Saturday, February 14, 2015

Lupercalia and Valentine's Day: Wolves, vestal virgins, and the Pipes of Pan

While most of us consider February 14th a date to celebrate or avoid all together, February 15th became an important date in ancient Rome as a time of rebirth and renewal -- and to its human cousin, fertility. 

As springtime festivals go Lupercalia was a wild affair of debauch and drunkenness, not a bad way to chase off the dread spirits of winter or the very real threat of the wolves outside your door. Appropriately so: the Latin holiday takes its name from the Lupercal, oldest Roman settlement -- on the Palantine Hill -- in which the wolf was supposed to have suckled Romulus and Remus. 

Hallmark won't mention it, but the flayed skin of a sacrificed goat was used by loincloth-clad men for lashing women in order to promote fertility and ease of childbirth. It seems clear that by classic times some ancient ritual had degenerated and its original significance had been lost, but because it involved a lot of nakedness and riotous running around and tomfoolery, the ancient Romans were loathe to abandon it.

But why February? February occurred later on the ancient Roman calendar than it does today, so Lupercalia was held in the spring and regarded as a festival of purification and fertility. Each year on February 15, the Luperci priests gathered on Palantine Hill at the cave of Lupercal. Vestal virgins brought sacred cakes made from the first ears of last year's grain harvest to the fig tree. Two naked young men, assisted by the Vestals, sacrificed a dog and a goat at the site. The blood was smeared on the foreheads of the young men and then wiped away with wool dipped in milk.

The youths then donned loincloths made from the skin of the goat and led groups of priests around the pomarium, the sacred boundary of the ancient city, and around the base of the hills of Rome. The occasion was happy and festive. As they ran about the city, the young men lightly struck women along the way with strips of the goat hide. It is from these implements of purification, or februa, that the month of February gets its name. This act supposedly provided purification from curses, bad luck, and infertility and also imparted a wish that the maidens would marry soon. Of course, with any Roman or pagan fertility festival, a 3-day orgy followed the initial festivities.  

By the time of Imperial Rome the celebration was in full flower: Mark Antony was master of the Luperci College of Priests. He chose the Lupercalia festival of the year 44 B.C. as the proper time to offer the crown to Julius Caesar.

As many a pagan custom in the Roman world, the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity altered the nature of such a free-spirited debauch. Lupercalia, with its lover lottery and more precisely lengthy orgy, had no place in the new Christian order.  Finally, in the year 496 AD, Pope Gelasius did away with the festival of Lupercalia, citing that it was pagan and immoral. 

He chose Valentine as the patron saint of lovers, who would be honored at the new festival on the fourteenth of every February. St. Valentine's feast day became associated with the more genteel and social aspects of courtship. The flailing of one's beloved and the wearing of goat-skins disappeared, and the forms of romantic love took shape that led Hallmark to its hearts-and-flowers domination of the once raucous holiday..

The rites and rituals of Lupercalia were not abandoned completely. In Morocco the springtime celebration is still an intense event of magic and fertility, wildness in honor of the god Pan -- with his goat-skin and dancing, shrill piping and midnight debauchery, he is the god of Panic in the tribes of the desert.

The Pipes of Pan at Jajouka is a field recording made in Morocco by Brian Jones and Brion Gysin in 1968, an edited document of ancient Lupercalia rituals dedicated to the god Pan that are hours, and sometimes days, long. These rituals echo through every springtime rite from the pre-Lenten celebrations of Mardi Gras and Carnival to Easter. Although the recording has been given a psychedelic gloss it doesn't really need, the result is powerful music, if the listener is open to it. 

This is an old, old trip -- and the album, recorded during a visit in 1968 and originally released in 1971 on the Rolling Stones' label, is considered the first of its kind. Since then the Master Musicians of Jajouka have recorded a wildly unique series of albums, produced variously by Bill Laswell and Talvin Singh, that are worth the shoe leather to track down -- short of a journey to Jajouka itself, of course.

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