Paula LaRocque: January/Janus | KERA News

Paula LaRocque: January/Janus

Jan 31, 2012

January’s usually the month for pointing ourselves in a new or better direction – which in turn prompted this commentary from Paula LaRocque.

Have you finished your New Year’s resolutions yet?  Don’t worry—there’s still time.  It’s January, the doorway to 2012, and that door is still open.

In fact, the word January comes from the name of the Roman god Janus, the doorkeeper.  A god of great antiquity, Janus supposedly watched over beginnings, endings, transitions, and change.  Hewas not only the god of doors, but also of entrances, exits, gates, and passages.

Because he symbolized transition and change, Janus was worshipped during planting and harvest as well as during birth, death, and marriages.  It’s natural that his name would be given to the first month of the year, and also that he would be connected to New Year’s resolutions, which herald some sort of change.  January, as the doorway to a new year, is as much a time of reflection and review as it is of looking forward and resolving to do better.  Janus symbolizes that reflection and resolve.

To help him mind his doors, Janus had two faces.  One looked forward and one looked back, allowing him to observe both future and past.  One of Janus’ symbols was a key—no surprise, given his jurisdiction over doors and gates.  But two other Janus symbols emphasized his “two-facedness”— the paired theatre masks representing comedy, laughter, and happiness on one hand, and tragedy and sadness on the other.

Janus is often referred to as the “two-headed” god,” but that’s inaccurate.  He didn’t have two heads; he had two faces—which, I’ll bet you’ll agree, was freaky enough.  And while Janus’ two-facedness was seen as positive in Roman antiquity, it later spawned certain negative terms.  One of those is the modern expression “Janus-like,” which means looking or acting in contradictory or even duplicitous ways.  I recently read in a political commentary, for example, that “Pakistan’s foreign policies have had a Janus-like quality.”

The term Janus-like gave rise to the even more pejorative two-faced—which evolved from the 14th century expression “two heads in one hood” to the 19th century’s “two faces under one hat.”  The term “two-faced” came to identify people you couldn’t trust—they not only spoke out of both sides of their mouths but out of different mouths altogether.

Having two faces might have been a good thing in Roman antiquity.  But in 2012?  Not so much.  It does leave us with a satisfying irony, though:  We make our New Year’s resolutions during the month that honors a two-faced god. No wonder that when it comes to resolutions, a lot of us can’t believe a word we say.

Paula LaRocque is an Arlington author and writing coach whose latest book, Chalk Line, is a mystery set in Texas.