Thursday, 4 February 2016

Janus - Gateway God

18th century herm of Janus. Source:
Janus is the God of the doorway and the gateway. He is the holder of the keys to auspicious beginnings and provides access to the divine. He is invariably depicted as the perceptive two-headed God, looking backwards and forwards, both into and outside the home, both eastwards and westwards, and from a state of lawless savagery towards peaceful civilisation. He is a God strongly associated with social order and harmony; he “is said to have lifted human life out of its bestial and savage state. For this reason he is represented with two faces, implying that he brought men's lives out of one sort of condition into another” (Plutarch). He is thus a God of transitions and a God of high importance in the Roman tradition; a fact well demonstrated by the custom of making the first ritual offering to Janus. Cicero cites the reason as follows:
“In all matters, beginnings and ends are the vital features. This is why they cite Janus first in sacrifices, for his name is derived from the verb ire, to go; hence the word iani for archways, and ianuae for the gates of secular buildings [Cicero, The Nature of the Gods at 71].”
Ovid confirms this practice:
“’Why, though I propitiate other Gods, Janus, Do I offer you wine and incense first?’ ‘ So you can obtain access through me, the doorman,’ He says, ‘to any of the Gods you please’ [Ovid, Fasti, 1 Jan].”
Cato also tells us that in the traditional rite purifying and blessing agricultural land the first offering goes to Janus; likewise for the harvest rite:
“Before harvest … address a prayer, with incense and wine, to Janus, Jupiter, and Juno, before offering the sow [to Ceres]. Make an offering of cakes to Janus, with these words: "Father Janus, in offering these cakes, I humbly beg that thou wilt be gracious and merciful to me and my children, my house and my household." Then make an offering of cake to Jupiter … Then present the wine to Janus, saying: "Father Janus, as I prayed humbly in offering the cakes, so wilt thou to the same end be honoured by this wine placed before thee." And then pray to Jupiter … Then offer up the [sacrifice of the pig]. When the entrails have been removed, make an offering of cakes to Janus, with a prayer as before; and an offering of a cake to Jupiter, with a prayer as before. After the same manner, also, offer wine to Janus and offer wine to Jupiter, as was directed before for the offering of the cakes, and the consecration of the cake. Afterwards offer entrails and wine to Ceres [Cato, On Agriculture].”
Fittingly, this old Roman God of doorways and beginnings is associated with January (for the month is named after him) and the new year, as well as – according to Macrobius – the kalends, the start of the new month (in the notes to Ovid’s Fasti, as published by Penguin, at 167).

The ancient origins of Janus
Ancient "Janus" figure, Boa Island, United Kingdom
Both classical and contemporary intellectuals agree that Janus is an extremely ancient God. Of him Boyle and Woodard (of the University of Southern California) write:
“The sacrally more conservative Romans have preserved an Indo-European deity who has disappeared from the Greek pantheon. Janus (Latin Ianus), the God of beginnings and entrances, bears a name linked to the word for ‘archway’ (ianus) and ‘gate’ (ianua) – all derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *ei, ‘to go’ … Dumezil has seen in Janus a Roman vestige of the Indo-European ‘first Gods’ – deities who are the first to be invoked in a ritual … He has further argued for particular similarities between Janus and the Scandinavian God Heimdallr … [in the notes to Ovid’s Fasti, as published by Penguin, at 168].”
Ovid has Janus saying:
“The ancients (since I’m a primitive thing) called me Chaos. Watch me sing events long ago. This lucent air and the other three elements, fire, water and earth, were a single heap. Once the dissension of its matter had split the mass, which departed in fragments for new homes, flame headed for the heights, and next place took the air, earth and the ocean settled in mid-ground. Then I, who had been a ball and faceless hulk, got the looks and limbs proper to a God. Now, as a small token of my once confused shape, my front and back appear identical … Whatever you see around, sky, ocean, clouds, earth, they are all closed and opened by my hand. The world’s safekeeping belongs to me alone; only I have the right to turn its hinge … I sit at heaven’s doors with the gentle hours: Jupiter goes and comes through my office. Hence I am called Janus [Ovid, Fasti, 1 January].”
By tradition it is said that in an ancient and more blessed age Janus ruled the land that in a later (less salubrious) age would become Rome:
“I myself inhabited the land whose left bank is scoured by sandy Tiber’s tranquil wave. Here, where Rome exists now, an unfelled forest greened, Today’s greatness was pasture for some cows. My stronghold was the hill, which this age commonly calls the “Janiculum” after my name. I reigned at the time when … human places were crammed with deities … I watched peace and doorposts. These,’ he said, showing his keys, ‘are my weapons’ [Ovid, Fasti, 1 January].”
Within a century or so of the founding of the city of Rome a temple to Janus is said to have been established – and thereby a doorway to peace and rule of law:
“After receiving supreme power … Numa [a pious early king of Rome] determined that Rome, which had originally been established through force of arms, should be re-established through justice, law and proper observances. But her inhabitants could not be accustomed to such a change, he realised, if they were forever at war, which brutalises the soul. To soften the bellicose temper of the people by inducing them to give up arms, he made the temple of Janus … an indicator of peace and war: when open, it signified that the state was in arms; when closed, that all surrounding peoples were at peace [Livy, The Rise of Rome at 24].”
Janus as a God of harmony
The extracts immediately above make it clear that Janus is not only the animistic spirit of doorways and beginnings, but something deeper. It seems clear that he is a divine gateway to the kind of life that makes people happy. As a gateway God he is naturally associated with all (Roman) Gods, but the Romans associated him in particular with social harmony (Concordia), good health, safety and well being (Salus), and peace (Araque Pacis) – these deities were worshipped in conjunction with Janus on 30 March (Ovid, Fasti).  Plutarch tells us that Janus is “a patron of civil and social order” and Horace makes the nature of Janus clear when he calls him not only the beloved “father of the morning” (Satire VI) but also “Janus the guardian of peace” (Epistle I). Ironically, his temple doors were called the “gates of war; for the temple [of Janus] always stands open in time of war, but is closed when peace has come” (Plutarch). Ovid explains the reason for this practice in a manner that highlights Janus’ peace-loving and benevolent disposition:
“[Ovid asks Janus] ’Why do you hide during peace and open when arms stir?’ No delay, he gives the reason I sought: ‘My doorway remains clear and is unbolted so warring people have a clear way back. In peacetime I lock the doors so peace must stay’ [Ovid, Fasti, 1 January].”

Scene depicting Janus worship from HBO's TV series Rome
The origins of Janus are shrouded in prehistoric antiquity. Of all the Roman Gods Janus is perhaps the most primordial, as befits the God of beginnings. As a primeval God he naturally has associations with Saturn, an ancient God of fertility associated with a golden age of mankind – a period of simple piety (not in the dour Christian sense but rather the joyful Pagan meaning of the word), peace and plenty. These are the things which are also, to a degree, associated with Janus  the mythological king of Latium in a better age, when Janus gave Saturn sanctuary after he sailed in a ship to the site that would be Rome (as he sought to hide from Jupiter). Remembering him in this way introduces an element of nostalgia in the worship of Janus, or better still spiritual aspiration; when we invoke the name of the two-headed God there is an evocation of a better way to live, a better path to choose; he is the doorway from the profane to the divine* and to a better version of ourselves, and indeed a better version of society.

* In this sense Janus reminds us of the torii (Shinto gates which demarcate sacred space as opposed to ordinary space) and the Buddhist/Hindu torana (the gateway which marks the entrance to sacred space).

Cato, On
Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, Oxford World's Classics
Horace, The Works of
Livy, The Rise of RomeOxford World's Classics
Ovid, Fasti, Penguin Classics
Plutarch, The Life of

Written by M. Sentia Figula.