New Acropolis Articles

Janus

by Julie Tortora

As we move into the New Year, it is interesting to reflect on why the first month has been given the name of January. January is a time of new beginnings, a transition between the old and the new, the past and the future. Transitions and beginnings are often challenging times but full of new potential, fresh impetus and inspiration. Our hopes and prayers at such times are for the successful outcome of our new ventures. In Ancient Rome this shared human experience was encapsulated in the form of a deity called Janus and it is after him that Numa, in his regulations of the Roman calendar, designated the first month of the year Januarius.

Janus is most regularly depicted as a human male form with two heads back to back, gazing in opposite directions. This indicates his ability to look both back in time and also to see into the future. This talent was a gift bestowed on him by the god Saturn, in gratitude for hospitality received.

The image of Janus appears on many Romans coins. Originally one face was bearded and one not, probably representing the ancient polarities of sun and moon. His principle temple, in the Forum in Rome, had doors facing east and west to mark the beginning and end of the day. Between the doors stood his statue gazing in opposite directions. Later another structure dedicated to Janus named the Ianus geminus was also erected in the Forum by Emperor Numa. Its door would be ritually opened in time of war and only closed in peacetime.

Janus was worshipped and invoked at moments of cyclical renewal, for example every morning for blessings over the coming day, at New Year, at planting time and at harvesting of crops, at births, marriages and deaths. He was patron of both the physical and metaphysical beginnings of the world, of new historical ages and economical enterprises. He was frequently used to symbolize change and transitions not just of past to future but of one condition to another, one vision to another, the development of the child to adulthood and the movement of one universe to another. On a more mundane level, his presence protected passageways, doors to the home, gates and bridges.

His role as benefactor of auspicious beginnings has been likened to that of Ganesha, the Indian elephant god and also to that of avatar Ganapati who fulfils a similar role in Jainism. Scholars therefore identify a common indo-european background or archetype to the Janus of the Roman world. May that common archetype bless us with all good things in this New Year.