Janus: Looking Forward, Looking Back

As the new year begins, it looks a lot like the year that just ended.

Yes, we have a vaccine now for Covid19, but the success of it will take many months to change our current situation. And that is only if everyone gets the vaccine. And, if it works on virus mutations.

At the moment, Covid19 deaths and infections are still soaring. Many of us are still working from home, if we are even still working. Our kids are still learning from home. Broadway is still canceled. Restaurants are still going out of business. At the beginning of January, things still look pretty bleak.

Except that it IS a new year. And this month is named for a Roman god who can guide us, if we’re willing.

Janus is the god with two faces. More than two faces, he appears the same from the front as he does from the back. In this way, he looks the same both coming and going. Which is exactly what 2020 and 2021 look like right now. We stand on the threshold of what has been and what will be, and it looks very much the same.

Ah, but we ARE at a threshold.

Ovid, in his treatise on Roman holidays, tells us most of what we know about Janus. How the ancients called him Chaos because he was present at the beginning, when all the elements were together in one single heap. And when fire, air, earth, and water separated, Janus took form. As testament to his own beginning, his two faces see the confusion from whence he came and the possibility of what is to come.

And that, more than anything, seems prophetically important right now.

2020 was chaos. Utter chaos.

I don’t need to recount for you everything you already know. How death in all its forms ravaged nations. How it attacked our lands, our people, and our traditions. The millions of acres scorched by wildfires. The millions of people who have died. Millions more that have been sick. Millions more who lives are forever altered. Entire communities. Countries. Everything that was familiar and comfortable has been turned upside down: our sense of security and safety and order, our habits, our social enjoyments.

From inside our homes, we observe the world outside. We struggle within as the world struggles without.

Janus is with us. He stands at the doorway, observing both. His dominion is both the public and the private. And, as the god of doorways, he carries the key. The key with which to open and close doors. The key to understanding.

As we welcome a new year, we would do well to remember Janus.

May we look ahead while not losing sight of the path that brought us here.

May look inside ourselves, as well as outside. And may we care for each equally.

May we remember that the truth of our future lies in the truth of our past. May we recognize these truths and see them clearly.

We stand at a threshold.

Looking forward, looking back.

Look closely.

We hold the keys.

As Janus tells Ovid in Fausti, “Beginnings set the tone for things.” How we begin this new year is critical.

Let us begin with clear sight. Let us move out of the chaos. Let us step wisely into what lies ahead.

Ovid’s Fausti, Translated by Betty Rose Nagle, Indiana University Press, 1995

Illustration is from Manual of Mythology, by Alexander S. Murray, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1885

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