How Did the Month of February Get Its Name?

It's the Month of Whips and Purity!

Shake your Lupercalian whips back and forth!. Andrea Camassei/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

As the month best known for Valentine’s Day—a legendary saint beheaded for his religious convictions, not his passion for true love—February had close ties to ancient Rome. Apparently, the Roman king Numa Pompilius divided the year into twelve months, while Ovid suggests the decemviri moved it to the the second month of the year. Its nominal origins also hailed from the Eternal City, but where did February get its magical moniker?

Ancient Rituals...or Purell?

In 238 A.D., the grammarian Censorinus composed his De die natali, or The Birthday Book, in which he wrote about everything from calendric cycles to the basic chronology of the world. Censorinus clearly had a passion for time, so he delved into the origins of the months, as well. January was named for the double-headed god Janus, who looked into the past (the old year) and present-future (the new year), but its follow-up was called after “the old word februum,” writes Censorinus.

What’s februum, you may ask? A means of ritual purification. Censorinus claims that “anything that consecrates or purifies is a februum,” while februamenta signifies rites of purification. Items can become purified, or februa, “in different ways in different rites.” The poet Ovid concurs on this origin, writing in his Fasti that “the fathers of Rome called purification februa"; the word (and maybe the rite) was of Sabine origin, according to Varro’s On the Latin Language

Purification was a big deal, as Ovid mockingly quotes, “Our ancestors believed every sin and cause of evil/Could be erased by rites of purification.”

The sixth-century A.D. writer Johannes Lydius had a slightly different interpretation, stating, “The name of the month of February came from the goddess called Februa; and the Romans understood Februa as an overseer and purifier of things.” Johannes stated that Februus meant “the underground one” in Etruscan, and that deity was worshipped for fertility purposes.

But this may have been an innovation specific to Johannes’s sources. 

I Want to Go to the Festival

So what cleansing ceremony occurred during the second thirty days of the New Year that was important enough to merit a month being named after it? There wasn’t one in particular; February had tons of cleansing rituals. Even St. Augustine got on this in The City of God when he says “…in the month of February ... the sacred purgation takes place, which they call februum, and from which the month get its name.” 

Pretty much anything could become a februum. At that time, Ovid says the high priests would “ask the King [the rex sacrorum, a high-ranking priest] and the Flamen [Dialis]/for woollen cloths, called februa in the ancient tongue”; during this time, “houses are cleansed [with] the roasted grain and salt,” given to the lictor, a bodyguard to an important Roman official. Another means of purification is given to a branch from a tree whose leaves were worn in a priestly crown. Ovid quips wryly, “In short anything used to purify our bodies/had that title [of februa] in the days of our hairy ancestors.”

Even whips and woodland gods were purifiers! According to Ovid, the Lupercalia features another kind of februum, something that was a little more S&M.

 It took place in mid-February and celebrated the wild sylvan god Faunus (a.k.a. Pan). During the festival, nude priests called Luperci performed ritual purification by whipping spectators, which also promoted fertility. As Plutarch writes in his Roman Questions, “this performance constitutes a rite of purification of the city,” and they struck “with a kind of leather thong they call februare, the word meaning ‘to purify.’”

The Lupercalia, which Varro says “was called also Februatio,' Festival of Purification,’”  decontaminated the city of Rome itself. As Censorinus observes, “So the Lupercalia is more properly called Februatus, ‘purified, and therefore the month is called February.”

February: Month of the Dead?

But February wasn't just a month of cleanliness! To be fair, though, purification and ghosts aren't all that different.

In order to create a cleansing ritual, one must sacrifice a ritual victim, whether flowers, food, or a bull. Originally, this was the last month of the year, dedicated to the ghosts of the deceased, thanks to its ancestor-worshipping festival of Parentalia. During that holiday, temple doors were  closed and sacrificial fires were doused to avoid malevolent influences influencing holy places.

Johannes Lydius even theorizes the month's name came from feber, or lamentation, because this was the time when people would mourn the departed. It was filled with rituals of propitiation and purification in order to placate angry ghosts from haunting the living during festival time, as well as to send them back whence they came after the New Year.

February came after the dead went back to their spectral homes. As Ovid notes, this “time is pure, having placated the dead/When the days devoted to the departed are over.” Ovid mentions another festival called Terminalia and recalls, “February that follows was once last in the ancient year/And your worship, Terminus, closed the sacred rites.”

Terminus was the perfect deity to celebrate at the end of the year, since he reigned over boundaries.  At the end of the month was the his holiday, celebrating the god of boundaries who, according to Ovid, “separates the fields with his sign and “set[s] bounds to peoples, cities, great kingdoms.” And establishing the boundaries between the living and dead, pure and impure, sounds like a great job!