31 December 2014

The Time of Janus is Upon Us

New yeare forth looking out of Janus gate,
Doth seeme to promise hope of new delight:
And bidding th’old Adieu, his pass'd date
Bids all old thoughts to die in dumpish spright
And calling forth out of sad Winters night,
Fresh love, that long hath slept in cheerlesse bower:
Wils him awake, and soone about him dight
His wanton wings and darts of deadly power.
 
  
To the ancient Romans, the dual faced God, Janus, was the God of beginnings and transitions, and as such, he was also perceived to be the God who ruled over gates and doors, doorways and passages, as well as also endings.  With one face looking back into the past, and the other into the future, it is little wonder that as we approach New Year's Eve, Janus can easily come to mind. 
 
As beginner of all things and all acts he would be offered to first in a ritual that called in a group of deities. Cicero wrote, "In all matters, beginnings and ends are the vital features. This is why they cite Janus first in the sacrifices." Janus says to Ovid in the Fasti that He is recited first in all prayers so that "through Me, the Doorkeeper, you may attain access to whatever Gods you please".
 
However, it is not just the ending and beginning of the calendars that Janus presided over.  As a God of Transitions, he also had functions pertaining to birth as well as to journeys and exchange.  With his association with Portunus (the God of keys, doors and livestock, who also protected grain warehouses), Janus was further connected with travel, trade and shipping.


For lusty spring now in his timely howre,
Is ready to come forth him to receive:
And warnes the Earth with divers colord flowre,
To decke hir selfe, and her faire mantle weave.
Then you faire flowre, in whom fresh youth doth raine,
Prepare your selfe new love to entertaine.
 
Temple of Janus (Janus Geminus)
The oldest temple in the Forum Holitorium in Rome was the Temple of Janus built in 260 BCE by Gaius Duilius, dedicated on 17th August (the Portunalia). But the most important shrine of Janus in Rome was the Temple of Janus Geminus, which was possibly a double bridge that brought the Sacra Via over the Cloaca to the Comitium. This structure had doors at each end, which could be closed. The temple's foundation is connected with Numa Pompilius and was associated with war and peace in Rome. When Rome was at peace the doors were shut, but when the Romans were at war the doors were left open so Janus could come to their aid if needed because during the war with Titus Tatius a flood of scalding water gushed forth from the temple pushing the enemy back.

When the basilica was built in 179 BCE the shrine was moved and apparently rebuilt not as a double bridge, but a smaller structure depicted on the back of some coins of Nero, shown with doors shut signifying peace.
 
The first day of January marked not only the first day of the new year but also of the month (kalends) of Janus.  As this first day was believed to have some degree of influence of the rest of the year, it became customary to exchange cheerful words of good wishes.  As such, a short time was devoted outside one's usual business to exchanged foodstuffs (in particularly dates, figs and honey) as a token of well wishing.  Cakes made from spelt and salt were offered to the God and burnt on the altar.  As Ovid recorded, this was not a day for no animal sacrifices.  He further noted that Romans preferred to actually work at least part of New Year’s Day, as idleness was seen as a bad omen for the rest of the year.

References:
Novaroma - Ianus
Wikipedia - Janus

Poem: Amoretti IV: "New year forth looking out of Janus Gate" by Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

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