The Agonalia Ianuarias: Appeasing Janus

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Arch of Janus in Rome

Janus was the god of both physical and metaphysical thresholds and gateways-bmaking him the perfect god of the New Year. Image by Almare

With one head looking backwards and the other to the front, dual-headed Janus guarded thresholds, beginnings and endings and acted as an intermediary between gods and mortals.

These attributes made Janus the perfect god of the Roman new year. The first day of January was sacred to him. But so was the 9th of the month, when the Romans celebrated the Agonalia Ianuarias in his honour.

 What was the Agonalia?

Janus was one of only a few deities honored with an agonalia during the Roman calendar. On these occasions, the rex sacrorum, the ‘King for Sacred Rites,’ sacrificed a ram at the Regia at the east end of the forum Romanum.

The exact meaning of the ritual has lost its exact meaning, but it is linked in some capacity to this central sacrifice. Ovid suggested that the name derives from either the act of driving the ram to the sacrifice (agantur) or from the sacrifice itself, since the Latin for beast is agonia. Festus lends weight to this explanation when he also describes agonia as the ancient term for sacrifice.

Why was Janus accorded this honor? Ovid gives a clue when he describes the Agonalia Ianuarias as the day when ‘Janus was placated.’


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To understand this further, it is worth considering the god’s attributes and associations.

‘God of Gods’

The Romans portrayed Janus as a bearded dual-headed god, bearing a staff in his right hand and keys in his left. Ovid’s Fasti describes him as formed from chaos at the beginnings of time. As indicated by this description, he was one of the oldest gods. The Carmen Saliare named Janus ‘god of gods’ – an indication of his antiquity.

The God of Beginnings and Endings

Varro credited Janus as “the Opener… The Doorkeeper… the Good Creator, the Good God of Beginnings.” In this capacity, he was the initiator. The first day of every month, the kalends, was sacred to him. He was the god of the dawn of the new day and aided in conception, along with the goddess Juno.

But Janus was also responsible for endings– and to keep things at bay. ‘Only I have the right to turn the hinge,’ he declares in Ovid’s ‘Fasti.’ It was customary in times of complete peace to close his original temple in the Roman forum, as a way of containing and preserving the situation by barring war passage across his threshold.

The God of Thresholds

Janus’s name derives from this function of ianua or opening. On the physical level, this made him the god of all boundaries, including thresholds, gates and doors. His original sanctuary on the Janiculum Hill was originally on the threshold of Rome itself, making him the gatekeeper of Rome.

But Janus’s boundaries went beyond the physical. He describes himself to Ovid as the janitor of the celestial court– a way of describing his role as a boundary between gods and mortals. If a worshipper won his favour, all the other gods were available to them. Displease Janus, however, and the doorway was firmly shut. For this reason, the Romans named him first in prayers and Janus received the first offerings of wine and incense in rituals.

January – The Month of Janus

January, named after Janus, was his month. Originally, it was the boundary between two political years, the time one set of consuls stood down and the new ones for the year took up office.

This changed with the reorganisation of the calendar under Caesar. January replaced March as the official first month of the year, making Janus god of the New Year.

God of the New Year

2nd century relief depicting preparation of a sacrifice

The sacrifice to Janus on the Agonalia was designed to placate the god and ensure a happy New Year. Image by Jastrow

It was only fitting that the god of physical and metaphysical thresholds, beginnings and endings guarded the threshold between years.

‘Janus proclaims a happy year’ states Ovid in Fasti I, 63. But this optimistic hope was only appropriate if Janus’s control of celestial good luck was born in mind. So the Romans were careful how they began this particular new month and year. No harsh words or lawsuits were permitted at the first day of the year.

Beginnings contain omens,’ Janus warned Ovid, and so the Romans marked the New Year with gifts of dates, figs and honey, to flavor the year ahead with sweetness. And on the 9th, just to be certain, the Romans offered Janus sacrificial sweeteners of his own.

 

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© Copyright 2015 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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