Edward Hadley: "Ted Hughes as an Elegist: The Vegetation Deity and Fertility Rites in 'Lupercalia'"

It is curious that despite the wide and varied nature of Ted Hughes's verse, his elegiac tendencies have gone largely unnoticed despite the motifs of violence and death playing prominent roles in many of his poems. His verse shares in common many characteristics with elegy, he is complicit with many of elegy's practices and traditions, but he is also a reformer and renovator of elegy, writing invigorating verse which brings the realities of mortality closer to the reader. In doing so, he reaffirms the significance of life and how this life might be better lived in closer harmony to poetry and contemporary ecological urgencies. A poem such as 'The Day He Died' and the series of poems which compromise Birthday Letters are obvious contenders when considering Hughes's elegiac oeuvre, but elegiac characteristics are to be found in some of the poet's more obscure verse.   

Of the poem 'Lupercalia',[1] from Lupercal, Ekbert Faas writes: 'It shows the first traces of a long search for symbols and rituals that might still be alive under the debris of present-day civilisation. Yet despite the use of the present tense throughout and a lack of direct historical references, there is little to relate these symmetrically patterned and finely drawn miniatures into our present situation.'[2] Whilst it is beyond the remit of this study to verify whether or not the connotations and symbols of 'Lupercalia' have a bearing on today's society, one might suggest instead, that one need not look any further than Lupercal itself to justify the presence of the title poem. Several Hughes scholars have analysed the ancient Roman Lupercalia festival and related it to Hughes's poem, 'Lupercalia', for obvious reasons.[3] The intention here, however, is to understand how the festival, and indeed the poem, might relate to a core principle within elegy. The festival of Lupercalia ritual shares characteristics with the figure of the vegetation god whose role, according to Peter Sacks, is not only crucial, but integral to works of lament; the presence of this god is 'latent beneath the figures and conventions that we otherwise take for granted.'[4] To decipher these similarities, we first need to understand what actually occurred at the festival and what these practices represented.

The Lupercal cave is said to be where Romulus and Remus suckled on the milk of the wolf-mother as a part of the myth which tells of the founding of Rome. The significance of this place, what occurred there, and the subsequent festival, which this myth gave birth to, is summarised by Hughes:

The Feast of Lupercal was a Roman festival held on the 15th of February, in honour of Zeus as a wolf. Nobody knows how it originated, but it came from Mt. Lycaon in Greece, and combined sacrifices of goats and a dog (originally of a wolf, I suppose) It was mainly a fertility rite.[5]

The details of this rite vary slightly according to different accounts, but it seems that at the Lupercal cave stood an altar to the god, Lupercus (the Roman god of shepherds, often associated with dogs and goats. In terms of elegy, we can perhaps link these shepherd figures to the early pastoral tradition of elegy) where the Luperci (the 'wolf-brothers') presided over the practice of the festival. There, two goats and a dog would be sacrificed and their blood would anoint the foreheads of two young patricians. Part of the goat's skin would be fashioned into a thong and worn by the Luperci, whilst another part of the goat skin would be formed into a whip which was used to strike those the Luperci encountered as they ran through the streets around the Palatine hill. Both infertile and fertile women would hope to be struck because it was believed that this would encourage both fertility and unproblematic childbirth. 

Already, one can draw parallels between the festival and principles behind the vegetation deity. Sacks writes, 'The immortality suggested by nature's self-regenerative power rests on a principle of recurrent fertility.'[6] The Lupercalia festival, with its most immediate origins in Greek/pagan mythical culture, was held on what was believed to be the first day of spring; as Sacks suggests, by human figures indulging in their festival, they are not so much replicating nature's power, as transferring it into the tangible, and recognisable human form, 'Since individual humans are no more than mortal vehicles of this regenerative power, the particular human figure can represent the principle of sexuality only by appearing to undergo a succession of extinctions and rebirths'.[7] With the Lupercalia festival, the Luperci made 'extinct' a dog and two goats, whose blood and skin were marked upon them. In this respect, the Luperci were marked with death. But by wielding their leather-like straps of skin and whipping the barren women of Rome, they are mimicking the natural processes of death followed by regeneration. Furthermore, Sacks writes, 'The vegetation deity, and especially his or her sexual power, must be made to disappear and return.'[8] Again, we see this in practice at the festival; the initial rites of the ceremony occur in a cave, out of sight, so in this sense, the Luperci (who embody this version of the vegetation deity) disappear before very publicly returning to complete the ceremonial, sexual flagellation of women. One must recall that these infertile women are prone to the disappearance of their reproductive sexual power and hope that by being struck by the 'reappearance' of the Luperci/vegetation god, they too will be physically touched by divine power. We read in Hughes's poem the point at which the Luperci struck these women:

           … Maker of the world,
Hurrying the lit ghost of man
Age to age while the body hold,
Touch this frozen one. (IV, 13-6)

Hughes's poem, although not an elegy as such, bears these ancient and elegiac core principles of death and the post mortem associations of regeneration, as Stuart Hirschberg observes: 'In this poem we have an intuition of Hughes's conception of an energy at the heart of creation that is both divine and destructive, a power that is indistinguishable from the 'rank thriving' of the goats or the 'blood heat' of dog … [both] have a primal physical force … that the Luperci hope to pass on through the ceremony to the waiting women.'[9] What is of interest is the fact that, in this fertility festival, it is claimed that the men covered their genitals with the  thong fashioned  from the goat's skin; furthermore, when we recall that the women are infertile, they are too, in this respect, without genitalia. Perhaps this is a latent acknowledgment of the role of castration, which is present in several early myths and elegies as Sacks reminds us: 'Persephone is raped or abducted by Death. Adonis is killed by a tusk wound to the groin. Atthis castrates himself and dies. Orpheus is torn apart and decapitated by women. Daphnis dies after being blinded by a jealous Aphrodite.'[10] Sacks calls these figures 'representatives of undeterred desire'[11], so perhaps it is the case that on the basis of these (or similar) myths, the runners and the women of the Lupercalia festival were eliminating sexual desire by being covered, because nature does not know desire, only functional reproduction and fertility, which the Luperci as vegetation gods hope to symbolize. 

[Click here to read the next part of this essay.]

 

Notes:

[1] Ted Hughes, Lupercal (London: Faber and Faber, 1960) 61.

[2] Egbert Faas, Ted Hughes: The Unaccomodated Universe, (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1980) 62.

[3] Highly recommended are Ann Skea's essay 'Wolf-masks: From Hawk to Wolfwatching,' Critical Essays on Ted Hughes, ed. Leonard M. Scigaj. Critical Essays on British Literature (New York: G.K. Hall & Co, 1992) and Stuart Hirschberg's section on 'Lupercalia' in Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes (Portmarnock, Co. Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1981) 23-7.

[4] Peter Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: John Hopkins U.P., 1987) 27.

[5] Hughes, 'To Olwyn Hughes,' Summer 1959, Letters of Ted Hughes, ed. Christopher Reid (London: Faber and Faber 2007) 148.

[6] Sacks, The English Elegy, 27.

[7] Sacks, The English Elegy, 27.

[8] Sacks, The English Elegy, 27.

[9] Hirschberg, Myth, 25.

[10] Sacks, The English Elegy, 27.

[11] Sacks, The English Elegy, 27.

About the Author

Edward Hadley is author of The Elegies of Ted Hughes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), which he developed from his PhD thesis.

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