In Roman mythology, Janus is an unusual deity for he was a mortal man before he became a God. The story begins with Saturn, a god of agriculture that was associated with great power on earth. Saturn ruled from Capitoline Hill until he was usurped by his son Jupiter who then took his place as the King of the Gods.
Fleeing from the wrath of his own son, Saturn sought refuge in Latium. Janus was the name of the King of Latium. The first month of the year, January, is named after him. According to ancient Roman farmers’ almanacs, Juno was often mistaken as the tutelary deity of the month of January. Juno, however, is the tutelary deity of the month of June.
Janus welcomed Saturn with open arms. In exchange, Saturn made Latium successful in agriculture–especially when it came to viticulture: the production of grapes. In return, Janus gave Saturn half his kingdom and the duo ruled together peacefully.
Latium was blessed with great prosperity under their joint rule. It became a true golden age that saw the city of Rome become the centre of the Roman Empire. As a reward, the once mortal Janus, became the God of the Gates and the God that connected people with all the other deities of the Roman pantheon.
Janus is the Roman God of beginnings. The symbols and metaphors associated with him are many: from gates, to time, to passages to journeys as well as endings. Generally speaking, Janus is the God of Transitions. He is depicted as having two faces: one looking forward to the future and one looking back to the past. He is particularly important to travel-related matters such as trade and shopping and is especially associated with Portunus: the God of Harbours.
Janus was the one who was believed to protect over the beginning of all activities. He ushered and inaugurated the seasons and the first day of each month was sacred to him. Over time, he became so important to the Romans that they built five separate shrines in the city of Rome alone. All the shrines were built near crossings of rivers or watercourses.
Janus was worshipped at the beginnings of the harvest and planting times, as well as at marriages, deaths and other beginnings… and endings.
The winter solstice was thought to occur on 25 December. The six days after what we now call Christmas–New Year’s Day–was consecrated to Janus. The Romans believed that the beginning of anything was an omen for the whole.
In line with this belief, it was customary to exchange cheerful words of good wishes. This was expressed by exchanging dates, figs and honey as a token of well wishing. Gifts of coins known as strenae were also made. Cakes made of spelt and salt were offered to the god and burnt on the altar.