Janus : God of beginnings, time, transitions, doors and gates

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In ancient Roman religion and mythology, Janus is the god of beginning and transitions. So it follows that Janus was the god of gates, doors, doorways, boundaries, beginning and endings. Today we remember Janus for the month of January and the word janitor. The duality of Janus has inspired a linguistic category called Janus words. They are defined as contranyms or words which have definitions that are self-antonyms; that is which have two meanings that are opposites of each other. For instance “to weather” can mean “to endure” or “to erode”.

Janus is usually depicted with two faces one facing forward and the other behind as you can see in a statue that we found in Lisbon at the archaeology museum. Also note that the left face is bearded while the right face is clean shaven, as some say representing the sun and moon. Although most Roman gods were adapted from Greek counterparts Janus has no real Greek counterpart. Janice was supposed to come from Thessaly in Greece and shared a kingdom with Camese in Latia. As the ruler of Latium, Janus presided the Golden age, introducing money, laws and agriculture. They had many children, including Tiberinus (for whom the Tiber river is named). Janus became the mythical first king of the Latins as is proper for the God of beginnings. The image of Janus is on some of the oldest Roman coins.

Temple of Janus

When Romulus and his men kidnapped the women of Sabines, Janus caused a hot spring to erupt, causing the would-be attackers to flee. As a result, Numa (the second king of Rome 715-673 BC) built the Ianus germinus, a passage or temple with two doors, a passage ritually opened at times of war, and shut again during times of peace (a rarity in Rome). The temple of Janus in Rome was situated in a street named Argiletum, an important road that connected the Roman forum and the residential areas in the Northeast. It was a small, wooden temple, and the building material suggests that the cult of Janus was of a very old age. This is confirmed by several facts. The oldest lists of Gods usually began with his name; he was surnamed divom deus a very ancient form of Latin meaning the “the god of gods” and his portrait can be found on the oldest Roman coins. This would have been due to his presence at the beginning of time and the universe and because he was the guardian of the gates of heaven. In fact Janus was invoked whenever Romans prayed to the gods as a sort of intermediary. Any rite or religious act whatever first required the invocation of Janus, with a corresponding invocation to Vesta at the end (Janus primus and Vesta extrema).

The original Roman calendar is believed to have been a lunar calendar, which may have been based on one of the Greek lunar calendars. Roman writers claimed that their calendar was invented by Romulus, the founder of Rome around 753 BC. His version contained 10 months starting with March with a total of 304 days.
Numa Pompilius, the second of the seven traditional kings of Rome, reformed the calendar of Romulus by adding January and February around 713 BC to the original 10 months, with 362 days. January was designated as the first month in deference to the fact that Janus was the highest God of the time. Rather than naming the days of the month sequentially, all days were tied to three events of the moon. They were:

Kalendae: The first day of the month, the day of the new moon. The origin of our modern-day word calendar.

Nonae: Thought to originally have been the day of the of the half moon.

Ides: Thought to originally have been the day of the full moon.

An offering was made to Janus on the Kalendae of each month but it was New Year’s Day that was really celebrated as his day in ancient Rome, just as it is today. It was a holiday with no one working and people would exchange gifts and good luck for the new year.

I find it very interesting that an agricultural society almost 3000 years ago came up with such a sophisticated god of time. The early Roman calendar was pretty chaotic, with no sequential numbering of days in the months or years. In fact the Romans reckoned days by counting backwards from the three phases of the moon and in the early Republican senate, years were named for the consuls elected by the Senate. The concepts embodied in Janus almost certainly were imported from the Middle East.

In the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, Meslamta-ea was one of a pair of deities whose counterpart was known as Lugal-irra. These two gods were twins, and they were specifically associated with guarding doorways, particularly the gateway to the underworld, where they stood with bronze axes waiting to dismember the dead. In Roman mythology, the twins have been combined into a single figure with two faces — Janus, the god of doorways — while in Egyptian myth, the ferryman who carries souls across the threshold into the land of the dead was, like Janus, also a two-faced deity known as Her-ef-ha-ef (“he whose face is behind him.”) Finally there is the Babylonian messenger god Usmu, the two faced vizier of Enki, shown below to the far right behind Enki.

In the end, the god Janus gives us a fascinating insight into Roman daily life and thoughts. Time and transitions were made just a little easier by the oversight of their god Janus. Ultimately the Roman tolerance and active adoption of new peoples and ideas led to the longevity of the Roman Empire.