Groundhog Day Battle and the Goats of Rome

The battle of the prognosticating groundhogs is on. Georgia’s ‘General Lee’ disagrees with Pennsylvania’s ‘Punxsutawney Phil ‘ this year–the General forecasts an early spring despite his longstanding and better known rival’s prediction for six more weeks of winter. In Canada, Ontario’s Wiarton Willie and Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam side with the General, foreseeing milder days ahead. No matter who’s right, with the wonderful temps we’ve been seeing here in Illinois, it looks like the winter of 2012 isn’t so bad.

Groundhog Day, of course, is nothing more than a gentle repackaging of German and Irish customs for a cross-quarter ‘holy day’ known to the Celts as Imbolc. This day is seen as the first signs of spring, when ewes would begin to lactate, and when the goddess Brigid (Bruenhild in Germany) would pass by at night and bless cloths left near the doors or hearths.

This day was celebrated in mid-February on the old calendar when pagan peoples held rituals meant to ensure fertility and rebirth. Here in the west, many are already making Valentine’s Day plans, a time for romance, Cupid, and lots of chocolates. It’s no surprise then, that in ancient cultures, we’d find Cupid’s true form, the goat-god Pan (also called Lupercus and Faunus), at the center of the Roman version of this cross-quarter celebration, a feast called Lupercalia.

Lupercalia was a decadent celebration that culminated in the sacrifice of goats and at least one dog. The priests of Lupercus (aka Pan) then covered themselves with the skins of the goats to imitate Pan (the goat-legged god). These wine-soaked goat priests would then run about the city, striking maidens and women with thongs made from what remained of the goats’ skins to ensure fertility and easy birthing.

Plutarch had this to say:

Lupercalia, of which many write that it was anciently celebrated by shepherds, and has also some connection with the Arcadian Lycaea. At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.

When Christianity became ‘cool’, many pagan celebrations were renamed and rehabilitated to make them acceptable to the church without robbing the people of their beloved rioting. This particular cross-quarter day (Imbolc, Lupercalia, etc.) became Candlemas and St. Valentine’s Day.

Today, we prefer to mask the rude underbelly of these ‘holy’ days with candy, flowers, cute rodents, and chubby cherubim. Because, let’s face it, goat-skinned priests with bloody whips don’t make for very pleasant Hallmark cards, do they?