By Krešimir Vuković

What roles do animals play in ancient religions? What do Roman and Vedic religions and their rituals have in common? What is the role played by non-human animals in shaping this connection? Why is the wolf the symbol of Rome? How did the linguistic concept of “Indo-European” become entangled with racist ideologies?  These are just some of the questions which I discuss in my book where I conduct a comparative study that starts with the ancient Roman festival of the Lupercalia and ends with Vedic rituals and the ceremonies of Byzantium. 

Everyone knows the famous story about the she-wolf nursing the twins Romulus and Remus but this book delves deep into comparative religion and history to discover the distant origins of Roman wolf rituals in the steppes and river valleys of eastern Ukraine and southern Russia, the very area that is now contested in a bloody war.

The Roman festival of the Lupercalia is the central focus of the book. It was a rite of passage for young men of the equestrian order, an elite class of Roman citizens. The priests that carried out the ritual were called the Luperci, a word derived from the Latin lupus (wolf). After being initiated into the ritual, the young men ran around the centre of Rome almost completely naked and struck women with goatskin whips. The meaning of the ritual was not entirely clear to the Romans of the imperial period but the famous orator Cicero described it as a relic of primitivism, a wild custom that precedes civilisation and laws. The festival was celebrated from the beginnings of Rome down to the turbulent period of late antiquity when Pope Gelasius wrote an angry letter criticizing a carnivalesque version of the ritual staged by Gothic consuls (in 490s AD, a century after the official ban on the old religion by the Christian emperor Theodosius I).

The Lupercalia was a rite of reversal, a type of ritual in which normal regulations are suspended in favour of chaotic playfulness. However, none of the actions of the Luperci were accidental. The naked priests sacrificed dogs and goats, smeared themselves with oil and drank wine. They served Faunus, a chthonic divinity of animals and they belonged to the elite order of equestrians, the original cavalry of ancient Rome. All these actions stand in sharp contrast to the prohibitions that bind the flamen Dialis, the priest of Jupiter, who must never be completely naked, must never name or touch a dog, a goat or a horse, must avoid intoxicants and all fermented stuff, and must never apply oil to his body. The series of contrast between the two priestly orders points to an ancient system that was deliberately devised in a structural fashion. Moreover, the prohibitions that bind the Roman priest of Jupiter closely parallel the taboos placed upon the Vedic Brahmin (as discussed in Chapter 3).

The parallels between the Brahmin and flamen Dialis opens the framework of Indo-European comparison, a thorny political issue (examined in Chapter 4). The racist ideologies that have plagued Indo-European studies can be traced to imperialist tendencies of European scholars of the 19th and 20th century, from Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900) to James George Frazer (1854-1941) and Georges Dumézil (1898-1986). However, one must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Indo-European is a concept that betrays colonial tendencies from its inception in British India but it remains a linguistic fact that Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin are related. It is also a fact that this is a consequence of prehistoric migrations from the steppes of Ukraine and southern Russia, i.e. the Pontic-Caspian steppes.

[Map showing scheme of Indo-European language dispersals from c. 4000 to 1000 BCE according to the widely held Kurgan hypothesis. – Center: Steppe cultures 1 (black): Anatolian languages (archaic PIE) 2 (black): Afanasievo culture (early PIE) 3 (black) Yamnaya culture expansion (Pontic-Caspian steppe, Danube Valley) (late PIE) 4A (black): Western Corded Ware 4B-C (blue & dark blue): Bell Beaker; adopted by Indo-European speakers 5A-B (red): Eastern Corded ware 5C (red): Sintashta (proto-Indo-Iranian) 6 (magenta): Andronovo 7A (purple): Indo-Aryans (Mittani) 7B (purple): Indo-Aryans (India) [NN] (dark yellow): proto-Balto-Slavic 8 (grey): Greek 9 (yellow):Iranians – [not drawn]: Armenian, expanding from western steppe.]

The migrations that took place in the third and second millennium BC are usually connected to the supposed technological superiority of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European culture, especially the use of chariots with spoked wheels. Horses played an essential role in the relatively fast advance of steppe migrants to new areas of Eurasia. However, the role of the wolf is usually not discussed in this respect.

Wolves are the most sociable land predators and can traverse thousands of miles on their migrations. They are extremely flexible and have adapted to a range of different environments, from the deserts of Arabia to hunting in the Pacific Ocean. Comparative religion shows that young men on the verge of adulthood identify with animal predators in rites of passage, as is the case in the Roman Lupercalia.   

The bold claim and the central thesis of this book is that the migrants who spoke dialects of Indo-European followed animals on their migrations that took them as far as northern India and western China in the east and Ireland in the west. The role of wolves in a number of ancient Italic rituals shows that the animal was central to the identity of young men who were the first to advance into new territories. A number of Italic peoples were named after wolves (or Mars, the warrior god of wolves) and the animal was the focus of a number of crucial rituals, such as the Lupercalia.

The horse plays a central role in a number of Vedic rituals, especially the Rājasūya and the Aśvamedha, the elite royal rites of investiture. The latter closely parallels the Roman rite of horse sacrifice, October Equus, indicating a shared origin in Indo-European migrations. In the wake of climate change that brought increased aridity to the Pontic-Capian steppes, the human migrants followed horses to capture new territories and imitated wolves in pursuit of plunder and cattle.

The modern distinction between wild and domesticated animals (which also appears in the ancient world) is insufficient as a heuristic model to explain the relationship between non-human and human animals in Indo-European migrations. The human animals of this time did not see their animals merely as objects of possession. They conceived them as companions, as animal kin (to use Donna Haraway’s term), related but distinct species. Human animals depended on non-human animals for everything from sustenance to trade and religion.

In the Vedas, the relationship between human and non-human animals is one of close dependency. Philippe Descola’s analogist theory provides a fruitful heuristic model for the place of animals in Vedic religion. Descola’s analogies closely match the Vedic associations called bandhu (‘connections’) that are used to connect different aspects of the cosmos. For example, the horse was the animal of the warrior class and royal animal par excellence. By analogy the horse is connected to the sun, the king in the sky. The sun rides in a chariot as does the king in the rituals of royal initiation. The analogy extends into the world of plants: the king is connected to the banyan tree: the tree’s rootedness in the Earth is compared to the way a king’s rule is grounded in the people.

It is notable that the ritual of royal investiture, the Rājasūya,invokes the powers of several non-human beings in order to facilitate the sovereign’s rule. In the anointing ceremony, the priests invoke the lustre of the Sun and the brilliance of fire on the new king. The tiger skin on which he stands gives him the strength of a predator, and the horse that he rides on the ability to raid cattle. After the raid, he puts on boar skin sandals to invoke fertility and establish a connection to the earth, from which all goods spring and which is the ground of his rule. He pays homage to Mother Earth, recognizing a super-entity that is beyond his powers. His hands are dipped into milk curds in order to restore his power and transfer the power of cattle to him. Finally, in the Sautrāmaṇī ritual of invigoration, the hairs of wild beasts (wolves, tigers, and lions) are offered to attain the qualities of wild beasts.

The connections of the analogical system point to an understanding of the world in which various human and non-human entities are interdependent. It is in this respect that we should also see the central place of the wolf in Roman mythology. According to Roman tradition, the twins Romulus and Remus established the ritual of the Lupercalia. The sons of Mars, Romulus and Remus, are divine but ferocious, and the she-wolf, the animal of Mars, nurses them with the milk of a beast. As young men, they become wolf-men, leaders of predatory groups of men in pursuit of plunder, and their aggressive behaviour infects their own relationship with bitter antagonism, culminating with the death of Remus. The polyvalent associations of the wolf as a symbol made an indelible mark on Roman identity. 

As Milinda Banerjee and Jelle Wouters argue, “we must recognize the interdependence between human and nonhuman that has always characterized non-capitalist life-worlds: think through multispecies communities.” This book is a call to reconsider our relationship with our animal kin as one of mutual dependency, not possession or mastery. The study of ancient religions has much to offer in this regard.

Krešimir Vuković holds a doctorate in Classics from the University of Oxford. He was Lecturer at Oxford’s Faculty of Classics, Rome Fellow of the British School at Rome and Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at LMU Munich. He is strongly interested in environmental humanities and ecocriticism and ways in which they can provide valuable lessons in current global crises. He is currently Researcher at the University of Venice, NICHE, where he is studying the fluvial environment of the Venetian lagoon in late antiquity and writing a book entitled The Living Streams: Rivers as More-than-Human Entities in the Ancient World for the series Cambridge Elements in Environmental Humanities (Cambridge University Press).

Edited by Shuvatri Dasgupta

Featured Image: Roman Mosaic Depicting Lupercalia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.