Lupercalia Is Awesome But It Isn’t A Satanic BDSM Holiday

In its bid to prove itself a “real religion” to the city of Scottsdale, Arizona for the purpose of a lawsuit, The Satanic Temple rolled out an assemblage of slapped-together “holidays” that was unquestioningly adopted by its more sycophantic members while being roundly criticized by others. While some are inane like “Your Birthday”, or self-aggrandizing like the Temple’s “Founding Day”, perhaps the most unfortunate and inexplicable inclusion is the ancient Roman fertility and purification festival Lupercalia.

Consequently, Lupercalia has been billed by this increasingly-horny sect as a holiday celebrating BDSM, bodily autonomy, even asexuality as an afterthought when ace Temple members complained about this becoming an overtly heteronormative porkfest. Lupercalia is none of those things. It would have been far better had the Temple just invented a new holiday to celebrate what it wanted rather than trying to co-opt a profoundly unrelated pre-Roman celebration with specific iconography and meaning, none of which is what they seem to think it is.

I’ve written about the problems associated with engaging superficially with ideas for the sake of running to social media for attention, and unfortunately this appears to be the case again. I’d have preferred to talk about Lupercalia without the context of people spreading misinformation about it, but here we are.

I should preface this by saying that there are a lot of things scholars don’t know about Lupercalia; the Romans themselves didn’t even know specifically to whom the celebration was dedicated. That is to say, going around making casual claims about Lupercalia and presenting them as factual is, itself, a specious thing to do.

While Lupercalia itself might be muddy and seem superficially malleable, the long series of cultural contexts and events that led up to it are not, and they tell us a lot more about what this festival might have been – and definitely wasn’t.

Welcome to Etymology Hell

Lupercalia doesn’t have a definitive patron deity. There is only one answer to the question, “Is X the patron deity of Lupercalia?”:

Well, yes, but actually no.

To understand what a mess latter-day Lupercalia was, you have to understand the relationship between Classical Roman religion and everything else. It’s almost impossible to discuss this without oversimplifying, but I will reduce this to a few points that are germane to our purposes here:

  1. Romans were condescending assholes who thought they were better than everyone around them.
  2. Around the 3rd century B.C. they were surrounded by tribes and “primitive” civilizations.
  3. The Romans perfected appropriation as a tool of conquest.

Concerning Lupercalia, we will focus on the Ligures, an ancient population in the north of Italy. Ligurian cults were much like their Greek counterparts, the Pelagsians: They were usually based on a locale, owing to some natural feature (for instance a cult developed around the flaming wolf-god of death, Soranus, native to Mount Soracte, a volcano).

These chthonic gods frequently took the shape of dangerous animals, and were punitive in nature. The gods of the Ligurians demanded brutal worship and the sacrifice of animals, humans, and even children to divert punishment from their worshipers. The Ligurians, it’s worth noting, had a real thing for wolf-cults.

When you study these chthonic cults, you’ll note a real lack of imagination in naming convention. Locales, gods, heroes and their cultists might all share variations of the same name. Such is the case when it comes to Lycaeus. Buckle up.

Lycaeus was the premier wolf-god throughout Peloponnesus . On Mount Lycaeus, the Lycaea was held in his honor every nine years. On this mountain was the city of Lycosura, founded by Lycaon, son of Pelasgus.

So we have a god, a mountain, a festival, a city and a legendary figure all crammed into the same etymology.

Remember the part about Roman appropriation as a tool of conquest? Romans knew they couldn’t just replace a dread wolf-god to his own cult in his seat of power. What they did was far more insidious.

The Romans would show up with this cartoonish slate of Olympian Superfriends, and say “Oh, yeah! Lycaeus! We worship the exact same guy, only we call him Apollo! Crazy, right? I mean, if you wanted to, you could say that we both worship the same guy, Apollo Lycaeus! Don’t ask around, but it is definitely the same.”

These Ligurians would be like “Sure, what-the-fuck-ever,” and go about worshiping Apollo Lycaeus, who, as far as they were concerned, was still their dread wolf-god.

There was Apollo Lycaeus, Zeus Lycaeus, Pan Lycaeus, and Jupiter Lycaeus and that’s without my doing exhaustive research into the entire Roman Lycaeus group. So you can see already how attributing something as far removed as Lupercalia to any one of them (not to mention the half-dozen non-Lycaeus gods associated with it) becomes problematic.

Bearing in mind that in the eyes of the Ligurian wolf-cultists, these were all just different names for one god, Lycaeus. But over time, the Romans would say, “Well, you know, they’re not really the same-same, Lycaeus is more like Apollo’s helpful wolf-friend.”

It is consistent that whenever Romans absorbed a chthonic god, the latter lost its savage nature and became either a gentle companion to its Olympian counterpart, or became the Olympian god’s rival. The goal was never to incorporate the cult’s beliefs, it was to pretend to share them and then phase them out over time.

This worked so well that Christianity used it to practically obliterate Pagan culture; Romans already had a thousand years of experience by the time Christ came around.

But etymology and attribution aren’t the only problems with this pseudo-Lupercalia that’s floating around, and identity wasn’t the only problem Romans had with the cult of Lycaeus.

If By ‘BDSM’ You Mean ‘Bow Down, Stupid Mortal’

Lycaeus was a bad, primeval fucker and the Lycaea was like something from a Robert E. Howard-directed fever dream. To avoid maximum damage to his people inflicted by the death-wolf-god of Death-Wolf-God Mountain, a priest would consecrate a human child, sacrifice them, and then ingest a sacrament of the child’s flesh.

This part is very important to Lupercalia, because it’s a common theme in chthonic cult practice: by consecrating this sacrifice to his god, the sacrifice takes on the properties of the god. This is necessary to communicate the sacrifice. However, because the sacrifice was consecrated to the god, the act of harming the sacrifice becomes a profane act. In order to be a good priest, the practitioner has to personally absorb the smut associated with the act of making the sacrifice in the first place.

If it seems convoluted, it’s because it is. The priest would then take a sacramental nibble of this consecrated sacrifice (in the case of Lycaea, a child) and thus take on the properties of the god himself. Having become wolf-like, the priest would haul ass away from everyone to do nine years of penance and return purified and humble.

“Aight, imma head out.” Hendrik Goltzius depicts King Lycaon having a bite of baby and then transforming into a werewolf.

The important thing about this is the ritual flight. These chthonic priests took this very seriously – they either performed their duties correctly, or it was dead crops and butt herpes for everyone. Like I said, Lycaeus didn’t fuck around.

While child sacrifices might have happened only on Lycaea, the theme of smut-absorption and ritual flight was consistent and the important thing to note here as pertains to Lupercalia.

The entirety of the BDSM-angle of Pseudocalia hangs on the idea that the naked Luperci (the priests devoted to we-don’t-know-exactly-which-god-because-of-the-above-reasons) running through the city hitting people with strips of flesh (especially young women, titillating!) was inherently sexual.

It was not.

Flashing forward to the Lupercalia we know: a goat is sacrificed, two young boys of noble birth are anointed by a sword dipped in its blood, which is then wiped away with wool dipped in milk (or a “milk-like substance”, as The Satanic Temple terrifyingly phrases it). They laugh, which is part of this whole thing involving Apollo, and while they’re doing this, the Luperci are cutting strips of flesh from the sacrificial goat.

This is a fertility ritual, so this goat was consecrated to [insert Roman pantheon shitpost here], killed, which was very bad, but nevertheless embodied fertile goodness.

What happened next was a humbling rite of attrition, not a grotesque scene from HBO’s Real Sex. The Luperci stripped, humbling themselves, and fashioned a girdle from the goat’s hide. They held a few strips, and then they took off.

The priests were hauling ass because people were throwing rocks and garbage at them. They had to run a proscribed circuit around their sacred sites, carrying nothing but their flopping genitals and bloody ritual flagella imbued with fertility. So of course people lined up to get a smack of the good stuff. This poor guy just paid for it, shame to let it go to waste. It stands to reason that being brushed by something consecrated to a god for fertility would rub a little off on you, both literally and figuratively.

I want you to couple the image of the guy reaching under a clearly male goat with the words, “milk-like substances”. – Artist Unknown

So, no, it doesn’t really have anything to do with any kind of contemporary fetish, bondage, dominance, submission or masochism. It has more to do with running for your life to avert mass famine, barren wombs, and disease.

Lupercalia is a fascinating festival. It’s a copy of a copy of a copy. It has origins that stretch back to the Neolithic period. It isn’t associated with one deity because it’s associated with a dozen deities, and half of them were disingenuous Roman clones of a primal death-god in the form of a wolf.

You can associate Lupercalia with Juno, or Apollo, or Zeus Lycaeus who had a shrine on the slopes of Mount Lycaeus. You can find direct connections with Mars, Soranus, and Lupercusor Luperca.

Lupercalia is, frankly, not very special as fertility festivals goes. It isn’t even an especially interesting event of decadence (if you want to get drunk and naked, you should try Bacchanalia on for size). So what on earth makes this seemingly arbitrary celebration of particular interest to Satanists?

Well, there’s a goat. But there’s always a goat.

There are orgies. But in Rome there are always orgies.

There’s the association with wolves, which is itself so convoluted as to be useless in creating connections to modern Satanism with more meaning than any other arbitrarily chosen mythology.

There’s the BDSM angle, which we’ve learned has more to do with being pelted with trash in penance than human sexual dynamics.

Body autonomy? No, not really. If anything Lupercalia is a full-throated celebration of the fact that your buns belong to the gods.

Asexuality?! I’m sorry, ace friends. You deserve better. It’s not in here.

In conclusion, it would have been better for The Satanic Temple to invent its own actually-Satanic spanking holiday than to bite onto the floggish, orgy-ish, some-how-vaguely-wolf-related-thing-and-also-there’s-a-goat that happened to be in their cultural periphery thanks to The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which we all know they watch. (Sabrina’s Lupercalia also had fart-all to do with the real Lupercalia, but that’s Satanists who like a particular statue for you.)

If you want to learn more about Lupercalia because you love learning or wolf-worship, or if you’re reading this and angry that I pointed out your sloppy work, Lupercalia: Rites and Mysteries of Wolf Worship by Alberta Mildred Franklin is an excellent book you could have read.

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