The rites (and wrongs) of spring – Frank McNally on Lupercalia

Statue of Julius Caesar in Cividale del Friuli. Photograph: iStock

Statue of Julius Caesar in Cividale del Friuli. Photograph: iStock

 

Nobody ever warns you to beware the Ides of February, which falls on Wednesday. But Julius Caesar would have been well advised to do so, because that’s when all his trouble started. 

In Ancient Rome, the middle of February marked the onset of spring, a time of general excitement. 

And it was during the associated excesses in 44BC that Mark Antony attempted – three times – to place a crown of Caesar’s head: a gesture for which, although he thrice refused, the latter would forfeit his life at the hands of suspicious republicans.

As classical scholars among you will know, most ides fell on the 13th of the month (unlike March). But between February 13th and 15th, Romans celebrated Lupercalia: literally the festival of the “hot wolf”, inspired by the city’s creation myth of Romulus and Remus and their lupine foster mother.

Don’t try this at home – or anywhere – on Valentine’s Day. But it was the charming custom back then for finer specimens of Roman manhood to run naked and blood-smeared through the streets, brandishing strips of fresh goat hide, with which they playfully struck any women of child-bearing age they could catch.

This was believed to facilitate propagation of the species. Hence in Shakespeare’s version of the story, Caesar’s anxiety that his wife be included in Mark Antony’s Lupercalian romp: “Forget not in your speed, Antonius,/To touch Calpurnia.”

And so Mark Antony did. But it was his other touch that day the watchful republicans lamented. Cicero later berated him for drunkenly approaching Caesar with the laurel wreath “as if you were Lupercus” (the Roman version of the Greeks’ Pan) himself. Caesar, who is thought to have put Antony up to the stunt by way of opinion-polling the mob, read the public reaction and refused. 

It didn’t save him. But ambition apart, another factor in his demise may have been the extent to which he was personally propagating the species. The many Roman women of whom he had made mistresses included Brutus’s mother and sister. This might explain why, of the 23 stab sounds that contributed to killing Caesar, the one from Brutus was said to be in the “groin” area.

***

It’s a long way from Ancient Rome to the subject of Hiberno-English – albeit it was the Romans gave us the name Hibernia. But the festival of Lupercalia reminds me of an expression I overheard recently, for the first time in a while. It came up in a conversation between two women, talking about a third, of whom one said: “She hunted him ...”

In any other country, that would be taken to mean that she had pursued whoever it was. And maybe that’s what it did mean in this case. But being Irish, I took it to suggest the opposite of pursuit: that she had shown him the door, and perhaps slammed it after him.

Why do we use the verb “hunt” to mean “throw out”?  

Is it because of the implied chase that might follow if the ejected party doesn’t leave?  

No, apparently: it arose from simple confusion in the translation of two Irish verbs that sound the same in certain usage, eg sheilg sé (“he hunted”) and theilg sé (“he threw out”).

Out of idle curiosity, I searched for variations of the colloquial phrase in The Irish Times archive, to see if it had ever featured in, say, court reports.  

And I was amazed to find “she hunted him” in the 2007 obituary of Leona Helmsley, the New York hotelier and “Queen of Mean” who once declared that “only the little people pay taxes”.  

On closer inspection, the phrase was used in connection with her third husband, Harry, a multimillionaire, then married to someone else. So when Helmsley was said to have “hunted him”, it was in the relationship-beginning sense of the term, not the valedictory one.

And I don’t know if the pursuit was lupercalian, or in keeping with the even fiercer predator from which Helmsley derived her first name, but it worked.

The other odd thing about the archive search was that the phrase also seemed to occur frequently in equestrian reports. This was a sense I hadn’t even considered in connection with the overhead conversation.  

But it featured in, among other examples, a 1911 court case between a Mr Roche and a Ms Bobbett, after the former sold the latter an allegedly defective horse. When Ms Bobbett was said to have “hunted him”, she meant the horse. And rather than chasing after him, she also meant she had been accompanying him at the time, in pursuit of other wildlife.

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