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Janus: the Roman god who looks both ways

Janus, the god of gateways and doorways, was a purely Roman invention. It is often thought that the Romans took their mythology lock, stock and barrel from the Greeks, simply changing the names of the Greek gods and heroes into Roman equivalents. To a large extent that is true, but not completely so. The Romans did have a few gods that were their own invention, and Janus is one of them.


Janus was the god of gateways and doorways. He had a temple in the Roman Forum that was believed to date from the times of the Roman kings, thus proving that the cult of Janus was far older than the absorption of Greece by the expanding Roman Empire. Indeed, Janus appears to have been Rome’s chief deity in ancient times.


The temple was a square building with a flat roof and doors on two opposite sides, and was therefore more like a gatehouse than a temple. The custom was for the doors to be always open at times of war but closed during the rare intervals of peace. The legend that supported this practice was that, during Rome’s war with the Sabines, a stream of water gushed out of the temple and swept away the invaders. 


However, it was also regarded as good form not to close one’s doors when a family member was away from home, so the temple gates stayed open in order that Janus could welcome soldiers home when they returned from battle. 


Janus is always portrayed as having two faces, one looking forwards and the other backwards, which is why the month of January was named after him. 


Janus and Cranae


The story of Janus and Cranae shows how useful it is to be able to look both ways at the same time. Cranae was a nymph who was determined to preserve her virginity. Her trick when any pursuer tried to catch her was to send him ahead into a dark cave, with the promise that she would follow, only to escape as soon as the suitor’s back was turned.


Of course, this did not work with Janus, who had, in effect, eyes in the back of his head. Having seen where Cranae hid, Janus was soon able to catch and have his wicked way with her.


However, Janus did not abandon his “prize” but instead turned her into a goddess, named Carna, whose special responsibility was for door hinges. She also had the job of protecting sleeping infants from vampires.


Janus rather fell from favour during later classical times, with the imported Greek gods taking over. However, it remained the custom for prayers to the gods to begin with naming Janus, so he was never entirely forgotten. Given that only one other month is named after a Roman god (Mars/March) the name of Janus is remembered every year down to the present day!



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