The first of January was dedicated by the Romans to their God of Gates and Doors, Janus. A very old Italian God, Janus has a distinctive artistic appearance in that he is commonly depicted with two faces…one regarding what is behind and the other looking toward what lies ahead. Thus, Janus is representative of contemplation on the happenings of an old year while looking forward to the new. Some sources claim that Janus was characterized in such a peculiar fashion due to the notion that doors and gates look in two directions. Therefore, the God could look both backward and forward at the same time. Originally, Janus was portrayed with one bearded face and the other clean-shaven, which may have symbolized the moon and the sun, or age and youth. Later, he is most often shown with beards on both faces and frequently holds a key in his right hand. Very early statues of Janus (around the Second Century B.C.) depict him with four faces.
In his role as the Guardian of Exits and Entrances, Janus was also believed to represent beginnings. The explanation for this belief being that one must emerge through a door or gate in order to enter into a new place. Therefore, the Romans also considered Janus as the God of Beginnings and his name was an obvious choice for the first month of their year…a month referred to by the Ancient Romans as Ianuarius, which is not so far removed from the modern-day “January,” taken from the Etruscan word jauna which means “door.” Originally, however, Janus was honored on the first day of every month, in addition to being worshipped at the beginning of planting season and again at the harvest. Deference was also paid to him at the most important beginnings in the life of an individual…such as birth and marriage.
The origins of this God vary somewhat, dependent upon the source. One legend states that Janus was a mortal who came from Thessaly and was welcomed into Latium by Camese. The couple are said to have married, shared the kingdom and had many children together, including Tiberinus, the Tiber River-God. Upon the death of Camese, Janus became the sole ruler and granted Saturn sanctuary when that ancient God was fleeing from Jupiter. As the first King of Latium, Janus ensured a time of peace, honesty and abundance for his people…an era known as the Golden Age. He introduced money, cultivation of the fields and laws. He is also said to have later married a nymph named Juturna, whose spring and shrine were located closed to his temple in the Forum of Rome. One of their children was Fons (also known as Fontus), God of Springs. It was only after his death that Janus was deified and became the Protector of the City.
In Rome, temples dedicated to Janus were numerous, the most important being known as the Ianus Geminus, a double-gated structure (one door facing the rising sun and the other, the setting sun) found on the Forum Romanum through which the Roman legionaries marched off to battle. This particular temple served a symbolic function. When the gates of the temple were closed, this represented peace within the Roman Empire. When the gates were open, it meant that Rome was at war. Between the reigns of Numa and Augustus, the gates were shut only once. Janus also had a temple on the Forum Olitorium and some time during the First Century, yet another temple was built in his honor on the Forum of Nerva. This particular temple had four portals known as the Ianus Quadrifons. At all temples, the priests of Janus sacrificed to him on a regular basis.
Janus was well-respected and highly-regarded as a God by the ancient Romans and his dual-faced image could be found on most city gates and many Roman coins. Given his role as Guardian of Gates, his position as the God of Beginnings and the esteem of having the first month of the year named in his honor, it is apparent that Janus played a significant role in Roman myth and religion. He was invoked at the start of each new day and often referred to as the Porter of Heaven. He particularly presided over all that is double-edged in life and represented the transition between the primitive and civilization.
There are few legendary tales to be found which feature Janus, although his extra eyes did, on one occasion, enable him to catch a nymph named Carna, who liked to tease her suitors with sexual advances before suddenly taking flight. Their son later became King of a city known as Alba Longa.
Janus has no counterpart in the mythology of the Greeks.