A young woman waits for the two young men who are running toward her. As they approach, she pulls up the hem of her toga past the thigh. She closes her eyes and feels a rush of lustful grace as one of the boys pelts her skin with a thong made from the skin of a recently sacrificed goat.
Gratefully, she drops her gown and basks in the knowledge that she has been purified, and she hopes that someday soon, a similar young man will make use of the blessing of fertility she has just received.
That might have been a story in Rome 2000 years ago. Today, it’s just a part of the history of the month called February.
The Festival of Lupercalia was celebrated in Rome on February 15. The festival was based on the story of the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus, two boys nursed by a wolf. Because Romans considered themselves descendants of the famous twins, they were friends with wolfs, so their goats and sheep were safe from attack.
To show their gratitude to the wolfs, the Romans would sacrifice a goat. Whips made from the goat’s skin were called Februa, or tools of purification. Two boys, representing Romulus and Remus, ran through the streets of the city hitting willing females with the whips.
On the same day, the entire Roman Empire celebrated the festival of Juno Februata or Juno the Purifier. Juno, the wife of the King of the Gods, Jupiter, was the goddess of marriage and fertility (among other things).
The coming of Spring was the inspiration for these events. Pregnant livestock and longer days were signs that warmer weather was coming. It was a time to think of changes you could make before the world renewed itself. Hmmm, seems a lot like New Year resolutions and Lent.
One of the party games played on the feast of Juno Februata involved the pairing of young men and women. The virgins would place their names in a jar, and the young men would each pull out a name. The couples were than obligated to spend the rest of the festival together. Often, the young men would wear the girls names on their arms. Because the theme of the day was fertility and the coming of Spring, the young couples would often end up… well, you get the idea.
When the Catholic Church gained power, it had to eliminate these pagan (and very sinful) festivals and replace them with its own.
The feast of the Purification of the Virgin was thus created and slated for the fourteenth (due to lunar versus solar celebrations and such). However, by Jewish law, Mary’s purification had to happen 40 days after the birth of Jesus, so it was moved to February 2nd when the Church decided to celebrate the Nativity on December 25th rather than January 6th. The Church then dedicated the day to Saint Valentine. Couples still seem to like the day.
February 2nd certainly gained some needed holiness when the feast of the Purification was assigned to it. It was already an important pagan holiday as it was the day midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.
Many Romans and other Europeans believed that it was on February 2nd that the hedgehog would come out of its hibernation and decide whether Spring would come early. The rodent did this by coming out of its den and looking around. If it saw its shadow and ran back into its hole, Spring would not come for another six weeks. When Europeans moved to America, there were no hedgehogs, so the groundhog accepted the honor.
While the Irish waited for the badgers and hedgehogs to tell them if Spring would arrive early, they celebrated the feast of Imbolc, dedicated to the goddess Brighid. This feast was also related to the midway point between solstice and equinox, and started at sunset on February 1st. Of course, when the Church reached Ireland, they just had to erase any sign of the pagan tradition and replaced Brighid with Saint Brigit.
It just so happens that February 2nd is also the feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, another Jewish ritual required 40 days after the birth of a male child. The priest at the Temple called Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” The day was celebrated with processions and the blessing of candles. Christians called the day Candlemas.
As you celebrate the holidays of February, perhaps you will light a candle while thinking of the coming Spring. You could participate in a rite of purification. Or you could plan something really big for Valentine’s Day. Wear your heart on your sleeve and bear some flesh. Maybe someone will come along and whip you.