Part I. The Roman Context: Dea Lupa
This is the first of a two-part reconstruction of a she-wolf Goddess, whom I have explored in both Roman and Frankish contexts. This part describes the Roman background and main identity of the Goddess, while the second part will present a Frankish interpretatio.
Though the Capitoline she-wolf, or Lupa, is well-known as a mythological figure, little attention has been given to Her potential as a figure of cultus. I attempt to reconstruct Lupa’s domains and to refigure Her as a Goddess deserving of Her own cult.
I posit that Lupa is partially identified with Rumina, Faunus Lupercus, Roma Aeterna, Silvanus, and Victoria, in addition to Her well-known association with Mars. Likewise, She may also be understood through traits shared with Iuno, particularly in Her roles as Lucina,1 Populona,2 Februus,3 and Sospita.4 While I won’t be exploring all of these associations, I do explicate the many traits which overlap with these Gods.
Rissanen (2014) suggests multiple interpretations of the she-wolf in the Augustinian age: “In the first place, the miraculous survival of Romulus and Remus with the help of an animal sacred to Mars was interpreted as a sign of the divine protection afforded to Rome. Secondly, the she-wolf motif served as a symbol of fertility and abundance, proclaiming the beginning of aurea aetas, the new Golden Age.” (337)
In order to unpack these associations, I examine Livy’s account of the founding of Rome:
But the Fates were resolved, as I suppose, upon the founding of this great City, and the beginning of the mightiest of empires, next after that of Heaven. The Vestal was ravished, and having given birth to twin sons, named Mars as the father of her doubtful offspring, whether actually so believing, or because it seemed less wrong if a god were the author of her fault. But neither gods nor men protected the mother herself or her babes from the king’s cruelty; the priestess he ordered to be manacled and cast into prison, the children to be committed to the river. It happened by singular good fortune that the Tiber having spread beyond its banks into stagnant pools afforded nowhere any access to the regular channel of the river, and the men who brought the twins were led to hope that being infants they might be drowned, no matter how sluggish the stream. So they made shift to discharge the king’s command, by exposing the babes at the nearest point of the overflow, where the fig-tree Ruminalis—formerly, they say, called Romularis—now stands. In those days this was a wild and uninhabited region. The story persists that when the floating basket in which the children had been exposed was left high and dry by the receding water, a she-wolf, coming down out of the surrounding hills to slake her thirst, turned her steps towards the cry of the infants, and with her teats gave them suck so gently, that the keeper of the royal flock found her licking them with her tongue. Tradition assigns to this man the name of Faustulus, and adds that he carried the twins to his hut and gave them to his wife Larentia to rear. Some think that Larentia, having been free with her favours, had got the name of “she-wolf” among the shepherds, and that this gave rise to this marvellous story. The boys, thus born and reared, had no sooner attained to youth than they began—yet without neglecting the farmstead or the flocks—to range the glades of the mountains for game. Having in this way gained both strength and resolution, they would now not only face wild beasts, but would attack robbers laden with their spoils, and divide up what they took from them among the shepherds, with whom they shared their toils and pranks, while their band of young men grew larger every day. (Livy 1.4)
In this account we see particular emphasis on the act of suckling the infants. The fig-tree itself parallels this imagery, as it is named ficus Ruminalis, derived from the word rumis, or “mamma/(lactating) breasts” (Hadszits 307). The tree is also sacred to Rumina, Goddess of suckling. Varro indicates that She had a cult site near the Lupercal, in which milk was offered in explicit preference to wine (ibid., 309; Vukovic 115). This suggests that Rumina may have been syncretized with Lupa through the myth of Romulus and Remus. Additionally, Faunus bore the epithet Ficarius, “of the fig tree,” suggesting His relationship to the myth (Vuković 120). Luperca, often portrayed as a counterpart to Faunus, might then be related to the Lupa Romana as well.
Livy also addresses an alternate interpretation of the myth, in which lupa as slang for prostitute is considered (see Mazzoni 117). Christians Tertullian and Lactantius would come to criticize Lupa’s alleged harlotry, but we see from Livy that Romans likely held ambiguity on this interpretation (ibid). From the perspective of the modern polytheist, a crucial understanding of this Goddess is more likely to be found in Her representation as a nurturing she-wolf, regardless of whether She was in fact considered a human prostitute at some point.
Wolves are a complicated figure in Roman thought. They were considered to be divine messengers, but also held negative associations (Rissanen 2012: 120). As quoted in Rissanen (2012: 119), Servius describes wolves as “living by plundering,” suggesting their particular negativity within a pastoral context:
Mount Soracte is located in the territory of the Hirpini next to Via Flaminia. It was on this mountain that a sacrifice to Dis Pater was once performed – because it is devoted to chthonic deities – as wolves suddenly appeared and plundered the entrails from the fire. The shepherds chased the wolves for a long time, until they arrived at a cave emanating pestilential gases that killed people standing nearby. The reason for the emergence of this plague was that they had chased the wolves. They received a message that they could calm it down by imitating wolves; that means, living by plundering. They did so, and since then these people have been called Hirpi Sorani.
Yet, in the cult of the Hirpi Sorani (wolves of Soranus), ecstatic mimesis of wolf behavior (i.e. lycanthropy) is a holy rite (see Rissanen 2012). The passage from Servius also demonstrates wolves’ chthonic powers, quite explicitly through the connection to Dis Pater. The cave which “emanat[es] pestilential gases” is another element of the chthonic encounter (Rissanen 2012: 119 quoting Servius).
Though the titular God of the Lupercal is Faunus Lupercus, there is strong evidence to suggest that Lupa was also honored at Lupercalia. According to Varro, the Lupercalia was celebrated at the Lupercal, Her cult site (Wiseman 1). Varro also “refer[s] to a Goddess Luperca, whom he identifies with the she-wolf of the foundation legend; he explains the name as lupa pepercit, ‘the she-wolf spared them'” (ibid).
Though Lupercalia is typically thought of as a fertility festival, Rissanen (2012:127-128) suggests that Lupercalia’s primary purpose is chthonic, relating to purification through the ancestors. I find this to be somewhat dismissive of Iuno’s association with the festival. However, I agree with the evidence that the Lupercalia was at least partially of chthonic association. Moreover, Vuković explores the foundation myth reenactment involved:
A certain Butas, writing on mythical aetiologies of the Romans in elegiac verse, says that followers of Romulus having defeated Amulius, came running with great joy to the place where the she-wolf offered them her dug when they were babies, and that the festival is conducted as an imitation of that run and that those of noble birth run “striking passer-bys, as then carrying swords Romulus and Remus ran from Alba.” And (he says that) the blooded sword is applied to their forehead as a symbol of the slaughter and danger that happened at the time, and the purification by milk is a memorial of their food… If the sacrifice is a purification, one could say that the dog is to be sacrificed as it is used as a purificatory animal. For the Greeks carry forth puppies in their purifications and often make use of these aforementioned ‘periskylakismoi’ rites. If these things are done as a thank offering to the she-wolf and to the nursing and salvation of Romulus, then the dog is not slain unreasonably for he is an enemy to wolves. Unless, indeed, the animal is being punished for annoying the Luperci as they run around. (Vuković 61, citing Plutarch)
This account is reminiscent of the wolf’s dual pillager-protector nature, as mentioned by Mazzoni:
Specifically, the she-wolf was an apotropaic totem because the early Latial peoples were shepherds: The she-wolf idol, to whom they prayed and sacrificed, placated other wolves who might ravage these shepherds’ flocks; the she-wolf’s prolific nature, indicated by the fullness of her udders, amplifies the danger inherent in her fangs (Mazzoni citing Levi 36–37)
Here, Levi suggests that the she-wolf motif’s protective power is directly related to her role as mother and nurturer.
Victory and Romanitas
In addition to protection and fertility associations, evidence suggests that victory would also have been in Lupa’s domain, if not for Her association with Mars alone. For instance, “We know from Dionysius that there was a clear conceptual and topographical relationship between the Victory temple and the Lupercal.” (Wiseman 4). Additionally, “in one version of the story of the twins, Mars ravishes their mother inside the Lupercal cave,” suggesting “on the one hand, sex and conception; on the other, war and victory” (Wiseman 4). As a messenger of Mars and key participant in the twins’ salvation, and as a surrogate mother, Lupa seems to amplify these dual implications. Her relationship with victory suggests some shared traits with the Goddess Victoria, who would undoubtedly be paired with Mars in the context of war.
Another essential association of the Goddess Lupa is Her ability to bestow Romanitas, thus Her partial identification with Roma Aeterna. According to Rissanen (2014), the she-wolf, with or without the twins, was “an identifying symbol in visual representations of the […] Goddess Romana” (336). Additionally, the she-wolf motif appears on gravestones and funerary monuments in the provinces, notably Belgica and Germania, suggesting its use as an identifier of Romanitas (ibid., 347-348). This suggests that Lupa, while an essentially Roman goddess, could be propitiated as a patroness of provincials seeking to embody Romanness as well as of Roman citizens in the provinces.
Dea Lupa’s associations are multifarious yet interconnected. She can be seen as a messenger, protector, and tutelary who straddles the relationships between birth and death, offering victory to those who glorify her name. For the modern practitioner, She could also be seen as a guide in achieving Romanitas through praxis.
Hadzsits, G.D. 1936. “The Vera Historia of the Palatine Ficus Ruminalis.” Classical Philology Vol. 31, No. 4: 305-319. The University of Chicago Press.
Livy, Ab urbe condita, 1.5
Mazzoni, Cristina. 2010. She-Wolf: The Story of a Roman Icon. Cambridge University Press.
Rissanen, Mika. 2012. “The Hirpi Sorani and the Wolf Cults of Central Italy.” Arctos: Acta Philologica Fennics, Vol. 46: 115-135.
Rissanen, Mika. 2014. “The Lupa Romana in the Roman Provinces.” Acta Archaeologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 65: 335–360.
Wiseman, T.P. 1995. “The God of the Lupercal.” The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 85: 1-22. Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies.
Varro, De Lingua Latina, Volume I: Books 5-7.
Vuković, Krešimir. 2015. The Roman Festival of the Lupercalia: History, Myth, Ritual and Its Indo-European Heritage. D.Phil. Thesis in Classical Languages and Literature, University of Oxford.
1 “she that brings to the light,” relating to childbirth
2 “she who increase the number of the people,” “of the people”
3 “of February,” relating to the Lupercalia celebrations
4 “the savior,” compare to lupa pepercit, “the she-wolf spared them”
*Special thanks to Dagovis for checking my Latin grammar