Sunday 1 January 2012

Two-faced b**t**d

There is an irresistible subject for any History Girl whose blog-posting date is 1st January: Janus. He was a Roman god but not one of the Olympians borrowed from the Greeks and re-named. No, Janus was more of down-and-dirty street god, with no high-falutin' powers or exciting sexual history.

He was the embodiment of a single idea and an idea that is so much a part of our everyday life that we rarely think of it as in any way needing a divine presence. Janus is the god of beginnings.

But he is also the god of gateways and therefore one who looks backwards as well as forwards: hence the two faces. So a god of endings too.

The annual desire to "ring out the Old Year and ring in the New" with parties, more or less alcohol, traditions involving lumps of coal or whatever, are just up Janus's street. Particularly since they are followed by possible hangovers and that other custom of New Year's resolutions. We are looking forwards in the light of what has gone before. "This year I shall lose weight/drink less/be nicer to X, get a two-book deal" or whatever it is can be the triumph of hope over experience.

Every year the image of the old year as a skeleton with a scythe is replaced by a fat gurgling baby. But 2011 was a baby on January 1st last year and rapidly turned into a more skeletally terrifying year than many of us can remember before.

But I bet that's what people felt in Europe as 1348 turned into 1349. And they didn't get much comfort from their new year either.

Still,  I am resolutely a glass half full kind of History Girl so am not going to have any truck with that gloomy view. Even without the Black Death, the people of mid-14th century Europe had so much shorter a life expectancy than we do and so much more brutal a life while they were on this earth that it really does make our own financial and climatic disasters more bearable to contemplate.

"In my end is my beginning," was the motto Mary Queen of Scots embroidered on a cloth while she was in prison awaiting her execution. "In my beginning is my end," echoed T.S.Eliot more pessimistically in East Coker (though he turned it back into the more positive version in the last line).

"The way up and the way down are the same" was one of Heracleitus' apercus, along with the one about not stepping into the same river twice. I think he would have been quite keen on Janus if he had known about him.

I found these interesting facts about Janus on a site called: Livius, which tells me that he was very ancient indeed and the "gods' god."

"Janus also has a temple at Rome with double doors, which they call the gates of war; for the temple always stands open in time of war, but is closed when peace has come. The latter was a difficult matter, and it rarely happened, since the realm was always engaged in some war, as its increasing size brought it into collision with the barbarous nations which encompassed it round about. But in the time of Augustus it was closed, after he had overthrown Marc Antony; and before that, when Marcus Atilius and Titus Manlius were consuls, it was closed a short time; then war broke out again at once, and it was opened."
[Plutarch, Life of king Numa 20.1-2
tr.Bernadotte Perrin]
Even Vergil had a view about these gates:
"The terrible iron-constricted Gates of War shall shut; and safe within them shall stay the godless and ghastly Lust of Blood, propped on his pitiless piled armory, and still roaring from gory mouth, but held fast by a hundred chains of bronze knotted behind his back."
[Virgil, Aeneid, 1.293-296]
Tr. W.F. Jackson Knight
This is the arch of Janus Quadrifrons in Rome, which means four-faced. His usual two aspects are "bifrons", which means two-faced and signifies virility, according to the Livius site. I shall NOT comment on the connection between masculine behaviour and two-facedness. But the four-faced version is for death and destruction. Probably. Or it just refers to the architectural construction of the arch, with four lots of vaulting. Whatever, Janus is certainly the god of doorways, gates and possibly bridges too, which are all two-way entities.

I always see the year as a circle, with December/January down at the bottom - probably a leftover from Infant School iconography. But that encourages the view of the cyclical nature of seasons, life, the universe and everything. And it brings me to Fortune's Wheel. Fortuna, the Roman goddess, originally held a cornucopia, I discovered last week; the Wheel so familiar to us from Tarot packs and the cover of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, was a 16th century invention.

So, the imagery comes and goes, like the year. Happy 1st of Janus's month and a very good New Year to all our History Girls followers.

We have a strong Viking theme coming up with Guest posters including Kevin Crossley-Holland. And watch out for May when we will have the amazing Hilary Mantel.

Meanwhile I hope the temple gates stay firmly shut and peace is given a chance in 2012.


Caroline Lawrence said...

Snap, Mary! I posted about Janus, too, over at one of my other blogs. ( This is a great post and I loved the quote from T.S. Eliot, "In my beginning is my end," which accords perfectly with the Roman custom of making New Year's Day a kind of first-fruits for the year to come by starting as you mean to go on! Happy New Year!

H.M. Castor said...

Thank you for a lovely read this 1st January morning, and Happy New Year to you, Mary, and to all in our History Girls community - readers and bloggers alike. Being someone who doesn't party on New Year's Eve, it seems something of a non-event on the calendar as it approaches, yet every time - despite my scepticism - I find that the significance of the gateway asserts itself... Reading this post has been a perfect way to muse on this, this morning. And I'm interested in your personal image of a circular year with Dec/Jan at the bottom - it has made me realise that I see the year as a diagonal slide from left to right, with January at the top, December at the bottom, and a curious adjustment at New Year which makes the lowest point become the new summit!

adele said...

Snap, Harriet. I have the exact same picture of the year as you do! And start up at the top again today, sliding inexorably downhill though not I hope in any worrying sense.
This is a super post, Mary! Ta, and happy new year to you and all the History girls and our followers too.

Unknown said...

Great read!

By the way, I won a competition last month but the prize hasn't arrived - do you know when they'll be sent out?

Leslie Wilson said...

Happy New Year to everyone! It was very interesting to see the temple in Rome - and reinforces the sense I've had in Rome, of tremendous antiquity that makes all our monuments except Stonehenge seem like things newly made..
I see December just in front of January, at the apex of a slant from August, which is the end of a horizontal line comprising June-August. From January to June the year goes straight down, perpendicularly. How odd that we see these things so visually! Does anyone else see numbers as gendered? I do. 1, 2, 4,5,7 and 8 are masculine, 3,6, and 9 are feminine..

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Well, I party,Harriet! Yes, that's why, at 10.45 pm,I've just got around to reading today's lovely blog - but I did it with a clear head and enjoyed being reminded of the arch of Janus in Rome.
Re Uniquegirl - did you win a copy of my Run Rabbit Run? I sent emails to both winners but only one replied with her address.
Here's wishing you all a Happy, Healthy and Successful New Year

Mary Hoffman said...

Sorry, Uniquegirl. I've only just got back from being away for New Year. I have checked my files and reminded the author of your book and she will be in touch. Thank you for being patient.

Stroppy Author said...

I see the year as a circle, too, with Dec/Jan at the bottom. It all starts to go uphill again when the shortest day is passed. In theory!

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