Essays - The Lupacalia - A Festival of February
A Personal Odyssey by Caroline Wise
My lifetime interest in mythology and the denizens that inhabit it was awakened at a very young age.
Once a week at primary school we listened to a radio programme made for schools which featured
dramatisations of the Ancient Myths.
I am blessed with a vivid, almost physical full-colour panorama in my mind when I read or listen, so my
young imagination was well fired during these sessions. It was exhilarating to sit, eyes closed, as if
actually in the scene. The detail on my inner screen was ‘high definition’ as we entered into the
realms of the Greek myths. I was with Jason and Odysseus embarked on their quests. I wonder now
if the other children had their eyes closed!
As the series moved on to the Arthurian tales, which had been imported to our shores with the
Normans, I can clearly remember, over 40 years on, how I feared for Guinevere and was repelled by
her sentence. Although the class was too young and the programme presented in such a way that we
were unsure why ‘sleeping with Lancelot’ was actually a crime, we were not considered too young to
hear about a woman being sentenced to burn alive! And for being a disobedient female! A warning to us
girls, perhaps. The story may have been medieval, but on the mundane plane we had only just left the
repressed 1950s. Anyway, we journeyed with the heroes around the mythological world whose realms
to us children were vibrant living dimensions rooted in real geographical locations. Being introduced to
this as a young child, I had no reason to doubt that these mythic hinterlands were as real as Terra
Firma, or that they could be entered into at will. I am grateful that the door to fairyland has never
The babies’ names were Romulus and Remus, and their father was Mars, who in those pre-imperial
days was an agricultural god. As the farmers became soldiers, so Mars became a war god. Their
mother was Rhea Sylvia, whose name suggests a Dryad, yet who in this myth is a vestal virgin. The
babies must be abandoned, for a vestal virgin’s punishment for this transgression is harsh and final.
The babies are despatched to the Tiber. By necessity, their mother entrusts them to the Fates. A
man’s world indeed, as Guinevere discovered several centuries later.
Romulus and Remus are found and adopted by a shepherd called Faustus, so the folklore goes. This is
curious, as Faustus is the name of the Roman equivalent of Pan. He also has the name Lupercus, as his
shrine is near the cave. His wife is Fauna, whose name now encompasses all the animals of the earth.
She is none other than Bona Dea.
The twins grow and set out to found a city in honour of their wet-nurse. At a confidently precise 753
BC, the city has its magical foundation. The twins plan the city by augury, divining by observing the
flight of birds. Romulus’s plough lays the first furrow for the boundaries, led by a white bull and a
white cow, sacred creatures in many cultures. The brothers inevitably fight - that popular
mythological motif - and Romulus kills Remus. Romulus goes on to found Rome on the seven sacred hills.
Rome eventually becomes the most powerful Empire in the world.
Rome, for good or ill, shaped the destiny of a huge part of the globe, expanding into Africa, India,
Central Asia, the Middle East, and across Europe. Many of us must be descended from Romans, the
Empire being so vast. In my schooldays, we were taught that history began with the Roman invasion
of Britain. As a child I was thrilled that this mighty phenomenon arose because of the kindness of a
mother-wolf. It was my favourite story, and possibly the empathy of that wolf with the twins was the
initial impulse that led to my own deep empathic love of animals and their beautiful souls.
I was delighted to stumble on the mother wolf again, when some twenty-five years later, in ‘Juno
Covella’, by Lawrence Durdin-Robertson, I learned that this wolf was a goddess, and that she had a
name, Lupa. The name simply means ‘she-wolf’ in Latin, but the wolf of my favourite childhood story
was now elevated. She was a special, sacred she-wolf! I read on and learned that a great festival was
named for her. Lupa the She-wolf gives her name to the Lupacalia, which became the most important
observance in Rome.
The mention in ‘Juno Covella’ is brief, but it took me straight back to first time I’d heard the story.
The entry for February 14th tells us that St Valentine’s Day, “Like the candles of Candlemass,
recently gone by, it comes to us directly from the Lupercalia of pagan Rome.” For February 15th, the
entry is dedicated to Lupa the She-wolf.
“A she-wolf which had given birth to her whelps came, wondrous to tell, to the abandoned twins.
She halted and fawned on the tender babes with her tail, and licked into shape their two bodies
with her tongue. The she-wolf (lupa) gave her name to the place, and the place gave the name to
the Lupacalia. Great is the nurse for the milk that she gave.” (Ovid, Fasti II)
The origins of the festival are probably Etruscan, as is a lot of the framework for the Roman Empire
and the Classical world. It developed at the Palatine Hill via the Greeks. A pre-Roman Arcadian colony
was settled there. The Lupacalia was established as a rustic pastoral celebration at the Palatine Hill
long before the city-state of Rome emerged, its roots going back in time towards the Neolithic
agricultural revolution. With the emergence of agriculture, the need for balance between man and his
environment, and respect for the elements, the beasts and nature, steered the evolution of the gods
and the observances.
How is St. Valentine’s day a direct descendant? Originally, the Lupercal was a festival of fertility
and purification. Young farm boys would run through the streets dressed in goat skins, harking back
to pre-agricultural times when skins were donned for hunting, suggesting even earlier origins. They
would have strips of goat-leather with which they would strike any females they met on the hand as
an aid to fertility. Many women made sure they would be in the path of the priests! They would also
strike the fields to aid the crops, and strike the boundaries. This evolved into the ‘Beating of the
Bounds’ ceremonies carried out until relatively recently in Britain and continental Europe. Boundaries
were important and must be affirmed in a sacred act once a year.
The Lupacalia developed over the centuries and boxes were introduced in which maidens were
encouraged to place their names. Lots would be drawn to see whom they would marry, or whom they
would date for a year. In 496 AD Pope Galasius replaced the Lupercalia as the Christian feast day of
St Valentine, who was as mythical as Romulus. Galasius declared St. Valentine the patron saint of
Lovers. The Church dismissed poor St Valentine in the twentieth century, but they couldn't curb the
popularity of his romantic feast day.
The Lupacalia festival was entwined with the myth of Pan. The Greek goat-foot god protected the
flocks from wolves across the Greek and Roman Empires in continental Europe and North Africa. Shy
pan, with his melancholy pipes, is the God of the wild places, of the mountains and caves. He evolves
with the development of animal herding. Now lonely Pan dwells on the boundaries, the liminal realm
between the wild and the settled, a protective barrier between the wolves and the flock. Local folk-
groups and dignitaries sometimes revive the ‘Beating of the Bounds’ ceremonies as a fun activity in
areas that had the tradition in the past. Is Pan peeping out from behind the trees?
The Lupercalia evolved into a major imperial state festival largely due to the 1st century Emperor
Augustus, who identified himself with Romulus, even taking his name. Augustus also elevated the cult
of Roma, a representation of the city-state as a goddess. She had to be venerated along with him,
like a divine consort to his divine king. It is interesting that Romulus is attributed with inventing the
Roman calendar, as Roma’s tutelary genius is the goddess Fortuna, who is associated with the wheel
(taro) ‘She who turns the Year.’ The emperor must never be far from Fortuna.
The Lupercalia, the oldest of the pagan Roman festivals, features in the first act of Shakespeare’s
Julius Caesar. Caesar has returned to Rome on the feast of the Lupercalia, and a seer warns Caesar
with the famous words “Beware the Ides of March”, which are one moon from the Lupercalia, March
15, when Caesar has his fatal “et tu, Brute” moment.
Mark Anthony had the honour of being a head of the College of Luperci – the priests of the Lupercalia.
The priesthood were no longer rustic shepherd boys. The aristocracy now vied for this prestigious
honour. It is fitting that Anthony was the beloved of Cleopatra, who although an avatar of Isis, was
also a devotee of Aphrodite, Goddess of Lovers.
I gasped when I glanced at the TV news on November 20 2007. The newsreader announced that
archaeologists in Italy had discovered “Ancient Rome’s holiest site, the centre of power in imperial
Rome, the Lupercal Cave where a mother wolf suckled Romulus and Remus.”
The find was made during the restoration of the Palace of Augustus. Augustus had deliberately placed
his palace on the Palatine Hill, by the Lupercal Cave. The television was now transmitting pictures,
taken with an endoscope inserted 7 metres through the ground to the cave. Beautifully executed
designs made with seashells, stucco and marble covered the walls, spiralling at the doomed ceiling.
The cave is too fragile to excavate and these remote images made the scene especially poignant and
rather eerie, like film taken with robot cameras from the bowels of sunken ships. It felt right that
this place was inaccessible to modern humans with their reductionist equipment and attitudes. It is a
sacred space. It can reveal its wonder, but we can’t dissipate its charge. This undisturbed sanctuary,
a dramatic 8 metres high, and 7.5 metres in diameter, showed a highly sophisticated ceiling, with the
white imperial eagle extant, a clue to the authenticity of the site. This had been described in ancient
texts. This eagle, identifying the cave, was seen and recorded in the 16th century by a traveller when
the site was still accessible. His observation was Shakespeare’s source for the Lupercal. “We almost
screamed,” said Professor Giorgio Croci, head of the archaeological team. Andrea Carandini, a
professor of archaeology at Rome’s La Sapienza University said “It is one of the greatest discoveries
ever made.” The newsreader went on to say that Augustus had indicated a private entrance from the
Lupercal Cave to his palace.
In a clever political and geomantic manoeuvre, Augustus, a living god, has linked himself to the
founder of Rome at the place of that foundation. This is not without precedent, as across the ancient
world – and bizarrely up until fairly recently - emperors and empresses became living deities. Less
bizarrely, they understood their relationship to the land and sacred places.
The festival of Pan, who protects the flocks from the wolf, is named for the wolf, and the cave of the
she-wolf is its sacred centre. Here we enter those spine-tingling numinous realms where real people
and history meet myth, and Divine kings and actual geographical locations merge. For this Emperor is
the Augustus Ceaser who gave the order for the census which saw Mary and Joseph making their
auspicious journey to Bethlehem where another divine king will be born of a Virgin (who has been
impregnated by a god), in a cave, surrounded by shepherds and associated with sheep. My senses
reeled at the huge significance of this find and the connections it made.
‘Juno Covella’ inspired me by showing the many days on which we could connect to specific Goddesses.
On reading this book, I was inspired to present a celebration of the Floralia, in honour of the
goddess Flora, in London in 1995. In 1996, on February 15th I presented a modern take on the
Lupercalia. Helped by my Lyceum, John Merron’s Lyceum and local Noble Order of Tara members, we
put on a mystery play followed by games and a feast. Instead of a lottery, we had a raffle. Most of us
already knew who we did or did not want to marry! Pictures of beautiful wolves were projected onto
the wall. Over 100 members attended. Olivia attended, as did the singer Julie Felix with her guitar.
She ended the evening with a rousing song about wolves which we could all join in. The impetus for this
celebration of Lupa came about because one of our Noble Order of Tara members worked as a
volunteer at a wolf-sanctuary in Portugal. After paying for the hall, the entrance and raffle money
boosted her wolf sanctuary fund raising.
When I was reminded of the she-wolf and my favourite childhood legend in ‘Juno Covella’, I was
transported straight back in time, behind my desk in that classroom - not a place I would normally
wish to revisit! I realised all these years later that in the story Lupa reveals herself as none other
than the Mother Goddess; nurturing, loving and caring. Did Rhea Sylvia call out to the Goddess as she
approached the river? Lupa does not huff and puff, and she is not impersonating a grandmother, she is
The Grandmother, the Magna Mata. Lupa, who slips her cloak to reveal the goddess, has taken in the
dispossessed, the abandoned, and the helpless, and asks nothing in return.
It is lovely to have a festival dedicated to Romantic love. Even the City-state goddess has her name
enshrined in the word Romance. I get caught up in St Valentine’s Day like many people. I am no killjoy,
but I have become aware that over the years this festival, like many others, has turned into a
festival of greed. Some flower sellers hike their prices for this day, for instance. And these
expensive blooms seldom open, as they have been force-grown in unnatural conditions. A few days
later the balloons and cards just look tawdry. Now I am going back to the roots. This February 14th,
I shall honour Lupa’s eve, and throw my money to the wolves!
Notes: There are many wolf sanctuaries around the world doing wonderful compassionate,
educational and conservational work. They rely on donations. Please think of them on ‘Lupa’s Day’.
'Juno Covella', Lawrence Durdin-Robertson. Cesara Publications
'The Year of the Goddess, A Perpetual Calendar of Festivals', Lawrence Durdin-Robertson. Aquarian
'Fasti', Ovid. (A calendar poem on festivals of Rome, sacred rites, history, legend and people.) Loeb
Classical Library 1931
'Plutarch’s Lives', Translation Sir Thomas North, 1579. Cambridge University Press 1921
'Julius Caesar'. William Shakespeare. Oxford 1991
'Encyclopedia of World Mythology', Peerage Books 1970
'The Etruscans and the Survival of Etruria', Christopher Hampton. Gollancz 1969
'A Classical Dictionary', J A Lempriere, London 1812
'The English Festivals', L Whistler, London 1947
Rome, Capitoline Museums, Lupa
Capitolina (Romulus and Remus)
One day, as I was settling into the weekly radio programme,
in what I now realise was a meditative state, I found myself
transported to Ancient Rome. Rome before it was Rome. I
was captivated by the story: Twin babies in a basket are
placed in the Tiber, and are washed up at the site of seven
green hills. The babies are found by a mother wolf, who
suckles them and rears them as her own, saving them from
death. I recall the wonder of hearing this. In our dark
European and Scandinavian folktales the wolf was bad. They
huffed and puffed and blew your house down, and
impersonated grandmothers. Here was a wolf showing
compassion, intelligence, altruism and love.