Athena's Web Weekly Column

  Week of May 24th - May 30th,  2002

Taking a Step Back

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A more traditional Pan

   Over the last two weeks, we have been examining the specific myths contained in Ovid's Fasti, for (XV Kal) February 15th. Lest we get lost in the details, this week we will take a look at what we know about the ritual from other sources. Our hypothesis throughout this series has been that the original calendar of the Roman Republic was choreographed by the positions of the Sun and Moon, with each month beginning with the New Moon and reaching a crescendo on the Ides, or Full Moon of the month. If this supposition is correct, on February 15th the Moon would fall in Virgo, an earth sign ruled by Mercury.

   The Lupercalia was one of the oldest of Roman festivals, celebrated every year in honor of Lupercus, the god of fertility. Greek writers and their followers among the Romans represent it as a festival of Pan, of cloven hoofed, pipe-playing fame. The festival was held on this date in the Lupercal, the spot where Romulus and Remus were nurtured by the she-wolf. Lupus is Latin for wolf. Naturally, the Lupercal contained an altar and a grove sacred to the goat god. Here the Luperci, or college of priests assembled on this holiday and sacrificed to the god goats and young dogs, animals selected for their strong sexual drives, appropriate representatives for the god of fertility. In releasing the spirit of these animals in honor of the deity, it was hoped the god would bless the people with his special powers.


A modern Pan

   Part of the ritual ran as follows: two youths were selected from noble families, representing Romulus and Remus, the original twins who founded Rome. Much of the ceremony dealt with their symbolical purification. After the sacrifice, the Luperci eat a meal, liberally augmented by copious quantities of wine. They then cut the skins of the sacrificed goats into pieces. Some of these strips were used to cover parts of their body in imitation of Lupercus, represented as half naked and half covered with goat-skin (hence Pan). The other pieces were cut into thongs which they used as they ran through the streets, touching or whipping at persons they met in their way. Women came forward voluntarily since they believed that the ceremony rendered them fruitful, and procured easy delivery in childbearing. This act was a symbolic purification of the land, and also a purification of men as well as women, making them more potent as well. As Rome evolved into more of an urban center, these sheparding associations became less obvious in daily life, but were nevertheless preserved because of their association with their founding heroes as the original shepherds of the people, Romulus and Remus.


So much to do,
so little time

   This ritualistic purification of the men, women, herds and land is precisely in line with the astrological translation of Virgo themes, which is associated with perfection, purity and the Earth. This is the second time that we've seen Pan in a ritualistic celebration involving fertility. In Ovid's description for Jan. 9th we saw these same themes with the Moon in Taurus, another earth sign. The goat, of course, represents our third earth sign, Capricorn. It makes perfect sense that while the Moon was in earth signs the fertility of the land would be 'on parade'. Hence the essential spirit of this alignment is perfectly reflected by the holiday, both through the details of the seperate myths used to describe the associations with this day, and through its identification with the underlying theme that is at work, of purification.

   Indeed, Sir James Frazer himself muses over the different possible meanings and backgrounds on the Lupercalia and then goes on to draw the following conclusion:

   "However, the two apparently inconsistent theories are reconciled by the view that the festival was one of purification, which, by ridding the community of the evil powers of barrenness and disease that had infested it in the past year, set free the kinly powers of nature to perform their genial task of promoting the fertility alike of women, of cattle, and of the fields."


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