Janus looks to the New Year

Two-faced Janus (Ianus) is the Roman god of doorways, passages, and beginnings and endings. The first month of the year, Januarius, is named after him.

In ancient Rome, Janus was not only a god of beginnings and transitions, but was also associated with war and peace since the doors of his temple were only opened during war. On New Year Day, it was the Roman tradition to give the god honey, cakes, incense and wine to buy favourable signs and a guarantee of good luck. Gold brought better results than copper.

The poet Ovid asked Janus about his origin and the early benefits conferred by the god.

Janus said, “I reigned in days when gods moved freely in the abodes of men. The sin of mortals had not yet put Justice to flight (she was the last of the celestials to forsake the earth). Honour, not fear, ruled the people without appeal to force. I had nothing to do with war, guardian was I of peace and doorways.

“Whatever you see – sky, sea, clouds, earth – all things are closed and opened by my hand. The guardianship of this vast universe is in my hands alone, and none but I may rule the wheeling Pole.

“I sit at heaven’s gate with the gentle Hours; my office regulates the goings and the comings of Jupiter himself. Hence Janus is my name.

“Now learn the reason for my shape. Every door has two fronts: one faces the people and the other the house-god; and just as your human porter, seated at the threshold of the house-door, sees who goes out and in, so I, the porter of the heavenly court, behold at once both East and West.”

Ovid asked, “Why, Janus, when I placate other gods, do I bring incense and wine to you first?”

“So that you may gain entry to whatsoever gods you wish,” he replied, “through me, who guard the threshold.”

“But why are glad words spoken on your Kalends? And why do we give and receive best wishes?”

Then the god, leaning on the staff in his right hand, said, “Omens are wont to reside in beginnings. You train your anxious ears on the first call, and the augur interprets the first bird he sees. The temples and ears of gods are open, no tongue intones wasted prayers, and words have weight.”

“What do your dates and wrinkled figs mean, or the gift of honey in a snow-white jar?”

Said he, “So that the sweetness replicates events, and so that the year should be sweet, following the course of its beginnings.”

“But tell me the reason for the gift of cash, that I may be sure of every point in thy festival.”

The god laughed: “Wealth is more valued now than in the years of old, when the people were poor, when Rome was new, when a small hut sufficed to lodge Quirinus, son of Mars, and the river sedge supplied a scanty bedding. Jupiter had hardly room to stand upright in his cramped shrine, and in his right hand was a thunderbolt of clay. They decked with leaves the Capitol, which now they deck with gems, and the senator himself fed his own sheep. It was no shame then to take one’s peaceful rest on straw and to pillow the head on hay. The praetor put aside the plough to judge the people, and to own a light piece of silver plate was a crime.

“But ever since the Fortune of this place has raised her head on high, and Rome with her crest has touched the topmost gods, riches have grown and with them the frantic lust of wealth. They who have the most possessions still crave for more. They strive to gain that they may waste, and then to repair their wasted fortunes, and thus they feed their vices by ringing the changes on them.

“So he whose belly swells with dropsy, the more he drinks, the thirstier he grows. Nowadays nothing but money counts: fortune brings honours and friendships; the poor man everywhere lies low. And still you ask me, What is the use of omens drawn from cash, and why do ancient coppers tickle your palms!

“In the olden times the gifts were coppers, but now gold gives a better omen, and the old-fashioned coin has been vanquished and made way for the new.”

Ovid asked again: “But why hide in time of peace and open your gates when was is declared?”

“My fate, unbarred, stands open wide, that when the people hath gone forth to war, the road for their return may be open too. I bar the doors in time of peace, lest peace depart.”

– Ovid, Fasti Book 1, translated By James G. Frazer