Most of us, come January, feel an upsurge of spirit; there is the sense of a new beginning, a fresh opportunity not only to bring into fruition a little more of our hopes and dreams, but to rectify our old ways and forge ahead creatively into the future. Here before us lie 365 days, clean and white, on whose tablets we are free to inscribe what we will. The sun is now on our side, for already at the winter solstice it turned northward, assuring us that winter again will give way to spring.
What is so auspicious about this first month of the year? Januarius means "of or pertaining to Janus," but who was he? Even the Romans differed among themselves. We know that Janus was an ancient Latin divinity with two faces pointing in opposite directions, and that he stood for the "beginning and origin of all things" and was god of the year and of time. Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, is credited with having first introduced this dual-headed god to his people, though he was not publicly worshiped until the time of Numa (715-673 BC). A temple in honor of Janus was erected on the spot where the Sabines were alleged to have been miraculously destroyed by the sudden gushing up of a boiling spring. In time of war the gates to the temple were kept open in readiness, but during peace they were closed, Janus receiving the dual titles of Patulcius (Opener) and Clusius (Closer). More often he was the Opener, as the Romans were much at war, the gates being shut only three times during the first seven centuries after the city was founded.
Thus it was that Janus became the patron deity of all openings and closings, of entrances and exits, and hence the god of the door or gate that opened both ways. And that is how the first month of the year came to be called Januarius.
Most authorities say that Janus is derived from janua meaning "door," but a few, among them Sir James Frazer, suggest the reverse: that it may have been Janus in his function of Opener and Closer who bestowed his name on the lowly door. Whatever the facts, janua as a term came to signify a door or portal guarded by the two-headed god whose protective watch extended to all that was behind and in front of him. We ourselves symbolize the year's change with a dual portrayal: Father Time, a white-bearded old man, tired and worn, who gazes backwards into the past, while beside him stands a child or youth, buoyant with hope, looking expectantly into the future.
Janus seems to have had a rather colorful history, assuming a variety of roles with as many names attached to him. As Father of his people he became their guardian in practically every phase of their lives: of worship, shipping and commerce, the coining of money, and as Consivius (the Sower) the god of agriculture. But we know little of his antecedents as he has no counterpart in Greek mythology. The earliest known representations of a two-headed god are found on Etruscan medals, and it has been thought that Janus may originally have been a sky god and as such one of the "great celestial deities" who had rulership over the eastern sectors of the Etruscan "vault of heaven." Be that as it may, this ancient divinity must have undergone a series of transformations until, ascendant in Rome, we find him closely associated with Jupiter and Juno, and with Sol (the Sun) being invoked with Jupiter before all other gods.
In his role as "door-opener" or janitor, with "power over the entrance to heaven" according to Ovid, Janus Patulcius is depicted with a scepter or staff in his right hand, and in his left a key; in late times, the numerals CCC (300) were occasionally seen in the fingers of the right hand, with the remaining number of days LXV (65) in the left. Since much of Christian symbolism had its roots in the Mystery-religions that flourished so widely in and surrounding the Mediterranean basin, it is not too surprising to discover this old pagan god transmogrified into St. Peter, the celestial "door-keeper" who holds the keys to the Christian heaven.
It is not the many-faceted nature of Janus, however, that engages our immediate concern, but rather his quality of initiator and opener of all "beginnings" — which included also the "endings," as his guardianship was constant throughout. As Matutinus, the "morning god," Janus was invoked before anything of importance was begun. No enterprise, political, military, or religious, could be expected to end in success unless first sanctioned by him. That is why all gateways to the city were under his beneficent care; why his image was placed above the lintels of doorways; and why statues and temples were dedicated to him. If an undertaking fell through, it was believed the fault lay more "in the manner of its beginning" than in the project itself.
If we may credit the historians, the Romans were probably very much like ourselves, neither more nor less spiritual than we, and without doubt they themselves sowed the seeds of their ultimate fall during the heyday of their political glory. As far as their religious life was concerned, their gods seem to have been made in their image in much the same fashion as the Judeo-Christian God is made in our own. Yet even in their decadence the ancient Latins retained their veneration for nature. They recognized her divine as well as her material side, and saw in human beings the reflection of both. If they personified the gods of the celestial realms, they did so because they saw in the sun, stars, and planets "living beings" — as vital a part of the cosmos as we likewise are. Propitiation of the spirits of the moon and the wind, the rain and the clouds, may seem puerile to us, but this was an outgrowth of their Etruscan heritage and indeed a practice shared in common with the whole of antiquity. The time may not be so far distant when, in strictly scientific terminology, we may ourselves be guilty of like "superstitions"!
Their older neighbors, the Greeks, as Plato reminds us, always "called upon the gods" before any undertaking, small or great, and this even before they would think of discoursing on philosophic themes such as "the nature of the universe." Is this, after all, so very different from what we do, in churches and synagogues, temples and mosques? Or indeed, when in the privacy of our own soul we call upon the highest within us to give us strength and guidance?
The saving value of life is that no matter what you or I think about God or the gods or about ourselves, the divine process remains intact. So let us not scoff too quickly at the old Romans who became too dependent upon their gods. We still can learn from them, for many of their poets, senators, and philosophers had been "initiated" — which means had made a true "beginning" in the wisdom of the soul — in the outer court of the Mysteries which were functioning even at that late period in several centers throughout the Roman world. For the most part these ancient colleges had lost the luster of purity, but enough remained of their sacred ideals to act as a stimulus and guide for those who sought instruction. They were taught that at the heart of every human being is the "breath" of life or spiritus, and that when a man died his soul would indeed spend some time in an "underworld" of purification, but his "spirit" or divine "breath" would immediately "fly to the stars" — spiritus astra petit. So firmly did they believe this that many of them had those three words engraved as an epitaph on their tombs.
Why then did they elevate a dual-faced deity to so high a place in their pantheon and rely so heavily on his blessing, both in their private and public lives? We cannot know for certain, but a partial answer may lie in their close observation of nature's bipolarity, as seen in the rhythmic pattern of birth and death, day and night, light and darkness, as well as in her lunar and solar cycles. For Janus spoke to them of the continuum of life, of consciousness, of immortality and the miracle of self-renewal. In the immortal lines of the poet Francis Thompson,
For birth hath in itself the germ of death,
But death hath in itself the germ of birth.
It is the falling acorn buds the tree,
The falling rain that bears the greenery,
The fern-plants moulder when the ferns arise.
For there is nothing lives but something dies,
And there is nothing dies but something lives.
Till skies be fugitives,
Till Time, the hidden root of change, updries,
Are Birth and Death inseparable on earth;
For they are twain yet one, and Death is Birth. — Ode to the Setting Sun
We today must be our own Janus, our own initiator of growth, our own sower and reaper. We look to the year that is ending, not with regret for mistakes made but to garner its values. Our eyes now are on the future, at the open door of the year to come. Given the will, the vision, and the trust, there will not be an undertaking, no matter how difficult, but will have the blessing of our higher self, our own Opener and Closer, whose guardianship has been with us always, is with us now, and will be with us for all the eons of the future.
(From Sunrise magazine, December 2002/January 2003; copyright © 2002 Theosophical University Press)