The Roman God Janus
Janus is the ancient Roman God of beginnings, gates, transitions, time, duality, doorways, passages, and endings. A uniquely Roman God, Janus has no equivalent in Greek religion. However late roman period art from the Greek regions has turned up a handful of Janus inspired Hermes artworks. Janus is usually depicted as having two faces, one looking forward, the other back. This forward and backward, future and past, war and peace dichotomy embodies the nature of the God.
Modern linguists believe that the word “Iānus” is actually the name of an action that expresses the idea of transitional movement, the moments of coming an going – passing from one place to another. Janus does not just represent the ability to think about the looking back or moving forward, fleeting moments of being both states at once.
It is thought perhaps that the cult of Janus arrived to the shores of young Rome with a group of sailors. Though there are records of a few temples to Janus, he had no dedicated preiesthood. The Romans would honor in him first in conjunction with rites for other Gods. This was part of Janus’ nature. As a God of transitions and of liminal space, he would be invoked as the God of opening a ritual. The rites concerning Janus were numerous. Owing to the versatile and far reaching character of the basic function of the god, marking beginnings and transitions, his presence was ubiquitous and fragmented.
The Season of Janus
Common modern thought is that Janus is the God that the month of January is named for, though ancient Roman Almanacs suggest it January points more to the importance of the Goddess Juno. In fact though, Janus and Juno were often honored together.
Beginning of the day: Morning belonged to Janus, when men started their daily business
Beginning of the month: Sacrifices were made to Janus along with Juno
Beginning of the year: January 1 is consecrated to Janus since it was the first of the new year and of the month of Janus. Shortly afterwards, on 9 January, the city’s high preist offered the sacrifice of a ram to Janus.
It was customary during this time that people to exchanged cheerful words of good wishes. To create a good omen for the new year, each person devoted a short time to his usual business, and then afterwards they exchange dates, figs and honey as a token of well wishing and made gifts of coins.
- Porter’s Staff: a branch or rod
- Set of Keys
- Boat of Janus: a cult of pre-roman sailors may have brought him to Rome.
- Pitch: A sacred resin ointment was applied to boats before they were launched
- Wild Olive, Wild Fig, Greek Lotus: Because they were resistant to sea water
- Dates, Figs and Honey: as a New Year token of well wishing
- Spelt Cakes and Salt: Offerings
- Ram on January 9th: Offering
Is Janus Father Time?
In modern mythology Father Time as the personification of the previous year (or “the Old Year”) who typically “hands over” the duties of time to the equally allegorical Baby New Year (or “the New Year”) is usually said to originate with the Greek Titan Kronus. Kronus represented time as a destructive force who maintained the turning of the seasons. However – I think that there may be a fair argument that Janus is a more apt origin for Father Time.
Though he is not the head of any divine family, Janus Pater (or Father) is the most frequent of his epithets. Not only does this name represent a term of respect, but principally it marks his primordial role. He is considered the first of the gods and thus their father.
His function as ‘god of beginnings’ has been clearly expressed in numerous ancient sources, from writers such as Cicero, Ovid and Varro. Cicero says that Janus is at the origin of time as the guardian of the gates of Heaven. In one of his temples, the hands of his statue were positioned to signify the number 355 (later 365) symbolically expressing his mastership over time.
Janus is a bearded man, he rules the calendar and is honored at the beginning of each day, month, and year. In addition to the epithet of father, he also has an epithet that roughly translates to “conception of life.” This corresponds to the popular Father Time/Baby New Year visual gag. Finally, Janus, and his ability to look forwards and backwards ties him closely to knowledge and wisdom; two things closely tied with Father Time.
Thank you for joining us for this discussion. The material presented is originally from Janus: Looking Forward and Back, a White Oak Grove CUUPS Hellenic discussion with Kristen Kirk. ©2017 Kristen Kirk