Janus, the Two-Faced God

Two-Faced Janus
This bust of Janus and his two faces is from the Roman Theatre in Verona, Italy. Photo Credit: Archivio J. Lange/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

In the mythology of ancient Rome, Janus was the god of new beginnings. He was associated with doors and gates, and the first steps of a journey. The month of January — of course, falling at the beginning of the new year — is believed to be named in his honor, although some scholars say it is in fact named for Juno.

Janus is often invoked together with Jupiter, and is considered a fairly high-ranking god in the Roman pantheon.

Although nearly all of the Roman gods had Greek counterparts — because there was significant religious and cultural overlap — Janus is unusual in that he had no Greek equivalent. It's possible that he evolved from an earlier Etruscan deity, but it is safe to say that Janus is uniquely Roman.

The God of Gates and Doors

In most portrayals, Janus is depicted as having two faces, looking in opposite directions. In one legend, Saturn bestows upon him the ability to see both the past and the future. In the early days of Rome, city founder Romulus and his men kidnapped the women of Sabine, and the men of Sabine attacked Rome in retaliation. The daughter of a city guard betrayed her fellow Romans and allowed the Sabines into the city. When they attempted to climb the Capitoline Hill, Janus made a hot spring erupt, forcing the Sabines to retreat.

In the city of Rome, a temple known as the Ianus geminus was erected in Janus' honor and consecrated in 260 b.c.e.

after the Battle of Mylae. During periods of war, the gates were left open and sacrifices were held inside, along with auguries to predict the results of military actions. It is said that the gates of the temple were only closed in times of peace, which didn't happen very often for the Romans. In fact, it was later claimed by Christian clerics that the gates of the Ianus geminus first closed at the moment that Jesus was born.

As a god of change, and the transition from past to present to future, Janus is sometimes considered a deity of time. In some areas, he was honored at periods of agricultural transition, specifically at the beginnings of the planting season and the reaping time. In addition, he might be called upon during periods of major life changes, such as at weddings and funerals, as well as births and the coming of age of young men.

In other words, he is the guardian of space and time between. In Fasti, Ovid wrote, "Omens are in the beginnings, You turn your fearful ears to the first sound and the augur decides on the grounds of the first bird he has seen. The doors of the temples are open as well as the ears of the gods...and the words have weight."

Because of his ability to see both back and forward, Janus is associated with powers of prophecy, in addition to gates and doors. He is sometimes connected with the sun and moon, in his aspect as a dual-headed god.

Donald Wasson at Ancient History Encyclopedia says there's a chance that Janus actually did exist, as an early Roman king who was later elevate to god status. He says that according to legend, Janus "ruled alongside an early Roman king named Camesus.

After Janus’ exile from Thessaly... he arrived in Rome with his wife Camise or Camasnea and children... Shortly after arriving, he built a city on the west bank of the Tiber named Janiculum. Following the death of Camesus, he ruled Latium peacefully for many years. He supposedly received Saturn when the god was driven from Greece. Upon his own death, Janus was deified."

Working With Janus in Ritual and Magic

There are a number of ways you can call upon Janus for assistance in magical workings and rituals. In his role as a keeper of doors and gates, consider asking for his assistance when you're embarking on a new journey, or holding a New Beginnings ritual. Because Janus also looks behind him, you can petition him for help in shedding the unnecessary baggage of the past, such as trying to eliminate a bad habit from your life.

If you're hoping to do some work with prophetic dreams or divination, you can call upon Janus for a hand — he's a god of prophecy, after all. But be careful — sometime he'll show you things you'll wish you hadn't learned.