Janus: The God of Beginning

January is all about new beginnings and I, among others, have beat the goals and resolutions drum loudly and with gusto. But, have you ever thought about where the word January comes from?

Until recently neither did I. That was, until I ran across an article about Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings. Seeing as history holds it’s own special magic, today we will explore the history of how January got it’s name.

Both Rome and Greece both celebrated many gods, each with a very specific purpose. The majority of these gods were shared between the two cultures, each with their own specific name. The Roman Jupiter is the Greek Zeus and stands and the King of the gods. Neptune is Poseidon and is the god of the sea. Venus is Aphrodite and is the goddess of love and beauty.

Janus, in contrast, is purely Roman with no Greek equivalent and is the only god with that distinction. In ancient history, Janus was the god of beginnings and endings and presided over entrances and exits. To represent this role, his is often depicted as a two-faced god, or a god who can look in both directions.

Bearded Janus at the Vatican Museum
By Fubar Obfusco – Foto taken himself, upload to English wikipedia by Fubar Obfusco, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=177247

Unlike other Roman gods, there is evidence that Janus actually lived. One of the myths declares that he ruled alongside the Roman king Camesus and was exiled to Thessaly. His children included Tiberinus, which is where the name of the Tiber river originates. He built a city on the west bank of the Tiber named Janiculum.

Shrines to Janus are generally located near river crossings or bridges and are themselves passageways to enter and exit places of reknown, the most important of these being the shrine near the Argeletum entrance to the Forum. This shrine had bronze doors which were kept open in times of war, and closed in times of peace.

Arch of Janus, Forum Boarium, Rome
Located on the Tevere river
Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons – artist unknown

According to Roman historian Livy, these gates were only closed twice between the 7th and 1st centuries BCE due to the Roman tendency to always be at war.

Many modern day sources will attribute Janus in the naming of January. To my surprise, I found this isn’t technically true. There is an older attribution to Juno, the queen of the gods. While it makes sense to honor her in this way, I will hold with modern sources that persist in tying January to Janus.

January marks both the end of an old year, and the beginning of a new one. It is the doorway marking the entrance of the earth into another cycle around the sun. Janus is the guardian of the same. It simply fits better.

Sources:

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“Always the Journey” podcast

Last week I joined Jason Woodland on his podcast “Always the Journey.” We had a great time talking about everything from favorite movies, to the influences of travel, to the color that represents my work. Be sure to check it out!

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