The Daily: 15 February 2023

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, the Roman feast of the Dead, 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. Gratefully, 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 to 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.

A Story of the Lupercal

Benutzer:Wolpertinger on WP de - Own book scan from Emmanuel Müller-Baden (dir.), Bibliothek des allgemeinen und praktischen

Romulus and Remus

The old river god gently laid the sleeping twin boys on the bank. She watched as he sadly backed away from the shore and melted into his domain. Just before he vanished he looked up and met her eyes, charging her with this task in that one glance. He knew her well. She would never turn away the helpless.

The children began to fret, flailing tiny limbs futilely. The smaller let out a mewling cry, and she heard the ancient voice of hunger. She huffed out a breath and then left the cover of her cave entrance.

She approached the infants cautiously. That they came from the river likely meant there were no other humans nearby, but still she remained alert. Humans were devious, and she did not doubt that they might use their own young as bait. She did not intend to fall into that trap.

The larger boy stilled as she stood over him. There was no fear in his brown eyes, but they held a question. Are you going to hurt me, too? So young and yet this pup knew betrayal.

The smaller boy continued to whimper, his tiny face a twisted mask of unassuaged grief, his eyes darting from sky to river to her face. He took comfort in nothing he saw. She reached out and gently, so gently, brushed his cheek. He turned into her touch, mouth searching for sustenance.

She softened. 

She pawed the infant onto his side and picked him up. So small, he fit in her jaws like a dead hare. Only he was not dead. He squirmed and squealed. Afraid she would drop him, she gave him a slight shake to startle him into submission. Before the shock could wear off, she loped back to the cave and laid him in her bed.

Then she returned to the silent brother. He tensed when she picked him up, but he did not thrash or cry out. She carried this infant to her cave and laid him by his brother. 

She was no expert on distinguishing human infants, all softness and mush and milk stink, but she could see that these two had the mark of the war god in their features. And with this realization came a scent of old blood and bone. And dust. Ancient dust.

She drew back. Because why were the children of deity abandoned to the waters? But the smaller boy began to wail and her body ached to give him comfort.

She lay down next to him and guided him to her mother’s milk. He suckled ferociously. Poor starving whelp. She drew the other boy closer. Soon both were nursing contentedly, all betrayal and cold waters forgotten as warm milk filled their tiny bellies. It took so little to soothe the jagged edges. So little. Just this.

They woke in the dawn air and began to flounder against her breast. She shifted away and stood over them. They had soiled her bed.

She prodded them aside. The smaller boy began to crawl toward the cave entrance. The quiet one sat up and blinked owlishly at his brother.

She pushed the filth out of the cave and batted the explorer back inside. She was hungry and sore, but she had no daughters to help mind these two fragile creatures. She sat in the cave entrance and stared at the pair of them. The smaller one poked and jabbed, seeking the attention of his sibling. The quiet one sucked a finger.

She heard a soft thump outside the cave and turned to see the river god’s retreating back. He’d brought a soft-bellied carp. She did not like fish, too many small bones to avoid. But she recognized his offer of partnership. She accepted.

And this became their routine, this peculiar family. She spent most of her days in the cave entrance, guarding, arbitrating, letting the sun warm her back. The old river daemon brought food, somehow sensing when she needed to eat. They never spoke. The infants suckled and played and grew. The moons danced overhead and winter approached.

Human infants matured so very slowly. Months after her own pups would have been hunting for their own sustenance these two continued to nurse. Her body was exhausted. 

But she loved them. She claimed them and cared for them. They were her own children now, regardless of parentage.

She watched them with pride as they discovered their world. There were endless novelties in this bounded space. Bodies, sand, stone, insects. And over and under it all, Mother.

They began to talk the strange twin-speak, and she learned their language. They copied her as well, speaking with their bodies. The small family whispered and shouted “I love you, I love you, I love you” with eyes and hands, paws and ears. And the boys grew.

Seasons rolled over the cave family. The infants became children. They learned to look after themselves. They fished in the river, bowing in deference to the old god who they claimed as father. They followed the old wolf, hunting hares and howling at the stars. Their clever hands, never still, crafted tools to compensate for their clawless fingers and inadequate teeth. At times they would wander, but they always returned to her.

Until the day they didn’t.

They had grown to manhood. They were handsome and tall, long-limbed and broad-chested, though naked and rude. Their black hair tumbled down in matted locks. To human eyes, they were indistinguishable and wildly eerie. To the ears of wolves they were men, full of deceit and treachery. To her, they were themselves, her sons. 

They had grown to a similar size and shape. But the quiet one remained thoughtful and studious and smelled of moonlight. The effusive one worked hard to contain his tongue and restless body. He often failed. He smelled like summer.

She had grown very old. Her muzzle fur was thin and grey. Her legs, arthritic and stiff. She was wintry and slow. The boys often hunted alone now. But her heart still swelled when she caught their returning scent. She delighted in just watching them in the twilight, being near their warm bodies, hearing their breathing and quiet twin-chatter, feeling their hands on her body.

She knew her task was drawing to its conclusion. She knew she would soon lay her bones down for the final time. It had been years since she’d last seen the river god. She sometimes fretted over this.

The day they did not return dawned bright and warm. The moon brother studied the skies as the summer bother fidgeted with some small thing of driftwood and antler. It was time. They felt a call to some unknown purpose in the wider world. They knew they must leave their home, their mother, their lives, even though it was not the way of wolves to abandon kin.

They had not yet learned that they were not wolves. This foreign longing troubled them. But they listened to its urging.

They set off aimlessly, thinking they might go find their father and ask his advice. They turned to look back at Mother in her cave. She looked so frail, so fragile, so ephemeral and time-worn. She was no longer the firm foundation, the enduring center of their lives. She would fade. She would die. And they would be motherless children if they remained in this, their childhood home.

She watched them go and felt something shift. She remained in the cave entrance until their scents faded to a thin stream. And then she saw the river god. He stood in the shallows, his eyes on her, and she knew. She was to become childless this day.

She threw her head back and howled her heart-breaking farewell.

They heard her cry. They did not return. But they carried away her voice — the sound of love, of home. They sealed her in their hearts. They remained wolves.

Until the world of men broke them apart.

©Elizabeth Anker 2023

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