Lupercalia was observed February 13 through 15 to avert evil spirits and purify the city of Rome, releasing health and fertility. Lupercalia subsumed Februa, an earlier-origin spring cleansing ritual held on the same date, which gives the month of February its name.
In Roman mythology, Lupercus was a god, sometimes identified with the Roman god Faunus, who is the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Pan. Lupercus was the god of shepherds. His festival, celebrated on the anniversary of the founding of his temple was called the Lupercalia.
The Lupercalia festival was partly in honor of Lupa, the she-wolf who suckled the infant orphans, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, explaining the name of the festival, Lupercalia, or “Wolf Festival.” The festival was celebrated near the cave of Lupercal on the Palatine Hill (the central hill where Rome was traditionally said to be founded, to expiate and purify new life in the Spring.
The priestly college was called the Sodales Luperci and the priests were known as Luperci.
On the day of celebration two young patrician Luperci were led to the altar, to be anointed on their foreheads with the sacrificial blood, which was wiped off the bloody knife with wool soaked in milk, after which they were expected to smile and laugh. Salt meal cakes prepared by the Vestal Virgins were burnt.
After the traditional sacrificial feast, the Luperci would cut thongs from the skins of the animals, which were called februa, dress themselves in the skins of the sacrificed goats, in imitation of Lupercus, and would run round the walls of the old Palatine city, the line of which was marked with stones. With thongs in their hands, in two bands, they would strike the people who crowded near. Girls and young women would line up on their route to receive lashes from these whips. This was supposed to ensure fertility, prevent sterility in women and ease the pains of childbirth.
The Lupercalia, also had some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way and present their hands to be struck, believing that the barren would become pregnant and the already pregnant would be granted a safe delivery.
By the 5th century, when the public performance of pagan rites had been outlawed, a nominally Christian Roman populace still clung to the Lupercalia in the time of Pope Gelasius I (494–96). Gelasius finally abolished the Lupercalia after a long dispute.
The Lupercal is a cave at the foot of the south side of Palatine Hill in Rome, between the Temple of Apollo Palatinus and the Basilica di Sant’Anastasia al Palatino. In the legend of Rome’s foundation, Romulus and Remus were found there by the lactating female wolf who suckled them until they were found by Faustulus. The priests of Lupercus later celebrated certain ceremonies of the Lupercalia there, from the earliest days of the City until AD 494, when the practice was ended by Pope Gelasius I.
In January 2007, Italian archaeologist Irene Iacopi announced that she had probably found the legendary cave beneath the remains of Emperor Augustus’s house, the Domus Livia, on the Palatine. Archaeologists came across the 15-meter-deep cavity while working to restore the decaying palace.
Its location below Augustus’ residence is thought to be significant; Octavian, before he became Augustus, had considered taking the name Romulus to indicate that he intended to found Rome anew.