LLR Books

Professing Faith: New Year’s Day and the Roman god Janus

By Gregory Elder

Ah, another year has come and gone and a new one is upon us at last.
Wednesday was New Year’s Day in our calendar, the first day of January, as it was for the ancient Romans. In Roman law, the newly elected magistrates who presided over the Roman Republic took their one-year term of office up on Jan. 1, and to celebrate this, they offered sacrifices in the temples and sponsored expensive gladiatorial matches to placate the bored electorate.
It was on Jan. 1 that the murdered dictator Julius Caesar, who had reformed the older and very difficult Roman calendar, was declared to be a god. So New Year’s Day was not only a civic holiday but a pagan religious day as well.
Small wonder that the first Christians refused to respect the day at all and taught that the real new year began either on March 25, the date of the Annunciation to Mary, or around March 31, both being near to the approximate date of the spring equinox. Only in the sixth century A.D. did the popes begin to accept the older Jan. 1 as New Year’s Day, long after the political power of paganism had vanished, and even then it took centuries for Jan. 1 to be fully accepted as New Year’s Day in the medieval world.
For the first Christians, even the month of January was problematic for them to accept because the whole month following New Year’s Day was dedicated to the Roman god Janus, the lord of time and transitions. Janus was very highly regarded and revered in the Roman world.
On one level, Janus was a very odd divinity for the Romans. Unlike many Greek gods, he does not appear to have a Greek counterpart, and the Romans were quite proud of the belief that Janus was uniquely theirs. Scholars believe that he may have indeed have had a Greek origin in Thessaly, where he was known as a very minor god called Lanus. Scholars have also suggested that he may be a male form of the Greek goddess Diana, the goddess of the moon, or the Vedic Hindu god Vayu.
One Roman myth says that Janus traveled to Italy from Thessaly and married an Italian noblewoman named Camese, where they came to share a kingdom called Latium, on the river plain where Rome would later be founded. Their child was the god Tiberinus, who would become the patron god of the Tiber River, which ran through the heart of Rome.
When Camese died, Janus ruled Latium alone. There, he gave shelter to the deposed god Saturn, or the Greek Cronus, as the castrated older god fled his rebellious son Jupiter, or Zeus. Legend says Janus taught the early Roman settlers the arts of cultivation and the rule of law. With the founding of the city of Rome by legendary King Romulus, Janus became a protector of the city. Various myths describe events when he intervened to save the people of Rome in time of military disaster.
In actual Roman history, Janus was regarded as one of the supreme gods of Rome. His principal temple was the Forum Olitorium in the early days of Rome, and in later years a newer temple was erected called the Janus Quadrifons, a lavish temple with four doors.
In time of war, the gates of his temple were opened ritually to unleash his powers to aid Roman legions. In time of peace, his sacred doors were regularly closed, but for the Romans the absence of war was not a common event. His priests were among the highest ranked clergy in Rome, and they offered regular sacrifices to him in the temples. Obviously, the month January was sacred to him, which was originally the 11th month in the older Roman calendar.
Janus was depicted as a god with two faces, one facing the opposite direction as the other. He was invoked as the god of transitions, of motion, time and of changes. In some of his temples he was shown holding in his hands the number 360, representing the number of the days in the older Roman calendar, to show that he was lord of time.
Sacred to him was the sky, the sun and the moon, all of which are tied to the concept of the passage of time. Doorways were particularly sacred to him, clearly representing a moment of transition when the believer passed through the door. He was also invoked for aid at harvests, planting season and at deaths or weddings, again, all times of transition.
In point of fact, the ancient cult of Janus is still with us but just below the surface of our culture. Jan. 1 is still a sacred day and a national holiday across much of the world. We still follow the Roman custom, which was to greet one another with best wishes for New Year’s, the day sacred to Janus.
The Romans would exchange not only greetings but also gifts, including figs, dates, honey and coins. Cakes and salt offered on the altar were a common sacrifice in the temples. The Romans believed that if one met good fortune on Jan. 1, it was an omen of good fortune through the new year. So they would do a small amount of business on this day if they knew it was good for their fortunes and take no risks, so the new year would be a good one.
I am told by active investors in the stock market that as the Dow Jones average does in January so, too, the market will follow for the rest of the year, in the majority of years. I make no claim to the validity of this for your investments, but must note that in this at least, paganism seems to be alive and well on Wall Street.

Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is a professor of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. Write to him at Professing Faith, P.O. Box 8102, Redlands, CA 92375-1302, email him at askfathergregory@verizon.net or follow him on Twitter at Fatherelder.