A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Having discovered the Wolf the Shepherds hang him. Woodcut via Wikimedia Commons

Having discovered the Wolf the Shepherds hang him.
Woodcut via Wikimedia Commons

The metaphor of the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, used for a person whose apparently mild and gentle exterior disguises a dangerous and aggressive nature is an old one. Its earliest recorded occurrence is in the Gospel Matthew (7:15) where Jesus says Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.  It is usually assumed that Jesus was referencing an already well-known story or metaphor in this passage.

If the tale is indeed of pre-Christian origin, perhaps there is something to be learned from treating it not as a moral fable but as a riddle. If we ask the question “Who is the Wolf in Sheep’s clothing?” the answer must be  – the Shepherd. For a shepherd not only dresses in clothing made from sheep, wool and sheepskins, but gains the trust of the sheep, all the while preying on them even more effectively than a wild wolf.

Is this the reason that the Romans called their Shepherd’s Festival the Lupercalia or ‘Wolf Festival’?  Roman festivals and religious observances are a puzzle. We have, relatively speaking, quite a lot of information about them and how they were conducted. Often, however, the Roman writers who recorded this information claimed either that the origins and meanings of the practices were unknown or gave such fantastical and unlikely explanations as to make one think they were deliberately designed to mislead.

We know that the Lupercalia was celebrated on the Ides of February and that it involved the sacrifice of a Dog and a Goat. The skin of the sacrificed goat was then cut in strips or thongs. Teams of vigorous young shepherds, wearing only brief goatskin kilts, would run about the city whipping people with theses thongs. This was believed to both purify the city and promote fertility. Indeed barren wives were often encouraged to make sure they were stuck by these thongs at the Lupercalia.

Inevitably, of course, one wonders whether that bit of magic worked because the young, half-naked shepherds did rather more than symbolically strike the women with thongs. Male infertility being about ten times more common than female, the best cure for women’s barrenness, throughout history, has always been a new sexual partner. Certainly, the Lupercalia persisted in Rome well into the Christian period, but was eventually banned by Pope Gelasius around 495 A.D, not only on account of its pagan origins but because of its riotous and licentious nature.

Lupercalia by Camesei via Wikimedia Commons

Lupercalia by Camesei
via Wikimedia Commons