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Janus – god with two faces

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Janus – god with two faces
Janus | Photo: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu

Two faces do not have good associations with us today. Especially in Polish, “two-facedness” comes dangerously close to “two-facedness” – a very disliked human trait. The old Roman god with two faces even has a dark place in popular culture – one of the criminal organizations that fill the James Bond spy universe was called Janus (“Goldeneye” 1995). A certain Batman antagonist also refers to Janus.

But does Janus really deserve to be associated with the world of villains?

Januarius, January, Janvier, Januar, gennaio, январь – in almost all European languages, the name of January comes from the name of the ancient Italian god Janus (Polish is a strange exception [“styczeń” – added by translator] :-)). Janus is an ancient deity. He was worshiped on the Tiber long before Rome became a power. Long before the Greek influence, the Roman pantheon was dominated by beautiful and – despite their powerful powers – very human gods. Farmers prayed to him at a time when Rome was just a collection of several dozen huts on the Palatine Hill, and the canonical “seven hills” were a place occupied by a pair of unrelated villages.

But even later, when the most important deities of Roman religion became the gods whom the Romans associated with their Greek counterparts – Zeus, Aphrodite, Hera, Athena, etc… – Janus, although hidden in their shadow, retained his great importance. Perhaps no great temples were built for him like those on the Capitoline Hill or on Velia, but sacrifices were made no less zealously until the very end, that is, until his cult lost out to that of a certain Nazarene.

The scope of Janus’ divine “competence” was very wide in Rome. It would probably be easier to point out what Janus did NOT protect than to describe what he actually was the patron of. It is usually said that he was the god of both beginning and end, but it is easy to see that such competence made him the guardian of almost everything that had a beginning or an end, for example:

  • the end of the year and the beginning of a new one,
  • doors and thresholds (because they meant entering and leaving the house, and at the same time the beginning and end of the journey),
  • a successful start of the war and its happy ending,

The Romans associated their Janus with Juturna – the goddess taking care of the spring in the Roman Forum, and Fons – the god of all springs. Why? Because every source is also the beginning of a life-giving river or at least a stream…

By identifying Janus with the beginning and end of every thing, every matter, every phenomenon, we are only one step away from associating him with the passage of time.

Such features of Janus influenced the way he was imagined: as a man with two faces turned in opposite directions – just as the end is the opposite of the beginning, and the past – the future. To further emphasize this, often one face is youthful and the other is of an old man. This may seem strange to us, after all, we are used to images of Greco-Roman gods taking on very human forms. But when you think about it, the image of Janus shouldn’t worry us. Let us recall the drawings in almost every newspaper just before New Year’s Eve and in the first days of January: the image of a bearded, hunched “old man” welcoming the coming “New Year” – most often personified by a small boy, often even an infant. This is, after all, an expression of exactly the same line of thinking that led the Romans to imagine Janus – a god with two faces. Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe it’s another proof that the ancient roots of our culture go much deeper than we tend to think :-).

I am always fascinated by the fact that despite our technology, space flights, super-fast computers, satellites that allow us to communicate with any place on Earth – at every step we encounter evidence that we are the heirs of the culture of Italian farmers who lived to the rhythm of sowing, for whom the favor of the deities was the most important. ancient deities with a disturbing appearance.

Author: Michał Kubicz - sekrety Rzymu (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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