Dea Juno Februa, the Wolf Mother and the Lupercalia, Valentine the Apocryphal Saint, Celtic Lunar Willow Moon, and the Carne Valle (“Flesh Farewell”) pre-Lenten Blow Out: a Wheel of the Year Observance by Yvonne Owens and Jessica North O’Connell
YVONNE: This quarter fire holiday begins the springtime quadrant of the year, that culminates at the start of summer with Beltane, on May Day. Within this span of time, we see the Lupercalia, or Spring Carnival of love and lovemaking Christianized into ‘St. Valentine’s Day. ‘Saint’ Valentine is an apocryphal saint created by the early Church to appropriate and assimilate the popular tradition of Roman youths, who sent erotic missives to each other to make dates to hook-up for the Lupercalia Festival.
The Lupercalia was a huge love-fest in honour of Lupa, the wolf-Mother of Romulus and Remus, the founding twins of Rome. It lasted for two weeks prior to Carnivalle (Latin carne-valle, or ‘flesh farewell’) which came prior to the fast leading up to the Spring Equinox blow-out celebration of the resurrection of the sacrificed grain-god, Attis. This occurred during the Spring Equinox festival of Ester, or Eostre.
St. Valentine’s Day, following after Imbolc on the 14th of February, is a vestige of the ancient Lupercalia, which were the early observances of Spring Festivals related to the rites of Attis and Cybele. The Spring Festivals more or less began with the Lupercalia and then rolled right through to what we now observe as Mayday, including articulated ceremonial observances like Oestre (Easter), April Fool’s Day (rites of rebirth) and the Sacred Marriage, or Beltaine (May Eve). These related patterns of celebration are vestiges of an ancient, Goddess-revering system of belief and trace the themes of cleansing or purification preceding conception (on the parts of plants, animals, and humans).
February’s St. Valentine is certainly one of the more bizarre saints of historic Christendom. Several versions of his story exist, all quite different. The one most commonly accepted is that Valentine was a handsome Roman youth and Christian martyr, whose death came just as the billet of love he’d sent to his sweetheart was delivered into her hands. Due to this tragic coincidence, his holy day became the holiday dedicated to lovers. In actuality, there was no such person as St. Valentine. The story was a late fabrication of the Catholic Church in order to subsume the ancient pagan folk festival annually observed in mid-February throughout pre-Christian, Romanized Europe. In Roman times, from about 400 B.C. Until about 350 A.D., February 14th actually marked the Lupercalia. This festival was named for Lupa, the she-wolf mother of the Romans, mythologized as Romulus and Remus. Late Roman forms of the Wolf Mother included Juno Lupus, Diana Lupus and the “lupae,” their priestesses.
The month of February itself is named for Juno Februata, the Goddess of the “fever” (febris) of Love. The word Februare means “to purify,” and the Februa was an early ceremony of the Lupercalia whereby naked youths ran frenzied (“feverishly”) through the towns and villages to purify themselves. In ancient thought, the concepts of fever, sacred frenzy, ecstasy and purification were compatible, even synonymous. A modern metaphor for this concept is the idea that a fever “breaks” in a sweat that is purgative or cleansing. The current shamanic practice of cleansing body and soul in the sweat lodge, using physical and mystical heat (passion) as a catalyst, is based on this understanding.
The festival was a festival of lovers in so much as it was given over to erotic license and romantic connections. This was one of the sacred feast days that encouraged the choosing of a lover with an eye to invigorating parochial, rural gene pools. Children of these unions were considered blessed, as they resulted partly from the divine energies evoked during the ritual observances of the festival. Later Roman customs, having become patriarchal, misogynist and more urbanized, regarded women as property, so sexual liberty was not permitted. The temple customs and values that had existed for thousands of years were decimated, along with the rights, sexual ideals, and liberties of priestesses. Certainty of paternity became an absolute necessity to patrilineal lines of inheritance and descent, and so the erotic festival was dramatically altered, but not eradicated.
It became the fashion for young men of Roman cities and outposts to write the names of local, popular, professional courtesans they desired upon small billets. These would then be delivered into the hands of the lady they wished for a paramour with whom to mark the festival. These small, discreet, romantic billets are the original of the Valentine’s Day card. Early in the Christian era, which is to say about 350 A.D., Church fathers attempted to alter the import of the love billets by requiring that naught but religious messages be inscribed. This innovation didn’t catch on, however, and the billets reverted quickly to their original purpose.
The Roman Church came up with St. Valentine (possibly capitalizing upon the name of a Holy Roman Emperor who had enjoyed some popularity and the general affection of the citizenry, that being Valentinian II). In this way, the last legitimate vestiges of the Lupercalia were finally, successfully expropriated, even the billets. The wives and daughters of prominent citizens were no longer allowed participation in these love games, at least not overtly. It was no longer considered a good idea to cross-fertilize the available gene-pools, and the children of such unions were no longer considered holy but were denigrated as “illegitimate.” The day of the ancient Lupercalia, however, remains steadfastly dedicated to lovers.
The Celtic tree month corresponding to the Roman month of the Februa is Willow. Willow’s celestial influences are Venus and the moon. From the name for the Latin Aphrodite (i.e., Venus) we get the root for many concepts relating to love (vener), including “venerate” and “venereal,” so Venus’ co-rulership of Willow/February seems apt. The moon is also associated with love and romance, as well as conception, childbirth and menstruation mysteries. Lunar Willow relates to tidal flux, menstrual harmonies, weather, fertility of the human, plant and animal domains, intuition, dreams, psychism, rivers, bodies of water, womb-like caves or “delphic” oracles. (Delphyne means both “womb” and “cave” and was the legendary name of the first oracle of Delphi, which was named for her.)
Willows are hardy and adaptable. They endure heat or cold well. The varieties of Willows grow anywhere from six to twenty-five metres, in the case of the White Willow. Willow bark has been used medicinally for centuries, as an analgesic, disinfectant and anti-inflammatory. Goddess forms that are associated with Willow are Hecate, Persephone and Hera. Planetary correlations are Venus and the Moon, Willow, wicce, wicker, withe, wisse and Witch are all related to the Indo-European root wic, and convey concepts of wisdom and flexibility — the shamanic ability to “bend” or shape reality.
JESSICA: Willow is the Shelter of Imbolc
“When the Feast of Brighid (Imbolc) is past, the fox won’t trust his tail to the ice.”
- Scottish folk saying
The lengthening of the daylight is perceptible, though the weather may still be inclement in some parts. Growing up in Montreal, we experienced February as the harshest month of winter. No wonder the ancients referred to the full moon of this month as the Storm Moon! Yet this is the month which signals the coming of spring, the Vernal Equinox being but six short weeks away. But here in the Pacific Northwest we begin to count the snowdrops and other early spring blossoms.
Named for Juno Februa, Juno in her aspect as Goddess of the heat of sexual passion, February is a time when Nature’s call begins to reanimate the reproductive urges of the animal realm. If you listen to your own body, you will hear the call reverberating within your cells — if not to procreate, then at least to “fall in love.” Hence we celebrate “Valentine’s Day.
This is the quickening
of the time of love.
Seed and root and tuber quicken,
gather strength in love and praise,
and blessed be!
Imbolc (or Imbolg), meaning “in the belly,” is traditionally celebrated on the second of February, also known as Brigid’s (or Bride’s) Day, Oimelc (“ewe’s milk”), Candlemas, Purification of the Virgin Mary and Ground Hog Day. Brigid is the Celtic fire Goddess of Inspiration (poetic, specifically) and the forge. She is invoked to infuse us with passion and to refine our inspired works to the status of Art. Brigid is also associated with healing and she is Goddess of wells and water (Remember her next time you’re at the hot springs or in the hot tub, bathtub or shower!) Brigid’s priesthood has traditionally been entirely female and they, like the Vestals of old, keep her Eternal Flame lit, befitting to the Lady in her Maiden aspect.
Brigid’s holy day occurs during the Celtic lunar month known as Saille or Willow, known for its emphasis on the Feminine Mysteries, including sexuality, menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and a woman’s independence or sovereignty. (Interestingly, Juno Februa presides over the delivery of the placenta following the birth of a child.) Other areas of the feminine domain which come under the jurisdiction of Willow month include midwifery and healing, oracular and mantic arts and “night vision,” or intuition. The animal totem for Willow month is the Bee, symbolizing organization, industry and living harmoniously within one’s collective or community.
The Old English word for Willow was “wicce,” which also referred to baskets made from wicker (bent willow branches). Too, “wicce” is a word from which we derive “witch,” with its implication of “bending” the laws of three-dimensional reality. (“Wicce” is the feminine form, “wicca” being the masculine.)
The Willow is a hardy deciduous tree of which there are more than 300 varieties. The most commonly known are Salix alba (white Willow, Common Willow, European Willow), Salix purpurea (Purple Willow, Purple Osier), Salix nigra (Black Willow, catkins, Willow, Pussywillow) and Salix caprea (Sallow, goat Willow).
Salix alba is native to North Africa, central Asia and Europe; from there she was introduced into the northeastern United States. She grows to a height of 75 feet but also grows as a shrub in some parts of the world. Willow charcoal has been used in the manufacture of artists’ pencils and her branches in the creating of wicker furniture (and, of course, baskets).
Therapeutically, a decoction or infusion of her leaves and especially her inner bark has been used as a diuretic, diaphoretic (to promote perspiration), to relieve pain, combat fever and inflammation and in the treatment of articular rheumatism. She is rich in salicin, (which is probably converted to salicylic acid in the body, the “active ingredient” in aspirin).
The therapeutic properties of the other varieties are much the same as Alba’s, though Purpurea is reputed to be the most effective in the treatment of fever. Salix nigra is native to North America; her catkins and bark have also been used as a sexual sedative. Eurasian Salix caprea has also been used in the treatment of whooping cough and indigestion.
The analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties of Willow were recorded in the first century CE by the Greek physician, Dioscorides. Salicin was first isolated as the “ active ingredient” in the 1830s (from Willow and other plants) but was found to be too irritating to the stomach, causing pain and nausea. By the 1850s, however, acetysalicylic acid was successfully synthesized from salicylic acid. Today the product is completely synthetic.
A fifth variety, Salix babylonica (so-called “Weeping” Willow), has been associated with sadness in matters of love within our culture but in the Orient she is considered to be a symbol of eternal friendship, perseverance and patience. Perhaps as our understanding of the Feminine evolves we, too, will come to appreciate Willow as representative of the inalienable bond between all women.