We’re in that strange limbo-lull now between the celebrations of the twenty-fifth and the New Year, and thoughts are naturally turning to ends and beginnings, looking back, and looking forward…
As we count-down to 2012, I’ll be doing my own share of looking back and forward here at the Nook, and, to set us off on the right foot, what better name to profile for this transitory time than the name of the God who epitomizes it like no other?
The Roman God, Janus.
Pronounced “JAY-nǝs” by some, “JAH-nǝs” by others, Janus is familiar to many as the God with two heads, one facing back over the Old Year, and the other looking ahead to the new.
Although many Pagans, particularly Wiccans and those who embrace Celtc Paganism consider Samhain to mark the transition point between years, the New Year has been celebrated at this time since the days of Pagan Rome — long before Christianity.
So significant was Janus that when the Roman year was extended to twelve months, the first of the newly created months, January, was named after Janus.
But his worship was not limited just to this time. As a God of the end and beginning of ventures, he was invoked not just at the start of a new year, or even the start of every month, but at the start of every single day, and every and any new venture.
He also presided over points of transition, including doorways.
Although there is some question marks over the ultimate source of his name, it is connected with the Roman word for a door — ianua — and identical with ianus “covered passage”; and the most likely source, in my opinion, is a derivation with the same root which gives the verb eo, ire “to go.”
Also related to Janus is the name as well as the month of January, the Anglicized form of Januarius, a name used in the later Roman Empire and borne by more than one saint — most famously the patron saint of Naples.
January’s use as a girl’s name (such as the actress January Jones) represents a simple adoption of the name of the month.
There is also Jana, which, while in most modern usage represents an elaboration of plain Jane, was actually the name of a Roman Goddess, who was essentially the female counterpart of Janus. She particularly protected doors and passageways.
Pagan Romans celebrated January 1st by exchanging simple gifts called strenae “omens,” such as nuts, honey, figs and coins. There was even another deity, the Goddess Strenia, who presided simply over these New Year gifts!
The thought behind them was that it was held important that a new begininng had an auspicious start, and giving gifts of this kind was a good omen. In the same spirit, it was customary — just as it is today — to wish people well for the coming year.
A rather nice Pagan Roman custom associated with the New Year involved the hammering in of a nail into the door of the temple of Nortia at Volsinii. Nortia was an Etruscan Goddess, who was absorbed into the Roman pantheon, and the nail symbolized that the events of the past year were now fixed and immutable.
As a given name, Janus is found from the eighteenth century, though in many cases, it probably represents an adoption of the identical-looking English surname, which actually derives from John, with Janus representing a medieval Latin form of the name; King John II of Cyprus (1375-1432) is also known as King Janus.
But most people will always identify the name Janus with the Roman God, and it’s a true rarity these days. Less than three boys in Britain, and five in America — if any in either nation at all — received the name in 2010.
What more perfect a name could there be for a baby boy born around the New Year?