In the course of research for a story I’m writing, I found that the Roman god Janus is a perfect allusion for my main character. Could you perhaps spare a little of your time to tell us a bit about Janus? What his place and role in the Roman pantheon was, what things made him happy/sad/angry, general personality traits he favoured, that sort of thing. Thanks in advance, Doctor-to-be!
Janus is the god of doorways, keys, beginnings and endings, change, and the New Year. He is always depicted with two faces, on the front and back of his head, so he can look through a door in both directions at once, and images of his faces could be set above either side of a doorway to invoke his protection. The month of January, the beginning of the year, is named after him, and his name is related to the Latin word for door, ianua. It’s not clear where he comes from, or whether he represents a standard Indo-European mythological archetype, but he seems to have been a very ancient Italian god whose role in the pantheon may once have been extremely important, though most of his functions are vestigial by the time of the late Republic. Janus does not seem to have been widely worshipped in the historical period; we only have one securely identified temple to Janus, at Rome (the so-called Temple of Janus at Autun is not identified by any literary or archaeological evidence), but it’s quite an important one. The gates of the temple were only closed when Rome was not at war – something that supposedly happened only half a dozen times in all of Roman history. In the Aeneid, Virgil describes the spirit of Civil War being chained up in the Temple of Janus by Augustus. In a sense, you could call Janus the jailer of War.
Janus doesn’t really have any stories associated with him in the way that a lot of the other Roman gods do, because he’s not part of the Greek pantheon and therefore not part of the Greek literary tradition – with a god like Jupiter, you can just say “well, that’s basically Zeus” and you immediately have centuries’ worth of Greek drama and poetry about him. Janus doesn’t get that. Our most important source for him is book 1 of Ovid’s Fasti, a sort of poetic calendar that describes the mythical origins of Rome’s numerous annual festivals through a series of imagined interviews with various gods. Some of this is probably based on Ovid’s research into ancient Italian folklore, and some of it he probably made up, but it’s what we’ve got.
When Ovid speaks to Janus, he says that he is an incarnation of primordial Chaos, shapelessness, which is why his front and back look the same. He claims to have power over all passageways throughout the universe, and the ability to restrict the comings and goings of peace and war alike, and it seems to be through him that mortals are able to contact the other gods. Janus tells Ovid that even Jupiter can enter and leave the heavens only with his permission, but at a later point in the interview he also seems to regard Juno as more powerful than him, so we should probably imagine that he can only overrule the greater gods in certain limited domains, like travel. In answer to several of Ovid’s questions about the Roman New Year celebrations, Janus says that it’s not a holiday because he doesn’t want a lazy start to set the tone for the whole year, that people give each other dates and figs to ensure that the year will be sweet, and cash to ensure that it will be prosperous (Janus talks about the growth of the Romans’ lust for wealth and luxury as their empire has become more powerful, but although he seems to disapprove, he’s content to change with the times). In short, he values strong, well-planned beginnings as foundations for future growth and progress. He says that he has been one of the gods of Rome since before Saturn was overthrown by Jupiter, and describes with some pride his role in repulsing a Sabine attack against Rome in ancient times – he opened the mouths of the cities’ fountains (openings being part of his divine role) and added sulphur to the reservoirs to create jets of boiling steam that barred the paths of the Sabine forces through the city (barring paths, again, being one of his functions). Finally, when Ovid asks about the significance of his temple gates, Janus explains that the gates must be left open in times of war so that Rome’s soldiers will have a way home, and closed in times of peace so that the spirit of peace will not escape.