Etymology – “He who wards off the wolf”
The Wolf God, Lupercus is the god of agriculture and shepherds. The name Lupercus is said by some to be an epithet of the Roman god Faunus.
As Faunus, he is a god of the wild, untamed nature and fertility and the giver of oracles. The Romans came to identify Faunus with the Greek Pan due to the similarity of some of their characteristics such as horns and hooves. Faunus’ attributes are the wolfskin, wreath and goblet.
If I stick to just this, there really wouldn’t be much of a blog post. Lupercus comes into his own when looking at and focusing on the ancient Roman holiday known as Lupercalia.
Lupercalia – The Wolf Festival
The festival and holiday of Lupercalia was held every year from February 13th to 15th, often said to be the anniversary of the founding of Lupercus’ (properly Faunus’) temple. The Luperci, who were the priests of Lupercus and wore goat skins, would sacrifice two goats and a dog during a ritual at this time. Goats were sacrificed as Lupercus is the god of shepherds and the dog got sacrificed as they’re the protector of flocks and herds. The blood from these animals would then be wiped on two young men’s foreheads. This festival was held too, to avert evil spirits and purify the city, allowing for good health and fertility with the coming year.
The sacrifice of the goats and dog would take place at the Lupercale, a cave that according to tradition is where the twins Remus and Romulus were raised by the she-wolf Luperca. In 2007, National Geographic posted an article about how Archeologists found this cave beneath the ruins of Emperor Augustus’ palace on Palatine Hill, Rome.
Lupercalia replaced an earlier Spring Cleansing ritual of Februa once held on the same date and from where the month of February gets its name. Just as Lupercalia replaced Februa, it too has largely been replaced by the more modern Valentine’s Day where the Catholic church made efforts to tone down some of the more wilder pagan rituals or to get people to accept Christianity more easily with their converting from pagan religions.
Not too surprising given how riotous and risqué that Lupercalia could be with the use of whips in striking women to try and make them more fertile, men running naked chasing women, the blood sacrifice of goats and a dog. Even the familiar heart shape symbol of love has some controversial origins to what it really depicts and is. Unsubstantiated sources comment too how the use of Lupercalia’s lottery of young men drawing the names women from a box is the more modern tradition of giving Valentine Cards.
Also spelled or called Lycaea, this ancient, archaic Greek festival is said to be where the rituals of Lupercalia originated from. For those who want to link werewolves with the holiday of Lupercalia, Lykaia is the one you’re probably thinking of.
The festival of Lykaia had a secret festival held on Mount Lykaion (Wolf Mountain) in Arcadia. The myths that surround this ritual are believed to relate the story of Lycaon’s feast he held for the gods and involved having served up one of his sons Nyctimus as one of the main courses. Another version of this story given by an Eratosthenes, holds that Lycaon had served up his grandson Arcas at this feast. In either eventuality, an enraged Zeus turns Lycaon into a wolf and proceeds to kill by means of lightning; Lycaon’s other sons before restoring the dead child back to life.
Mmm…. Cannibalism. Not.
The festival of Lykaia were held annually at the beginning of May. It was a primitive ritual festival and rite of passage for young males known as epheboi among the Greeks into adulthood. With the ritual held at night, evidence taken by some with the name of Lycaon’s son Nyctimus, a lot of rumors about cannibalism and werewolf transformations circulated widely among the Greeks as to just what was going on up there. Even Plato wrote about one clan who would gather every nine years and sacrifice to Zeus Lykaios where a piece of human flesh would be mixed in among the pieces of animal meat.
The belief held that whoever ate the piece of human flesh would turn into a wolf and they could only return to human form after nine-years if they hadn’t eaten human flesh. The famous Olympic boxing champion, Damarchus is said to have turned into a wolf during the ritual sacrifice held for Zeus Lykaios. Games were also a big part of the Lykaios festival held every year after the secret ritual held at night.
Archaeologists have found by looking at the ash heaps near the altars for Lykaia no human remains and suggest that the rituals and festival of Lykaia are far older than what even the ancient Greeks themselves knew. Excavations have generally shown nothing earlier than about 700 B.C.E. though one trench excavated at Mount Lykaion shows possible ritual evidence dating to the beginning of the third millennium B.C.E., a full thousand years before the worship of Zeus throughout Greece.
Lykaios – Wolf-Zeus
This is an epithet of Zeus in connection to the festival of Lykaia and seems to have been a formality in making him a patron of the rituals held. Zeus’ inclusion is possibly instrumental in ending any human sacrifices going on or trying to put to rest the rumors.
The Greek god Apollo is also known to have a wolf-form as Apollo Lycaeus. He was worshiped in Athens at the Lykeion or Lyceum. This site is most remembered as the place where the philosopher Aristotle taught.
A sanctuary for the Greek god Pan was also found on Mount Lykaion. The traditional story goes that Euandros, the son of Hermes, led a colony of people from Pallantion, Arkadia to Italy where he built the town of Pallantion on Palatine Hill. Euandros introduced the cult of Pan Lýkaios and the Lykaia festival that later becomes the Roman festival of Lupercalia. Given how much the Romans would identify their gods with those of the Greeks and other cultures, that could make sense.
Apparently there are modern Lykaia games that have been held every four years since 1973, at the beginning of August by the Ano Karyes Association in the same places where the games associated with the ancient festival of Lykaia were held. These are sort of a localized Greek Olympics.