European Pagan Memory Day

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The festival of the Lupercalia has probably been the last pagan festival to be abolished in Rome and the last one to preserve traces of a religious meaning, if we consider the violence with which pope Gelasius Ist tried to put an end to it. The Lupercalia were (Latin names of festival are plural nouns) a very ancient Roman festival, celebrated the 14th or 15th of February. From the works of various Roman and Greek writers, like Plutarch, Livy, and Ovid, we understand that during their times, the origin of the festival wasn't known anymore and each writer interpreted in a different way the meaning of the gestures accomplished during the rite. We can resume the ritual celebration: there was a group of priests devoted to the god Faunus and called Luperci, who used to sacrifice a goat and then touch with the blood stained knife the forehead of two young members of the Roman aristocracy. The boys had to clean themselves with a wool cloth soaked in milk and then laugh. Later, from the goat's skin the priests cut off stripes as whips and went away running naked across the city, striking everyone they could, especially women who crossed their way on purpose, to propitiate fertility. The only thing about which ancient writers all agree is the ancientness of the festival, which Livy says to have been imported from Arcadia by Evander, who came to Italy after Troy's war, while Ovid thinks it's due to Romulus and Remus.

While in other cities pagan festivals had already been deleted and some temples destroyed, in Rome still during the 5th century c.e., the festival of Lupercalia was still celebrated, even though its religious meaning wasn't known anymore: the survival of the festival still one century later than the Theodosian edict which made Christianity become the state religion, is witnessed by Gelasius and his letters against the Lupercalia. In facts, in January 495 c.e., Gelasius forbade Christians to take part to the festival that was near to begin because in that festival demons were worshipped.

This is the period in which pagan gods are identified with demons, due to Augustin and Gelasius himself, who followed Augustin's track: in facts, most of early Christian writers used to identify the worship of the Pagan gods with the worship of statues or of men who had lived many centuries before and had been deificated because of superstition. In his letters and masses, Gelasius underlines a lot the bound between the festival of Lupercalia and feminine fertility, but the celebration of the festival during the month of February, the blood on the boys' foreheads, the laugh make us think more to a purification festival, maybe intended as a purification from every obstacle to fertility. Under the emperor August, the festival had been reinstituted, and only then the features related to feminine fertility had been emphasized; moreover, the festival became one of the many festival underlining the emperor's sovereignty. So it became part of the state religion: in this case when we say 'state religion' we don't mean the only religion in the state, but a series of practices that the citizens were expected to follow to enforce their belonging to the state. For sure, this affected both the survival of the festival and the hate Gelasius showed against it.

So Gelasius was really bothered about the Lupercalia, because they were a very ancient and long-lived festival, related both to the feminine fertility (that means sex, too) and to the awareness of being Roman citizens. Of course Gelasius rationalized, saying that the festival was a non-sense, because if its aim had been to promote fertility, then there would have been no fertility in Africa or Gaul where people didn't celebrate it. Rationalization is a common instrument in the hands of those who wrote against pagans until Middle Ages and this is true also for what concerns witchcraft: in facts, opposite to what is commonly believed, during the Dark Ages the church didn't accept the idea of a witch as a woman with magic powers used to harm people, because according to Christian theology, only god can have or give those powers, which can't be gained even through a pact with the devil. So the church put itself in a rational position towards pagan cults, which were charged of being just superstition.

This way of thinking remained until these days in the minds of many who dealt with paganism. The main difficulty lies in look at paganism as a religion, but with a completely different meaning of 'religion'. It's true also that, as the pagan state religion spread, as we said before, the personal attention in religious practices began to diminish and this made way for a superstitious behavior. From a Pagan point of view, the statalization of Roman religion can be considered some kind of decadence, because the religio, that is the attention needed during religious practices that allows us to feel the gods around us, was no more needed in celebration. All it was needed was a formal adhesion, to prove the good will of citizens to be good citizens.

At Gelasius' time, the festival had become some sort of carnival: Christians too took part to it and maybe there were also erotic shows. But Gelasius is he who began to struggle to assert the supremacy of the bishop of Rome, because in the 5th century being the bishop of Rome or pope was above all a honorary qualification and not yet a sign of real power. So even though the original meaning of the festival was quite lost, the Lupercalia anyway preserved not only something of their pagan root and but also something we would call today secular, because it was a festival to which citizens took part since they felt a sense of belonging to their city, of being citizens before than Christians. Gelasius would have rather preferred that even the emperors, like all other people, considered themselves above all Christians and so subjected to their bishops. Furthermore, the Lupercalia were a festival addressed especially to women and their fertility, that means that had something to do with sex, another good reason to delete the festival.

Gelasius at the end replaced the festival of fertility and eros with a celebration dedicated to the antieros of Christian mythology. The Lupercalia were replaced with the Purification of Mary, better known as Candlemas, which at the beginning took place on the 14th of February, on the same day of Lupercalia. Looking at the symbolism of the two festivals, the choice made is very significant, because it completely deletes the meaning of the pagan festival: the purification of Mary is in facts the end of the forty days in which, after the childbirth, the woman is impure according to Hebraic tradition. So the festival of fertility that wants to create new life is replaced by the festival of the end of the dirt that the new life would cause.

The aspect of purification also changed: the pagan festival was 'purification to', the Christian festival is 'purification from'. One century later Candlemas was shifted from the 14th to the 2nd of February, overlapping another festival, dedicated to a goddess: it was the Celtic festival of Imbolc, celebrated by the Celtic populations in Britain and Ireland for the goddess Brigid. This time the overlapping is probably a coincidence, because the shifting was decided by the emperor Justinian, whose political interests were far from the Celtic islands, and was due to the shifting of the date of Christ's birth from the beginning of January to the 25th December, that caused the forty days to be counted again. The Celtic festival, like the Lupercalia, but like most of Celtic festivals, was also related to the fire: and even during the Lupercalia a torchlight procession was held and later the use of candles remained as a memory of these fires and so the Christian festival was called Candlemas.

According to a popular tradition, Gelasius also instituted the Valentine's day on the 14th February to make S. Valentine the patron saint of lovers, who so received an example of temperance. But the institution of the festival of the purification seems to me more fit to a politic oriented mind like Gelasius', who attacked the last pagan festival on two frontlines: on a political frontline, by preventing the Senate from planning and financing it as a civic festival, and on a religious frontline, by replacing it with another festival the meaning of which is as far as possible from paganism.

Reference works

Manuela Simeoni


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