The part of the festival that most people know about, and from which many draw these conclusions, is that after sacrificing a goat and a dog (along with some other rituals, to be detailed further below), the young Luperci priests run a race around the old boundaries of the city of Rome, flogging passers-by (particularly women) with goat skins from the sacrifice. Some modern Pagans, particularly Gardnerian Wiccans, have often seen a connection between this particular practice and the use of flogging and flagellation in their rituals. And, while there is a connection in terms of similar tools being used for ritual purposes, the actual practices aren’t comparable at all. The floggings that Roman men and women hoped to receive on the day were not harsh and tortuous, and were not some form of BDSM within a ritual context (though, I would note, I have no problem with BDSM generally, nor its usage in rituals in particular!); neither was it a technique to induce an altered state of consciousness. It was a token slap on the palms of the hands, in fact, if we are to believe some ancient sources on this matter–one “whack!” and then the Lupercus concerned ran a bit further to give his blessings to someone else along the road. If marks were left, they were doing it wrong!
No matter what some Christians (and none too small a number of Pagans) might like to think, the connections between the Roman festival of Lupercalia on February 15 and St. Valentine’s Day on February 14 are, in fact, few to none. The idea that Lupercalia is “all about fertility,” and thus some sort of distant, more physical and amorous (and therefore “Pagan”) cousin to Valentine’s Day, is more than a bit of an exaggeration.
The fertility here involved is not necessarily sexual fertility in women, though it was often thought to be such when the origins of the festival were eventually forgotten. It was fertility represented by the goat skin itself, a fertility of an agricultural and livestock sort. The young men running the race were symbolically committing themselves to the protection of their communities, thus their race around its boundaries which indicated their area of influence and the “home territory” they were protecting. The young men who were Luperci underwent a part of the ritual earlier in which the blood from the sacrificed goat and dog were mixed together, dabbed on their foreheads with a knife, and then wiped off subsequently with wool dipped in milk, signifying their transition from a lawless, wild state into a settled and civilized mode of life. The founders of Rome, the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, were raised by the Lupa (“she-wolf”) in the cave where this ritual took place, and in their lives after this, they were lawless hunter/raider warriors until their eventual foundation of the city. This ritual commemorates this entire situation. The success by speed and martial prowess that used to come to Romulus and Remus when they were hunter-warriors in taking anyone and everyone’s livestock–including goats!–while in that phase of their existence becomes the success of those same skills and abilities being put toward the protection of their community in their settled state. The fertility of the community’s resources, through this protection, is what is being celebrated, not necessarily (nor exclusively) the fertility of humans in reproduction.
Like much of the month of February for the Romans, the focus of Lupercalia is on both purification and ancestors, with the purification and re-integration of the marginal classes and age-grades of society being reflected in the ritual with the blood and milk, and the ancestral focus being given not only to the founders of Rome but to the wolf that made their later lives possible by her care of the exposed infants. The festivals of the Parentalia (February 13-21st) focus on the family ancestors, while the festival of the Fornacalia (anywhere from February 5th through 17th) focuses on purification of grain-parching ovens, and thus it has attention to cereal agriculture whereas Lupercalia has attention to livestock. As was the other major festival marking the foundation of Rome, the Parilia on April 21st, purification and livestock also played a major role. On that festival in April, which was considered the “foundation date” or “birthdate” of the city, herds of livestock were driven between two purifying bonfires–very similar to what is said of Beltene in Ireland at the beginning of May.
Further, purification often follows after contact with the dead, and what is connecting to one’s ancestors and visiting their graves but contact with the dead? Thus, the two fit together thematically–even though we cherish our ancestors greatly and want to have contact with them, contact by the living with death and dead things has the potential to be dangerous if not done properly, or with an eye toward respect as well as defense of one’s own self and one’s family and community. Spiritual presences are real, and can have potentially beneficial as well as baneful effects, depending on how they are approached. Thus, purification before and after contact with them is a good idea, generally speaking.
So, by all means, celebrate Lupercalia however you would like to do so, whether it is with flogging and festivities or with the full rituals (dog-sacrifices excluded and frowned upon greatly, of course!) of the ancient Romans. Adapting ancient rituals for modern day use is a very good thing, considering we are different people living in very different times, and ignoring this does no honor nor justice to the particular lives we are living now as modern Pagans. However, in doing so, make sure that you understand what the fuller significance, and the general context, of these ancient rituals happened to be. The gods will be pleased, and all the more present, if you are able to do this.