Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Lupercalia, Gods and Wolves

Although I wrote about this important archaelogical discovery some months ago, official announcements of the discovery of the site of the ancient Lupercalia in Roma were made yesterday.

Photographs here show the vault of the shrine, situated underground in a grotto on Palatine Hill in Roma. This is the site of the original shrine dedicated to Romulus and Remus, the co-founders of the city of Roma. A prophecy had predicted that the descendants of the rightful king, Numitor, would depose the usurper who had taken the throne from him. Numitor's daughter, Rhea, therefore was forced to become a Vestal Virgin. The god Mars impregnated her and the twins that were born of this union were Romulus and Remus.

As in many tales of royal or divine children, the twins were placed in a basket to float down the river rather than being killed by order of the usurper. The river god Tiberinus protected them and set the basket in the roots of a fig tree for protection. They then were taken to Palatine Hill where they were suckled by a she-wolf before they were found and adopted by a shepherd and his wife. Later, after they had attained adulthood and power, the two brothers fought and Remus was killed.

Romulus usually is given credit for the founding of Roma, but legends of the twins differ widely in many respects. One can see, however, that there are threads here connecting the tale to older myths. Even the Biblical tales of Cain and Abel and the infant Moses who was hidden in the bullrushes follow more ancient legends relating to godhood and kingship.

The wolf is a pack animal and the tale of Romulus and Remus essentially is an ancient tribal tale. Unlike the bear and the stag who feature in legends as solitary leaders and 'kings', the wolf is known not only for its ferocity and courage, but for its ability to organise its comrades. It is fitting that a she-wolf would be chosen as the animal to nurture and empower the 'first' king of Roma.

'Lupa' in Latin is the word not only for wolf but for prostitute. Prostitutes in many ancient cultures were women who had pledged themselves to the service of the gods. In pleasuring humans, they acted as agents of the divine. When one speaks of 'prostitutes' in the context of ancient cultures, one must be very aware of the difference between the ancient and modern roles.

The 'she-wolf' or 'Lupa' who suckled the semi-divine twins therefore may have been a female who took either an animal or human form. It was not unknown for animals to figure in sacred rituals both of fertility and sacrifice, so there is no real reason to suppose that the 'she-wolf' was not a beast. Nonetheless, the distinctions between human and beast did not have the same connotations they have in contemporary societies. Any sort of intercourse or interaction between human and beast was believed to confer the animal's powers and abilities upon the human. Contemporary notions of 'bestiality' as a very low form of inter-species interaction cannot be used to judge ancient cultures.

A grotto or cave like the site of the Lupercalia would have been perceived as the womb of the earth itself. Rituals performed in such a location would have included powerful rituals of rebirth. The act of suckling always has had special magical and religious significance. The ancient Greeks had a practice that involved an imitation of birth and actual suckling of an adult male in order to make him a full member of a warrior group.

In this context, it is interesting to note a facet of old Arab folktales dealing with a monster known as a 'ghouleh'. The ghoul can assume either male or female form and delights in human flesh. If a young man can induce a female ghouleh to allow him to suckle at her breast, he then becomes 'family' and is protected from any violence or harm. In tales of this sort, the ghouleh actively becomes responsible for his welfare and then will aid him in his quest. It is possible that the suckling of Romulus and Remus by the wolf had similar connotations to the ancients. It would be tantamount to an act of adoption by the species.

The Wolf always has had special attraction for human beings. As members of the canine family, they are not that far from dogs, 'Man's best friend'. Even in contemporary history, there have been instances where human children were 'rescued' and brought up by wolves. The legend of Romulus and Remus, despite its universal mythical components, is not that far-fetched in practical terms.

It is likely, however, that the entire legend originated as elements in a well-known ritual of kingship. The infants would be set in a basket either in a river or on the sea and 'abandoned' ritually to the gods. They then would be 'rescued' and nurtured by the animal totem or the adoptive parents, usually in the guise of shepherds. The entire ritual would be a test and/or series of acts of empowerment.

We judge ancient religions and practices usually on the basis of rather scanty evidence that probably is a mixture of fact and fiction. After all, the literature that survives from civilisations that existed thousands of years ago may not represent the totality of cultural belief. If an archaeologist two thousand years from now were to find only the work of some one like Stephen King, what would he/she deduce about OUR religious and cultural beliefs?

No comments: