Janus: The God of Endings and New Beginnings 

The God Who Had Two Faces

Janus and Bellona. Sculpture by Johann Wilhelm Beyer, 1773-80
Janus and Bellona. Sculpture by Johann Wilhelm Beyer, 1773-80

January, the first month of the year, was named after Janus, the Roman God of endings and new beginnings. According to Roman mythology, this deity was associated with doorways and passageways, entrances and exits. 

Janus was considered the gatekeeper of the heavens. He is usually represented as a bearded man with two faces, holding a staff in his right hand and a set of keys in his left one. It is said that the two faces would give Janus the capacity to look both into the past and into the future, both within and without. 

The staff in his right hand was used to guide travellers. The set of keys allowed him to open or close gates.

Psychological Meaning

Vatican Museums , CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Vatican Museums , CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

From a psychological point of view, we may say Janus represents transition and duality. For instance, a doorway can be both an entrance and an exit. Unless we train ourselves to seek integration, we tend to struggle with duality and its paradoxical nature so it can be useful to work with the symbolism of Janus as a way to make peace with humanity’s dual nature.

It is no coincidence we engage in deep reflection and come up with new resolutions around New Year’s eve. The archetype represented by Janus remains in our human psyche. Janus can offer us counsel and guidance by transforming his knowledge about the past and the future into something tangible in the present moment. 

The metaphor of the traveller is often used to represent our first-hand experience of what Joseph Campbell called the Hero Journey. Throughout that journey, which is Life itself, we must look both into the past and into the future without running away from what is. That’s the only way we’ll know which doors can be opened and with which keys.

Opening and Closing Doors

Augustus Closing the Temple of Janus, by Louis de Silvestre, 1757, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden © akg-images
Augustus Closing the Temple of Janus, by Louis de Silvestre, 1757, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden © akg-images

Besides being associated with change and transition, Janus is often represented as holding a set of keys. This makes him the gatekeeper or the one who can lead and provide access to different states of consciousness. 

When combined with Janus’ ability to look into the past and into the future, the decision to open or close doors can reveal someone’s level of consciousness and maturity. The ideal is to be able to master duality and understand the pros and cons. This is a skill we tend to develop over time and through a series of stages.

It is also important to note that Janus is strongly associated with rites of passage. In this sense, it is useful to work with the idea that sometimes we need to close a door before we open the next one. This is partially why many of us like to take time off to reflect when a year has come to an end, right before we welcome a new one.

Augustus Orders the Closing of the Doors of the Temple of Janus

Louis de Boullogne , Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Temple of Janus was built by the second King of Rome, Numa Pumpilius. It was located in the Forum of Ancient Rome and its doors were known as the Gates of Janus. The doors were closed when Rome was at peace and open in times of war. After years of civil war, Augustus ordered the closing of the gates as a sign of peace.

Working with the Archetype of Janus

Consciousness is where past and future meet

The Right Frame of Time 

Janus reminds us of the struggle of finding the right balance between looking into the past and into the future. While he has the capacity to look both ways without turning one way or the other, human beings tend to experience some sort of conflict when it comes to perceiving and experiencing time.

If we look too much into the past and remain there, we may find ourselves trapped in depression and anguish. If we look too much into the future, we may lose ourselves in fantasy and anxiety-provoking thoughts. What is the solution then? 

The solution is to embrace and remind ourselves of Janus and his capacity of looking both ways without leaving the present moment. This includes the practice of anchoring ourselves in the present through mindfulness. 

Mindfulness: a present-based state in which we become aware of our own thoughts, emotions, and actions, in a non-judgmental way

On top of learning secular mindfulness, it is useful to learn what in Buddhism is known as the noble eightfold path. This path is an extended overview of mindfulness and it adopts an attitude of balance and avoidance of extremes.

Accepting What Is

Another concept related to mindfulness is acceptance. Janus was the God of Time and Transitions. As the saying goes, the only constant in life is “change” but we don’t embrace it with ease all the time. Sometimes we resist and pointlessly fight what is. 

Working with the archetype of Janus is to work with the idea that change and transitions are part of life. It is to recognise and accept nature’s cycles and timing. Janus is often represented with a young and old face to represent the passage of time, maturity and wisdom.

Creating Rituals and Positive Momentum 

In Ancient Rome, Janus was invoked at the beginning of every ceremony or activity as a way to get “a good start” and positively influence the future.

The main festivities around Janus also gave way to our tradition of creating new year’s resolutions and celebrating the arrival of a new year. This is usually a time to reflect on what happened in the past year and set intentions for the upcoming one.

Journaling Prompts

  • How do you usually react and respond to change?
  • What doors are you closing? What doors are you opening?
  • What did you learn over the past month? What do you want to achieve in the next one?
  • Are you at war with your past? Or future?
  • What advice can your younger self give you? And your older self?
  • What contemplative practices can you engage with to integrate both present and future?
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