Friday, December 23, 2016

January in Ancient Mythology, article in The Outlook 1907

January in Ancient Mythology, article in The Outlook 1907

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IF in the familiar names of our week-days we recall Scandinavian deities—-Wodin, Thor and Company—-so in the first month of the year we keep in memory a fragment of Roman mythology. For the ancient Latin deity Janus, who presided over the beginning of everything, has given his name to the first month of the year. Janus and Jana, a pair of ancient deities, were worshipped as the sun and moon. And as these luminaries map out our years into days and months, January, the month of Janus, fitly takes the first place in the calendar. Janus and Jana, again, are but other forms of Dianus and Diana which words contain the same root as dies, a day. So January, the month of Janus, fitly ushers in the days of the New Year. Janus in the old mythology was the porter of heaven, the "opener" and the "shutter." So the month of January closes the old year and opens the New. By a natural transition of thought the heavenly porter becomes the guardian deity of gates in general. And as every gate looks two ways, so the god Janus is two-headed, he is Janus Bifrons. Sometimes, indeed, he is represented as Janus Quadrifrons, that is, the four-headed, as presiding over the four seasons. The two-headed god standing at the parting of the ways looks back retrospectively over the year that is gone, and prophetically over the year that is coming. It is a time for a review of the past, and for new resolutions for the future.

The Roman Emperor Numa Pompilius erected a temple to Janus. Yet the building was not exactly a temple, but, as appropriate to the god of gates, simply a covered passage with a gate at each end. And the temple of Janus was shut in time of peace and open in time of war. The idea seems to have been that in the latter case the god had gone out to assist the Roman warriors, while in time of peace he was shut in that he might attend to the affairs of the city. After making him the heavenly porter and the guardian of earthly gates, the Romans refused to let Janus open and shut his own! He must be kept in or let out as required! They seem to have had no fear of his readiness to join in the fray, but realised that they must keep him on the spot when wanted to attend to the affairs of the city. Janus, in fact, was probably a sort of captive in the Roman Olympia. He had been the chief god of one of the tribes merged in the great Roman commonwealth: he was kept and made to work, as Ariel was by Prospero. In the long and strenuous course of Roman history the gates of Janus were mostly open, and the god employed in assisting the Roman armies. During the peaceful reign of their founder, Numa Pompilius, they remained shut, and they were closed for the third time by Augustus, B.C. 29.

Janus is the originator of the New Year's gift. For on New Year's Day, the principal festival of the god, the Romans gave presents to each other. These consisted of sweetmeats and a copper coin. On one side of the latter—-given for the sake of good omen—-was the double head of Janus, and on the other a ship. The latter was probably a symbol wishing good luck to the recipient. The coin of
Janus was the Roman New Year's card. Such a coin with the double head of the god may be seen in the British Museum. The old Roman year consisted of ten months, of which March was the first and December the last. But when Numa Pompilius reformed the calendar he added January and February, placing them after December. Afterwards January came to be the first month, exactly when seems uncertain. Nor was January the first month in this country till the reform of the calendar in 1752, when it was altered from the Julian to the Gregorian style. The year formerly began in March, a more natural division, perhaps, for then Nature has begun to revive in earnest.

The sun is coming back! Slowly, slowly, almost imperceptibly, yet surely! On December 21 the great luminary reached his southern turning point, his southern tropic. But during those dark days of December he seemed to stand still in his journey; that is why December 21 is known as the winter Solstice—Sol, the sun, is standing still. From December 18 to December 26 the time between sunrise and sunset reckoned in minutes was the same, viz. seven hours and forty-six minutes. But the advent of Janus—-once, indeed, worshipped as the sun—-makes the change due to the returning source of heat more apparent. The days are lengthening. In the early days of January each day averages a minute and a half longer than the preceding. By the end of the month the gain is three minutes a day. And as the day lengthens, so the cold strengthens. January is probably the coldest month of the year. In the Saxon calendar it was Wolfs-monat, that is Wolfs month, for the increasing cold brought the wolf into greater prominence. In the wolf-hunt our Saxon ancestors probably worked off the effect of the season's festivities. They were engaged in keeping the literal wolf from the door, as some of us are occupied to-day in barring the approach of the figurative animal.

The January garden is not without its flowers. The Christmas rose is still in the zenith of its beauty and may even linger on till its blossoms are kissed by the early bee in February. "At Christmas," says Biron in "Love's Labours Lost,"

At Christmas I no more desire a rose,
Than wish a snow in May's new-fangled shows.

Yet even Biron would probably have welcomed the Christmas rose, for it is not really a rose and is not out of season in the cold of January. This beautiful white flower is, in fact, a hellebore, akin to the green hellebore of the woods. The winter jasmine, again, on the old wall, clothes its leafless branches with gold, and the purple of the winter iris brightens up the border at its feet. The snowdrop, too—-"February fair maid"—will perhaps anticipate its usual coming and hang out its white bells over the January snow. And then there is the cheerful winter aconite, a true January flower. Its yellow buttercup-like blossoms, circled with their green frills of leaves, afford a welcome pasture for the earliest bees to venture forth from the winter seclusion of the hive. And perhaps towards the end of the month, if the weather is open, a stray blossom or two, probably the "cloth of gold," will herald the "ground flame of the crocus" to break out later, and hint at the coming "crocus purple hour."

On old Hyems' chin, and icy crown, 
An odorous chaplet of sweet buds 
Is set. 

In January the missel-thrush will take his stand on the top of some tall, leafless tree in yonder wood and pour forth his sweet wild notes. A Mark Tapley among birds, a little oasis of sunshine in the desert of wintry days is enough to call forth his cheerful strains. The prophetic song-thrush also may, perhaps, be heard reiterating with conviction,
Summer is coming, Summer is coming;
I know it, I know it, I know it.

And as you wander by the stream-side you may hear the cheerful strains of the dipper. Seated on a stone in midstream, washed by the frequent spray, his white breast gleams brightly in contrast with the dark plumage of the rest of his body, while he pours forth his greeting to the returning sun.

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