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February--The Month of Purification

This month did not always hold its present position, but was originally the last month in the year. The name is taken from a Latin word, februare, meaning "to make pure".

In the Palatine Hill, another of the seven hills of Rome, was a cave dug in the rock, and in it stood an image of the god Lupercus covered with a goat's skin. Lupercus was the God of Fertility or springing into life, and on the 15th of February a great festival was held in his honour. Sacrifices of goats and dogs were made; then the priests cut up the skins of the goats, twisted the pieces into thongs, and ran through the city striking all who came in their way. As in the very earliest times it was the shepherds who held this festival, it is thought that this running about with thongs meant the purifying of the land. The idea of the whole festival seems to have been one of purifying, of a new life, so the name chosen for the month in which it was held was one formed from a word meaning "to make pure".

There are some who think that Lupercus was the same as Pan, the God of the Shepherds. Pan was said to have been a son of Mercury, but he was not like the other gods; his body was covered with goat's hair, and his feet and ears were also like those of a goat. He was very fond of music and dancing, and spent most of his time in the forests playing with the wood nymphs--beautiful girls who lived among the trees. One day he saw a wood nymph, named Syrinx, with whom he fell in love, but she was frightened and ran away from him, and when Pan pursued her she prayed to the gods for help. She was at once changed into a clump of reeds, and Pan, in his disappointment, broke off seven pieces of the reed, bound them together, and so made an instrument of music, which was called the Syrinx after the beautiful wood nymph.

The invention of the Syrinx by Pan has been wonderfully described by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in a poem which begins:

"What was he doing, the great god Pan,
   Down in the reeds by the river?
Spreading ruin and scattering ban,
Splashing and paddling with hoofs of a goat
And breaking the golden lilies afloat
  With the dragon-fly on the river."

This story of Pan and Syrinx reminds us that the Greeks and the Romans imagined the mountains, the valleys, the woods, and the rivers to be peopled with lesser gods and goddesses, whose task of caring for the trees, the flowers, and the grass was appointed them by Jupiter. The woodland gods were known as Satyrs, and like their leader, Pan, were half man and half goat. Another famous satyr was Silenus, who was put in charge of Bacchus, one of Jupiter's sons, and the God of Wine. Silenus taught Bacchus, and accompanied him on his travels on the earth. The God of Wine rode in a chariot drawn by wild beasts, Silenus following him on an ass, and with them a merry company of nymphs and satyrs crowned with ivy leaves, who danced and sang and made music in praise of Bacchus.

"And as I sat, over the light blue hills
There came a noise of revellers; the rills
Into the wide stream came of purple hue--
  ‘T was Bacchus and his crew!
The earnest trumpet spake, and silver thrills
From kissing cymbals made a merry din--
  'T was Bacchus and his kin!
Within his car, aloft, young Bacchus stood
Trifling his ivy-dart, in dancing mood,
        With sidelong laughing."

Many stories are told of the wood nymphs, as the Goddesses of the Woods were called. One of the most famous is that of the nymph Echo, who fell deeply in love with the beautiful Narcissus, whom she met hunting in the forest. Narcissus, however, took but little notice of her, and Echo's love soon turned to hatred and anger. She prayed to Venus, the Goddess of Love, that Narcissus might be punished for his hard-heartedness, and then sorrowfully hiding herself among the mountains, pined away until only her voice remained, and in lonely places the voice of Echo still answers those who call.

Meanwhile Venus sought an opportunity for punishing Narcissus by making him suffer in the same way as Echo had done. One day Narcissus, hot and thirsty with hunting, came to a shaded pool, and, as he stooped to drink, saw in the clear water the face, as he thought, of a water nymph. So beautiful was she that Narcissus was filled with love for her, and eagerly stretched out his arms; but no sooner did his hands touch the water than she vanished. He drew back in surprise and waited anxiously till the ruffled water became smooth, when again he saw the beautiful nymph. He spoke to her, and her lips answered him, though he heard no sound; he slowly put out his hands towards her, and her hands came to meet his. Sure now of her love, he tried a second time to clasp her in his arms, but, as before, she vanished. Again and again he strove to seize the nymph, but, each time she escaped his grasp. Amazed, Narcissus sank down by the pool and gazed upon that lovely face, which seemed to mock him, and yet held him there. Apollo and his chariot sank into the Western sea, but the Goddess of the Moon shone on the water and showed the nymph still answering his words and holding out her arms to him. The days passed, and Narcissus, unable to tear himself away, grew pale and weak, watching the face, which also grew pale with despairing love. Thus was Echo avenged, for Narcissus slowly starved himself to death through love for his own image! The gods, however, took pity on him and changed his body into a cluster of flowers, which have ever since borne his name.

We have associated Pan, the God of the Shepherds, with this month, and his name is found in a very familiar word in our language. He took a great delight in frightening travellers by creeping up behind them in the dark, and the fear with which he filled them was called "Panic".

It is interesting to note that just as the Romans held a ceremony of purification during the month of February, so the Christian Church holds the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary on the second day of the month. The feast is called by Roman Catholics, Candlemas, because it is the custom to have a procession in which candles are carried, and it is on this occasion that the candles to be used in the church during the year are consecrated.

The weather at Candlemas is said to show what the weather will be like during the year, and an old proverb says:

"If Candlemas is fair and clear,
There'll be twa winters in the year".

The Old English name for February was Sprout-Kale, since the cabbage begins to sprout at this time of the year. It was later changed to Solmonath--sun month--because it is the time when the sun rises higher in the sky and begins to drive away the chill of winter with its glowing rays.

Next: Chapter III. March--The Month of Mars