Faunus was the Roman god of nature. In some older stories, Faunus was originally the king of Latium, the area in central Italy where Rome was located. As king, he was known as a great hunter, farmer, and cattle breeder. Latium prospered under his rule as he taught his people how to farm, he was so beloved that they began to worship him as a god after he died. Faunus’s descendants included Romulus and Remus, the brothers who in legend founded the city of Rome.

He was a favorite god of Roman farmers, who believed that Faunus could give them healthy crops. Faunus also protected their sheep and cattle herds and ensured that they would have many lambs and calves. Because of this, he was sometimes also called Lupercus (“he who keeps the wolves away”). Faunus was usually accompanied by two female spirits called Fauna and Fatua, although the stories do not say much about them — they might have been either his wives or his daughters. Today, we still use the word fauna to refer to all the animals living in a region (as opposed to flora, meaning plants).

Faunus was also an oracular god, which means that he would send prophecies to those who wanted to know the future. People seeking advice from Faunus would go to one of his sacred groves in the forest and sleep outside on a sheep skin. Faunus would either send a voice to make a prophecy for them, or give them a dream about what the future might hold. Even though Faunus was usually a kind god, these visions and voices could be strange and frightening. When travelers in wild areas heard strange sounds they could not explain, they would tell themselves that they were hearing Faunus’s voice speaking to them.

One of Rome’s most popular holidays was the Lupercalia, held every year on February 15 to honor Faunus. The Lupercalia, Romans believed, would drive evil spirits out of the city in the same way that Faunus was supposed to protect cattle herds from predators. This would ensure good luck in the coming year.

During the Lupercalia, priests (usually young men) wearing goat skins would run around the city. As they ran, they would hit people with hairy strips of goat hide, called februa — which is where we get the name February. Romans actually believed that being hit by the februa was very good luck, and crowds, including women and children, would turn out hoping to be hit when the priests ran by!

Even after Rome adopted Christianity and the old gods were abandoned, Romans continued to celebrate the Lupercalia every year until about 500 AD. Some people believe that the association of Valentine’s Day (February 14) with love is related to the Lupercalia.

Greek stories and ideas became popular in Rome in the later days of the Roman Republic. This led the Romans to compare their own gods to Greek ones, and blend together the two mythologies. Faunus’s Greek counterpart was the nature god Pan. Like Faunus, Pan was usually depicted as having a human body but a goat’s legs and horns.

Romans also believed in creatures called fauns, which like Faunus looked like people with goat legs and horns. Fauns preferred to live in wild areas far from where humans built their towns. They could be cruel and play tricks to scare travelers, but they could also be helpful to those who were in need. Just as with Faunus and Pan, the fauns later became identified with the satyrs of Greek mythology.