The Hidden Horniness of Lupercalia

I’ve got something for Valentines day that isn’t quite a part of 2022’s Wheel of the Year investigation, but there IS a pagan holiday around this time that got quietly swept under the rug by an angry Pope. This year, for LukeLore, we’re having wolves for Valentines! We’re going to take a quick peek at the Roman festival of Lupercalia, some disturbingly horny hard facts plus a little speculation, before spinning the episode off into some wolf themed folklore. Let’s get straight to it, and check out what’s lurking beneath the commercial veneer of heart and flowers day. SECTION BREAK – The Wolves that predate chocolates Okay, there’s something wild that used to go on this time of year. It’s something relatively new to me, which wasn’t really on my radar until I started to wonder if there was an original festival underneath the Valentines Day we currently have. It always seemed weird that a Christian martyrdom had a romantic connection, and anytime there’s something this anachronistic it tends to be that there was something else a later holy feast was plonked on top of. Like a pagan stain in the carpet getting a potted plant moved to hide it. The actual festival here was delightfully wild and weird! It’s a pagan Roman celebration called Lupercalia, and boiled down to its most basic it’s about men dressing up as wolves to spank women. There’s more layers to it as you dig deeper, but yeah. There definitely used to be something weirder than the Feast of Saint Valentine around this time of year! It was on the 15th not 14th, but Lupercalia is the hidden horniness bubbling below the surface of the holiday. So the good news is that it isn’t just weirdly disconnected commercialism marking this out as a romantic holiday, there used to be something even stranger going on! The direct pagan association is a bit muddled. Lupercalia and its Luperci priests may be linked to the wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus, there’s a rogue association with the god Faunus knocking around (the Roman version of Pan), then also some connection to an ancient deity who would be appealed to for the defence of newborn livestock from wolves at springtime. This being pre-Christian paganism, it was probably a melting pot of all three plus some more elements to boot. Putting these shifting components aside for now, one thing was certain: Lupercalia was a fertility rite. It begins pretty bloody, but this IS the Romans we’re talking about. The festival would begin with the sacrifice of multiple goats for feasting upon as well as a single dog, which strikes me as both symbolic and Not Cool, Romans. Two young men initiated into the Luperci sect would then become the focus, reinforcing the founders of Rome perspective: They would be each touched on the head with the still bloody knife of the sacrificed animals, then have the blood cleaned off with milk soaked wool. Each would loudly laugh to commence the feasting, and it’s roast goat time undoubtedly accompanied with a LOT of wine and beer. Lengths of sacrificed animal skin would be cut into thongs, and handed out to two groups of young men formed to each led by those who had been focus of the pre-feast ritual. Now armed with ritual Lupercalia thongs, the two groups would split up and race about the streets whipping the arse of any women who got close to them. This thong to buttocks action from the rampaging bands of young men was said to render the whipped woman fertile. There are so many reasons Christians would hate a ritual like this… It likely spent a fair amount of time being decried, but there’s a lot of drinking and sexually charged cavorting to put a stop to here. I don’t see it being an easy ask to get young men and women to cut out the annual binge n spank. So it got all the way to 494 CE before Pope Gelasius I finally put their foot down and forbade any and all participation in Lupercalia. The Feast of Saint Valentine was either stamped on to the date here, or came a bit later, as a replacement event. That it was designed to cover up such an overt fertility festival is likely how it ended up with the romance angle as opposed to the more general caring for others multiple contenders to the claim of being St Valentine were known for. Combined with a Middle Ages notion that mid February was when birds paired off, it has gone on to mutate into the heavily commercialised Hallmark holiday we have today as an extra excuse for a little romance, or moping about the place being reminded you hate Valentines day, depending on the individual. Now, we do still have to consider that Lupercalia is technically on the 15th of February, which to my mind therefore means the true celebration is, has, and always shall be the day after Valentines cut price chocolates. Embrace Lupercalia, overindulge on the 15th! SECTION BREAK – Ireland’s Guardian Werewolves Since we’re having wolves for Valentines, we have a great excuse to find some unusual werewolves, and Irelands faoladh of Ossory more than fit the bill. Wolves have been extinct in Ireland for quite some time now, in no small thanks to the breeding of the Irish Wolfhound to help humans dispute land with the native lupines. But for a long time predating that tipping point, wolves were associated with warriors, and the native Irish had a very different take on the otherwise ubiquitous folktale of humans transforming into wolves. What was once Ossory is now parts of modern day County Kilkenny and County Laois, thanks to Normans invading and smashing the place up. The Norman gits being the ones to defeat the last king of Ossary, that bloodline being “the descendants of the wolf”. This family were the faoladh, those who would go “wolfing”. The term “wolfing” here not being wolf hunting, but straight up transforming into wolf-shape to go about hunting game and fighting rival warriors. Being the royal bloodline of the region, the faoladh took up a position as guardians of the area in storytelling traditions. Not being under an evil curse, but instead having a wild edge to defend Ossary. There were other less prominent werewolves in Irish folklore, which isn’t a surprise from an island once so overrun with wolves at earlier points in history that it was at times referred to as Wolfland. Christian imagery begins to intrude for a generic brand of werewolf, with St Patrick supposing to have cursed assorted people to turn into wolves either once every seven years for the Winter, or for a seven year span of time upon which they could come back to being human. Which seems a bit rubbish really, punishing wicked people by giving them animal speed and meat rending fangs, but whatever. These location nonspecific werewolves have a blend of other older folklore applied, in that they did not physically transform but instead their human bodies would become catatonic and a wolf form would be projected by them. Anything the wolf form ate would appear in the mouth of the human form, and any wounds the wolf sustained would appear in the same place on their regular body. Killing the sleeping human would also kill the wolf, and vise versa. Moving the sleeping body is also supposed to be a bad move, as the wolf form was their soul transformed and disturbing the body could prevent it from returning. While there’s an element of punishing the wicked, these seem pretty neutral as werewolves go. Then the faoladh are unambiguously good, bucking the usual trend of European werewolf folklore. But Ireland had an entire tribe dedicated to the Big Bad Wolf kind who are arguably even worse than the usual stalking children in the woods version… The medieval text Coir Anmann tells the tale of what is now called Tipperary Island, a strangely named landlocked part of Ireland with hills near converging rivers. On this so called island were the followers of the god Crom Crauch, the Bowed God of the Mounds. A wizened ancient god who would be hidden by mists, who partook of human sacrifice… Okay, quick step in, this may be overstated, and Crom Crauch may also have been assortedly a Sun God and a god of fertility, the bloodthirsty bit may have been how Christians saw them, as tales of St Patrick have him personally smashing the idol of Crom Crauch with a sledgehammer to then condemn the “demon” within to hell. Let’s split the difference and get on with the story, and say the bloodthirsty tales are an aspect of the old god. Let’s get back to the wolf warriors of Tipperary Island. The warriors found here had no allegiance to any king or man. Only to Crom Crauch, and to spilling blood. Anyone could buy their services, if they were bold enough, not to mention blasphemous enough… Here’s the thing, when I say engaging the services of this army of werewolves is blasphemous, I don’t just mean Jesus is going to tut at you for fraternising with pagans. It’s a matter of the price the mercenaries would take. They didn’t want gold, nor jewels, not silver, nor supplies of either food or tools. They had one single price, if you wanted them to bring their inhuman might to bear on your enemies. They was only one thing they asked of anyone who dared to come to them for help: They wanted the flesh of newborn babies upon which to feast. If you were the right combination of heartless and/or desperate, you could pay the price of innocent blood, and an army of werewolves would take to the field alongside your men. Small in number, but more than enough to break any given force for the fool who would give in to the demands of the shapeshifting warriors. For. That. Dark. Price. SECTION BREAK – Scotland’s friendly wolf man Okay, let’s get back to good werewolves. Head up north from Ireland, hopping across to Scotland, and then go all the way to the northernmost tip of the modern day UK. Here, on the Shetland Islands, is Scotland’s unassuming and downright friendly wolf man, the Wulver. There’s some debate as to what, exactly, the Wulver is. They’re commonly held to be some sort of a werewolf by the simplest definition of being a cross between a wolf and a man, although they don’t appear to transform. No curse is involved, nor were they originally born as a human. Some speculation extends to there being an original person with something like hypertrichosis leading to the myth, or on the opposite side of theories that they’re some sort of nature spirit. “Nature spirit” as it relates to an entity in the British isles should set off Fair Folk alarms, and there’s definitely some evidence the Wolver is a type of fairy. What’s most relevant is their nature as a friendly sweetheart of a manwolf. The kindly Wulver was supposed to have dug a hole out of a hill to live in, overlooking the deep pool he would fish from sat on a rock known today as the “Wulver’s Stane”. By all accounts they are an excellent fisherwolf, and caught an excessive of fish that they would then share with among the poorest families around Scotland. Upon having their fill, and having spare fish, they would roam to find a desperate family to leave his spare catch on the windowsill of, not wanting any attention as they go about their business sharing they leave their offering where the needy can find it and move on. As much as they prefer solitude, and avoid people even as they travel to make deliveries of food, they’re widely renowned as friendly anywhere you find stories of the wulver despite their fearsome appearance. They will also always help a lost traveller, or anyone caught out by bad weather who strays near their home. Leave the wulver alone, and they leave you alone. There’s no stories of the wulver ever going out of their way to attack people. There are, however, some tales of people being stupid enough to attack the wulver. These don’t go well for the people who attack the giant wolf man that may be a nature spirit, and quite rightfully screw those dumbasses. But apart from people who play stupid games going on to win stupid prizes, and looking somewhat fearsome, the wulver is easily one of the nicest folklore figures I’ve ever found. Definitely not what I would have expected from a fairy werewolf. SECTION BREAK – The Wolf Who Ends The World With a more general wolf theme, I have a chance here to finish off a set of mythic wolves I’ve already started. I talked about Skoll and Hati back on my Creatures of the Heat episode, mostly because that Summer was waaaay hotter than I’m comfortable with and I quite fancied the sound of a cosmic wolf eating the sun, but there’s one more significant wolf in the Norse tradition. Fenrir. Another of the morphogenically chaotic Loki’s children, this being one he fathered to the Giantess Angrboda, Fenrir is the father of Skoll and Hati. Their children, and Loki’s grandpuppies, were foretold to one day eat the sun and the moon as a part of Ragnarok. Fenrir gets something of a more starring role, as her is Oden’s doom. Come Ragnarok, it was Fenrir who was to kill the head of the Norse pantheon of gods. This prophesy feels somewhat self fulfilling, and kind of Odin’s own fault, given what happened. Being born of technically two giants, Loki being a very strange outlier case, Fenrir grew FAST as a puppy, being the Clifford of the Apocalypse. The Norse gods had gifts of foresight, especially Odin who gave up an eye for the skill, and what they could see of the giant wolf terrified them, so they came up with a plan to trap Fenrir where he would be locked away until the end of days, which to my mind would lead to something of a grudge. Especially how they went about doing it. Fenrir was one of three children Angrboda had with Loki including the serpent Jormungandr, and the girl Hel. Odin and the other gods gathered up all three children as he could see how dangerous they would become. Jormungandr he threw into the ocean, something which would also come back to haunt him come Ragnarok, and Hel he threw into Niflheim. She didn’t do as badly as her animalistic brothers, though, as she was granted power to rule over the dead in there. The rapidly growing wolf was a different case though, the gods had begun raising the wolf in their own home before realising just how big they would become. A combination of further prophesy and simple observation began to make it clear they had done an arrogant whoopsie with that kidnapping, especially as under no circumstances did they want to spill the blood of the wolf in their holy place. Something considered about the same level of disaster, if not worse, as the wolf some day turning upon them. So a plan to trap him before he got too big was put into action. Fenrir is not a simple wild animal, they’re a child of Loki and either a divine being or else some sort of demigod in their own right. They were intelligent and could talk, being young and proud. So the gods appeal to their juvenile impulses, and challenge them to try on some fetters they created to show off how strong the wolf was. Stroking Fenrir’s ego, they convinced him that being able to break these devices the gods had made would make him famous for his strength. \The first device was called Leyding, and taking one look at it Fenrir was unimpressed telling them to do whatever they want with it. After it was fixed to his leg, Fenrir just kicked it once to destroy it with ease. Fenrir was a big strong boy. So the second device, called Dromi, was made twice as strong. Praising his strength to convince him to prove he could break it, this way hoping to trap him, Fenrir agreed to being bound with these new chains. Securely bound Fenrir shook himself, kicked his legs, and obliterated it sending fragments hurtling through the sky. At this point, a panic began to set in among the gods that they could never bind the still growing giant wolf. Odin sent a messenger to the dwarves for help crafting something powerful enough to bind a creature that has been shattering godforged iron by flexing, and they rose to the challenge. They took strange materials to impossibly craft into the delicate seeming chain called Gleipnir: The spittle of a bird, the breath of a fish, the sinews of a bear, the roots of a mountain, the beard of a woman, and the sound of a cat’s footfall. What was delivered to the gods was an incredibly suspicious delicate chain as thin as a silken ribbon. Now, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me. The third time? Fenrir was getting pretty suspicious the gods were definitely up to something more than testing his strength when the Aesir pantheon all went out to the island Lyngvi, inviting him along for the trip. Once they arrived, the gods showed off Gleipnir, marvelling at how strong it is despite how slight it seems, they challenge the wolf to show off his strength tearing the chain they could not. I’ll let Fenrir speak for himself here, from a translated passage of the Gylfaginning saga: “It looks to me that with this ribbon as though I will gain no fame from it if I do tear apart such a slender band, but if it is made with art and trickery, then even if it does look thin, this band is not going on my legs." At this point the gods all play dumb. They stroke Fenrir’s ego some more talking up how he shattered iron like it was nothing before, and if the wolf couldn’t break Gleipnir anyway then the gods would definitely let him free as he’s proven they don’t have to fear him. Fenrir wanted to show off, and more than that wanted to be free of constant attempts to trap him, but quite rightly didn’t trust the band of buggers looking to trick him. Fenrir said he would do it on the condition someone put their arm in his mouth, holding the hand of a god hostage so that if he couldn’t get free and no one would release him he could bite down. Every git there promptly refused to do that, knowing the whole point of this ruse was trapping Fenrir away. But there was one god among them who was the closest thing Fenrir had to a friend. Tyr, the Norse god of war and justice, had consistently fed the growing wolf after he was stolen away by the Aesir. He was the only one who came forth to reassure Fenrir, which makes what follows all the more tragic. The wolf accepted the challenge, having Tyr’s arm secure in his mouth. His legs were bound with Gleipnir, and the second Fenrir began to struggle the magical chains began to tighten with no hope of breaking free. Everyone but Tyr began to laugh at him, knowing he was now trapped Fenrir then bites down tearing off Tyr’s right hand. The gods drag the captured wolf deeper into the island to trap the chain, and therefore the wolf, under a series of rocks. They leave Fenrir there, locked away until Ragnarok when all bindings become undone, howling horribly as he is abandoned, the saliva that runs from his mouth running to form the river Van. After all of that? I’m not surprised Fenrir eats Odin when he finally gets free. SECTION BREAK That’s all for this episode! Happy Valentines day, or Lupercalia, whichever you prefer. LukeLore is a Ghost Story Guys production. If you do want to contact me there’s the show’s dedicated email lukeloregsg@gmail.com, and the general show email ghoststoryguys@gmail.com. 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Goodbye for now. And Fenrir was a good boy who deserved better.