Februalia: A Time of Purification

January 30–February 2

Priestesses of Vesta
Februalia became associated with the worship of the hearth goddess, Vesta. Luis Diaz Devesa / Getty Images

The ancient Romans had a festival for nearly everything, and if you were a god, you almost always got your own holiday. Februus, for whom the month of February is named, was a god associated with both death and purification. In some writings, Februus is considered the same god as Faun, because their holidays were celebrated so closely together.

Understanding the Roman Calendar

The festival known as Februalia was held near the end of the Roman calendar year–and to understand how the holiday changed over time, it helps a bit to know the calendar's history.

Originally, the Roman year had only ten months–they counted out ten months between March and December, and basically disregarded the "dead months" of January and February. Later, the Etruscans came along and added these two months back into the equation. In fact, they planned to make January the first month, but the expulsion of the Etruscan dynasty prevented this from happening, and so March 1st was considered the first day of the year. February was dedicated to Februus, a god not unlike Dis or Pluto, because it was the month in which Rome was purified by making offerings and sacrifices to the gods of the dead. Ancient History expert N.S. Gill has some great information on the terminology found in the Roman calendar.

Vesta, the Hearth Goddess

At any rate, because of the association with fire as a method of purification, at some point the celebration of Februalia became associated with Vesta, a hearth goddess much like the Celtic Brighid.

Not only that, February 2 is also considered the day of Juno Februa, the mother of war god Mars. There is a reference to this purification holiday in Ovid's Fasti, in which he says,

"In short, anything used to cleanse our bodies went by that name [of februa] in the time of our unshorn forefathers. The month is called after these things, because the Luperci purify the whole ground with strips of hide, which are their instruments of cleansing..."

Cicero wrote that the name Vesta comes from the Greeks, who called her Hestia. Because her power extended over altars and hearths, all prayers and all sacrifices ended with Vesta.

Februalia was a month-long period of sacrifice and atonement, involving offerings to the gods, prayer, and sacrifices. If you were a wealthy Roman who didn't have to go out and work, you could literally spend the entire month of February in prayer and meditation, atoning for your misdeeds during the other eleven months of the year.

Author Carl F. Neal writes in Imbolc: Rituals, Recipes, and Lore for Brigid's Day, 

"Februalia celebrated the goddess Juno, who shares many qualities with Brigid. The similarities between this Roman celebration and Imbolc made it easy to blur the lines between them. Just as Candlemas replaced Imbolc, so did the Feast of Purification of the Virgin Mary replace Februalia."

Celebrating Februalia Today

If you're a modern Pagan who would like to observe Februalia as part of your spiritual journey, there are a number of ways you can do so. Consider this a time of purging and cleansing–do a thorough pre-Spring cleaning, where you get rid of all of the things that no longer bring you joy and happiness.

Take an "out with the old, in with the new" approach, and eliminate the excess stuff that's cluttering your life, both physically and emotionally.

If you're someone who has a hard time letting go of things, rather than just throwing stuff out, rehome it to friends who will show it some love. This is a good way to eliminate clothes that no longer fit, books you don't plan to read again, or household goods that don't do anything but gather dust. 

You can also take some time to honor the goddess Vesta in her role as a deity of home, hearth, and domestic life as a way of celebrating Februalia. Make offerings of wine, honey, milk, olive oil, or fresh fruit as you begin rituals. Light a fire in Vesta's honor, and as you sit before it, offer her a prayer, chant, or song that you wrote yourself. If you can't light a fire, it's okay to keep a candle burning to celebrate Vesta–just be sure to extinguish it when you're finished.

Spend some time on domestic crafts, such as cooking and baking, weaving, needle arts, or woodworking.