Wandering Witchery: Finding Magic Everywhere!

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Be my... Wolf-entine?

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

Every year the same thing happens: the evergreens come down, the hearts go up. It's Valentine's Day--get on your wolf-suit and let's party!

Wolf suit?

It's too early for April Fools—but we're not kidding! Once upon a time, the 14th of February marked the celebration of Lupercalia, “The Day of the Wolf,” an important festival in ancient Rome. What the heck happened here?


Let's start with a look at the Calendar. Most folks have heard the phrase, "Beware the ides of March." In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, this line warns of impending doom that will strike mid-month. The middle of the month, or the “ides,” is a time of betwixt and between--a powerful time, good for doing magic, holding festivals and honoring the gods. Before Valentine's Day was a thought, the ides of February (the 14th) was a day to honor Juno Febrato for whom the month was named. She was the queen of the Roman gods, and the goddess of marriage (see some connections forming here?).

The ides also marked the “Day of the Wolf.” Lupercalia celebrated the legend of Romulus and Remus—the legendary twin founders of Rome who were nursed as infants by a mother wolf. But what connection is there between wolves, babies, and the goddess of marriage? The answer is simple, and it's a part of just about every pagan festival: fertility.


Back in the days of the Roman Empire, and even into the first part of the 20th century, it wasn't unusual for people to die young. Famine and disease could kill off large numbers of people without warning. Without the modern medical and scientific advances that we have today, people did not live long. Fertility—in crops, animals and people, was something that folks thought about a great deal. Rituals were performed to make sure that they reproduced and stayed healthy.

In the ritual for Lupercalia, a goat would be sacrificed (later the meat would be cooked and served to those who were celebrating; many rituals that involved sacrifice included the use of the animal as food). Men would put on the goat skin which would transform them symbolically into the fertility god Faunus or Pan. Then they would whip the women celebrants--a playful tap, not a beating. But why? Being touched by Pan was a blessing to encourage fertility. You can find a similar tradition in Celtic countries where pregnant women walked through fields and orchards touching the plants to “share” their fertile energy.


A shade of this ritual can be seen today in the Valentine's tradition of "Cupid," the mythical son of Venus (the Roman goddess of love). If you were struck (touched) by one of his arrows, you'd fall in love (a good thing to be in when starting a family!)! Lupercalia celebrations ended with the women writing their names on slips of parchment called “billets,” and placing them in a box. The men would pick the billets from the box; the name of the woman they drew would be their partner for the next year, although some sources say that the unions had the potential to last longer. It was also customary to give chosen partners gifts of sweets and flowers to encourage love--box of chocolates, anyone?

Okay, wait a minute. Putting on costumes? Picking names out of a box? Come on--did these things really work? We know that with patience, and the proper concentration and intention (remember, action helps in focusing!), magic can accomplish things. If one person concentrating with the right intention is powerful, what happens when a group of people concentrate on the same intention together? But there's more. Rituals brought people together on a regular basis to celebrate, work and share. Folks were reminded that they were not alone in the world.


Like other pagan festivals, Lupercalia was adopted by the church; people would still be able to take part in the rituals that were a part of their lives, but aspects of the celebrations changed--sometimes dramatically. For example, instead of drawing a lady's name out a box, young men would pick the name of a martyr (a saint who died for his faith—usually in a horrible way) and try to be like the saint of choice for the entire year. Valentine's Day wasn't an official feast of the church until the year 469 when the Roman Emporer Gelasius declared it a holy day.

The church celebrated Valentine's Day for a further 1500 years, but without the goat skin leggings. It wasn't nearly as much fun as it used to be--but that changed too, thanks to a guy called Valentine. The church needed to give Lupercalia a saintly face, one that would fit with the new traditions. That face was the martyr, Saint Valentine. There are several legends about his identity. One has him as a Christian priest who performed forbidden marriages in secret. When he was found out, he was sentenced to death. The couples that he helped wrote him notes of encouragement while he was in prison—Valentines! Another tale makes him an imprisoned priest who fell in love with his jailer's daughter. He would write her secret love notes—more Valentines! Gift and card exchanges like what we see today got their start during the Renaissance—a period of history starting in the 16th century when folks attempted to revive aspects of classical (ancient Greek and Roman) learning. When a man had a sweetheart, he would wear the image of a heart on his sleeve to show his affection. It wasn't until the mid-1800's that exchanging Valentine cards became a tradition. In addition to the heart, you could expect a lovey-dovey sentimental verse, or something more fun: "I promise not to bite if you'll give me a kiss!"


And speaking of hearts--where does that shape come from? The red heart that we've come to associate with love doesn't look much like a human heart, unless you squint at it the right way. Like Valentine's Day, there are several stories behind why hearts are shaped... like that. The back wings of a dove--a bird sacred to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love--form a heart when they're folded together. Another origin of the heart shape comes from the ancient North African city of Cyrene. Coins from Cyrene bear the image of a silphium seed, which is heart shaped. Silphium is an extinct species of fennel, but it must have been an important plant if people put the image on their money--and it was. Silphium supposedly cured warts, fever, leprosy and indigestion. Pass the chocolate!

This February 14, hug someone you love, share a chocolate, and celebrate with friends and family to make magic for a bountiful year! Happy Valentine's and Good Lupercalia!

By Natalie Zaman, Photos by Alois Staudacher via Flickr Creative Commons

Last modified on
Natalie Zaman is the author of Color and Conjure and Magical Destinations of the Northeast. A regular contributor to various Llewellyn annual publications, she also writes the recurring feature “Wandering Witch” for Witches & Pagans Magazine. When not on the road, she’s busy tending her magical back-garden. Or shopping.


  • aought
    aought Thursday, 13 February 2014

    I've seen references to the possibility that Silphium might have also been used as an abortifactant. That might have been important if one wanted to engage in love without the usual results.

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