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The Roman two-faced god of transitions and the start of a new year.

Since the Romans “borrowed” large amounts Greek culture, it’s fun to find mythological traditions that are uniquely Roman. Janus is a Roman god with no Greek equivalent. He was created before the importation of the Greek pantheon and even before the foundation of Rome itself. Typically he is depicted as just a head with two faces looking in opposite directions. He’s the god of transitions, change, beginnings & endings, of doorways & gates, etc. He faces both the past and the future.

Originally spelled Ianus, since the letter “J” wasn’t added to the Western alphabet until after 1524 CE, janus meant “arched passage, doorway” in Latin. There were numerous jani (ceremonial gateways) built throughout Rome as superstitious freestanding structures for good luck and to bring about good beginnings.

The exact origin of Janus is unclear. There are theories that he was originally a sun god, as the sun would be the beginning of a new day, but this isn’t certain. What is better known is that he presided over beginnings and was invoked at the start of ceremonies. His being the gatekeeper to the gods meant you made an offering to him before reaching out to any of the other gods.

Janus in profile. Sometimes the faces are identical, but other times the one face is older & bearded while the other face is clean-shaven & younger.

Start All Over Again

Janus’s role as the god of transitions led to the month of January being named for him, as on January 1st we start not only a new day but a new month and a new year as well. The Romans believed that how something started was an indication of how it would go. An inauspicious start could prove disastrous to a new venture so it was important to make an offering to Janus.

So it became customary on January 1st to not only honor Janus, but to give gifts & well-wishes to other Romans. This could set the standard for the rest of the year. At the start of a new year it’s valuable to not just look back, but also to look forward to something new.