… but we can’t have nice things until we clear away all the nasty non-sense. And so I have taken on the role of the jester who jeers at all the ugly ridiculousness supporting the throne. My thoughts are that if we pack enough jesters into the king’s receiving room, laughing loudly at a general lack of clothing, perhaps we will topple the empire.

But today, I want to pretend that we’ve done that already, that we live in our new world of merry anarchy and centered interdependence. And so today I want to wish you a deeply felt Lupercalia and a richly re-membered Parentalia. Light your candles for the dead and cleanse your homes for the new beginnings. Be present in both past and future. Be at home and live with hope. And so it is.

©Elizabeth Anker 2022