Look Both Ways: Janus, God of the New Year

As we enter this new year, many of us are taking a hard look in the mirror, trying to figure out where we’ve gone right, and where we’ve gone oh-so-wrong. Looking forward, and looking back, and making resolutions to the effect of making things better.

Now, there are many deities from across the globe that one could invoke to help in this process, but today, we’re going to look at a particularly Roman deity: Janus, the two faced God.

One of the first things that sets Janus apart is that He isn’t a Greek import; Zeus became Jupiter, Hera became Juno, but there is no Greek antecedent for Janus; He is a uniquely Roman invention.

How important was this God to the Romans? Numa Pompilius, believed to be the second king of Rome after Romulus, and who is associated with cementing many Roman religious beliefs, gave him a special place in his standard calendar; while some scholars debate this, at least according to Roman tradition, the first month of the year was named after the two faced God:

January.

As a deity of doorways and passages, Janus also has another associated word that has entered our lexicon:

Janitor.

Numa built a gate for the God, called the Janus Bifrons, Janus Quirinus or Portae Belli, positioned near the old Roman Forum. The significance of this double walled passage was clear to all Romans; it signified war and peace. In times of war, the gates were left open (which was most of the time, given the Roman propensity for conflict); during those rare times of peace, the doors were shut.

Jupiter’s ability to travel through time and space was facilitated by Janus, and in many ways, He held a position above all the other members of the Pantheon. He was, without a doubt, a God of the liminal spaces, the in-between states that mark the boundaries of transitions.

We can glean some idea of His importance from an archaic Latin text known as the Carmen Saliare, which was used for religious invocations by the priesthood; there, His epitaphs include the Sower,  the Opener, the Gatekeeper,  the Good Creator, the most powerful and best of kings, father of the Gods, God of the Gods, and last but not least, the Janitor.

In other words, Janus was definitely a God to contend with.

While most likely not Greek (though some scholars have tied Him to Hermes), He every well may have a had an Etruscan origin; their God Culśanś was also double faced, though younger than Janus, in that He was depicted as beardless.

As the God of gates, doorways and travels, Janus had two portent symbols: a key and a staff. He was also associated with Cardea, the Goddess of hinges (at least that’s Ovid’s assertion is his unfinished book of months, the Fasti, where he also relates Janus with the banished God Saturn (Chronos for the Greeks)).

As the God of new beginnings, and the God of January, the first day of the month was celebrated with good cheer by all Romans, a hopeful way of starting anew; and if that doesn’t sound familiar…

Well, have a Happy New Years!

And never forget that to look forward, sometimes we all need to look back.

 

 

 

 

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