Roman Empire | Roman Religious Practices
PROF. DEUBNER'S THEORY OF THE LUPERCALIA
(See pp. 34 and 106)
In the Archiv für Religionswissenschaft, 1910, p. 481 foll., Prof.
Deubner has published an interesting study of this puzzling festival, to
which I wish to invite attention, though it has reached me too late for
use in my earlier lectures.
It has long been clear to me that any attempt to explain the details of
the Lupercalia on a single hypothesis must be a failure. If all the
details belong to the same age and the same original festival, we cannot
recover the key to the whole ceremonial, though we may succeed in
interpreting certain features of it with some success. Is it, however,
possible that these details belong to different periods,--that the
whole rite, as we know it, with all the details put together from
different sources of knowledge, was the result of an accretion of
various features upon an original simple basis of ceremonial? Prof.
Deubner answers this question in the affirmative, and works out his
answer with much skill and learning.
He begins by explaining the word lupercus as derived from lupus and
arceo, and meaning a "keeper off of wolves." The luperci were
originally men chosen from two gentes or families to keep the wolves
from the sheepfolds, in the days when the Palatine was a shepherd's
settlement, and they did it by running round the base of the hill in a
magical circle (if I understand him rightly). If that be so, we need not
assume a deity Lupercus, nor in fact any deity at all, nor need we see
in the runners a quasi-dramatic representation of wolves as
vegetation-spirits, as Mannhardt proposed (see my Roman Festivals, p.
316 foll.). This view has the advantage of making the rite a simple and
practical one, such as would be natural to primitive Latins; and the
etymology is apparently unexceptionable, though it will doubtless be
criticised, as in fact it has been long ago.
But in course of time, Prof. Deubner goes on, there came to be engrafted
on this simple rite of circumambulation without reference to a deity, a
festival of the rustic god Faunus; and now there was added a sacrifice
of goats, which seem to have been his favourite victims (kids in Hor.
Odes, iii. 18). The luperci, who had formerly run round the hill
quite naked, as in many rites of the kind (see p. 491), now girt
themselves with the skins of the goats, in order to increase their
"religious force" in keeping away the wolves, with strength derived from
But the luperci also carried in their hands, in the festival as we
know it, strips of the skins of the victims, with which they struck at
women who offered themselves to the blows, in order to make them
fertile. This, Prof. Deubner thinks, was a still later accretion. Life
in a city had obliterated the original meaning of the rite--the keeping
off wolves; but a new meaning becomes attached to it, presumably growing
out of the use of the skins as magical instruments of additional force.
Here, too, Juno first appears on the scene as the deity of women, for
the strips were known as amicula Iunonis (R.F. 321 and note). The
strips may have been substituted for something carried in the hand to
drive away the wolves; the goat, it should be noted, is prominent in the
cult of Juno, e.g. at Lanuvium. The mystical meaning of striking or
flogging has been sufficiently explained in this instance by Mannhardt
(R.F. p. 320), and is now familiar to anthropologists in other
In the period when the fertilisation of women became the leading feature
of the rite, the State took up the popular festival, and it gained
admittance to the religious calendar, which was drawn up for the city of
the four regions (see above, Lect. IV., p. 106). The State was
represented, as we learn from Ovid, by the Flamen Dialis (Fasti, ii.
But we still have to account for some strange detail, which has never
been satisfactorily explained in connection with the rest of the
ceremony. The runners had their foreheads smeared with the blood of the
victims, which was then wiped off with wool dipped in milk; after which,
says Plutarch (Romulus, 21), they were obliged to laugh. These
details, as Prof. Deubner remarks, seem very un-Roman; we have no
parallel to them in Roman ritual, and I have remarked more than once in
these lectures on the absence of the use of blood in Roman ceremonial. I
have suggested that they were allowed to survive in the religion of the
city-state, though actually belonging to that of a primitive population
living on the site of Rome. Prof. Deubner's explanation is very
different, and at first sight startling. These, he thinks, are Greek
cathartic details added by Augustus when he re-organised the Lupercalia,
as we may guess that he did from Suet. Aug. 31. They can all be
paralleled from Greek religion. We know of them only from Plutarch, who
quotes a certain Butas as writing Greek elegiacs in which they were
mentioned; but of the date of this poet we know nothing. Ovid does not
mention these details, nor hint at them in the stories he tells about
the festival. (It is certainly possible that Augustus's revision may
have been made after Ovid wrote the second book of the Fasti; it could
not have been done until he became Pont. Max. in 12 B.C., and perhaps
not till long after that, and the Fasti was written some time before
Ovid's banishment in A.D. 9.) That Augustus should insert Greek
cathartic details in the old Roman festival is certainly surprising, but
not impossible. We know that in the ludi saeculares he took great
pains to combine Greek with Roman ritual.
The above is a mere outline of Prof. Deubner's article, but enough, I
hope, to attract the attention of English scholars to it. Whether or no
it be accepted in whole or part by learned opinion, it will at least
have the credit of suggesting a way in which not only the Lupercalia,
but possibly other obscure rites, may be compelled ultimately to yield
up their secrets.