Lupercalia and Februa

Betty’s post on Lupercalia made me wonder about the history of the names of the months. This is what I found.

The old Roman calendar started the year with the month we call March. With winter just over and the weather improved it was possible to get out of the house more. If you were a soldier, this meant going off to do some battle and expanding the empire. If you were anyone else it meant getting ready for the new growth season, cleaning out the winter crud, and other such battles. So the month was named after Mars, the Roman god of War.

The next month was named after the Greek goddess of Love and Beauty, Aphrodite. I expect it was not named after the Roman goddess, Venus, because Greeks were in the habit of slipping in to fill the needs left by the departed soldiers. The must have been pretty successful at it to get the month named for one on their side.

May is the start of spring and so was named after the Maia, the Roman Goddess of Spring. Oddly enough the Greeks also had a goddess named Maia, the goddess of the fields. So those who enjoyed April got to slip in another one to honor their visitors from the month before.

June is named after Juno, the Roman goddess of marriage and well being. Notice how the naming shifted back to the Roman pantheon here. Like as not, some of those soldiers were returning home about this time and some Roman maids saw the need to marry quickly before the joys from April started raising awkward questions.

After that the Romans’ lack of creativity starts to show. The old names for the rest of the months of the year were just the numbers for the months Quintilis (5th), Sextilis(6th), September (7th), October (8th), November (9th), and December (10th). Even when some of these where changed to the current names it was with no great creative effort. Quintilis was changed to Julius (July) to because Julius Caesar had the power to do that. Sextilis was changed to Augustus (August) because Augustus Caesar (son of Julius) had the power to do that.

The months we know as January and February did not have names in the old Roman calendar. This was probably because they were in the dead of winter so nothing much was ever happening in that part of the year. If nothing happens, there is nothing to write about, and so no reason to have a name with which to reference the time. Luckily the second king of Rome had a small flash of creativity and actually gave these months names. At the same time he moved the start of the year as far as the calendar is concerned to just past midwinter.

January is named for the Roman god Janus, god of gates and doorways, to represent how the year turns at this point with days starting to lengthen looking toward the new year.

February was named the Month of Purification (Februa) and was highlighted by the Day of Purification (Feb 15). Februa is also the name of the little whips the naked (or nearly naked depending on which account you like) youths running through the city used to whip the girls and young women who believed being struck by the whips would ensure them fertility and ease the pains of childbirth. Leave it to some bored Romans to come up with a goofy celebration like that.

“Hey, let’s kill a dog and a goat, smear some of the blood on us, skin the dead critters, make whips (and maybe loin cloths) out of their hides, wash the blood off of us with milk-soaked wool, and then run through the city beating all the girls with the whips."

Of course this was just one of many celebrations they had that now seem somewhat bizarre. Yet they could not come up with decent names for six of the months.

“Let’s see: March, April, May, June … screw it … Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth. Let’s make up a new party day instead! The dead of winter is pretty dull, what can we do to spice it up?”

Imported from an old blog. Some links might be dead. Let me know if you find dead links.