By David Park Musella
January: Exit One Year, Enter the Next
A quick glance at any Gregorian calendar will show that January is the name of the first month of the year. And a quick glance at a dictionary will reveal that the name January roots from that of Janus, a Roman god. That name wasn’t assigned to the headmost month without reason: January can be thought of as a doorway, a kind of portal between one year and the next, and Janus was the god of gates, doorways, and bridges, both concrete and abstract. The festival of Janus was Agonalia, celebrated on January 1 and 5.
A coin of the Roman Republic, circa 225–212 B.C.E., featuring Janus Bifrons on its obverse, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Photo courtesy of Livius (www.livius.org).
In the ancient Roman milieu, at least until Constantine and the advent of Christianity in the Roman state, Janus oversaw all the beginnings of things: planting, birth, adulthood, marriage, each month (not just January), each year, and so on. At public rituals and ceremonies— those that weren’t dedicated to another god or other gods—his was the first name invoked, even before that of Jupiter, the chief of the Roman pantheon. There are early references to Janus as the divom deus, or “god of gods,” suggesting his prominence. His Latin name, Ianus, is also the word for “door” in that language, and he also bore a number of “surnames,” Patulcius (“opener”) and Clusivius (“closer”) among them.
Of course, a door serves for egress as well as ingress; most commonly, Janus was represented in Roman art as literally two-faced. That is, a bust of the god would feature a face facing forward and one facing backward. Who better to watch a portal than someone who can see in two directions? In this function, Janus was known as Janus Bifrons (“two-fronted” or “two-faced”) or Janus Geminus (“twin”). He was also the guardian of the spiritual passage between this world and that of the Roman afterlife.
Some older sculptures show Janus with two smooth faces, while later ones have one face smooth and the other bearded, perhaps showing the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Later, both faces bore beards. The two faces of Janus could also represent the sun and the moon in some circumstances. (As was the case with many Roman gods, additional divine responsibilities accreted to Janus over the centuries of his worship, where they seemed applicable.)
While not a god of war—that was Mars’s vocation, and March is still two months away at his point in the year— Janus did serve a martial purpose. Some, perhaps most, traditions start him as a mortal, a ruler in an ancient city called Latium; his deification took place post mortem. The story, certainly more legend than history, goes that, in the earliest days of Rome, not long after its founding by Romulus and Remus, there was conflict between Rome and the Sabine people, sparked by the brothers running off with the Sabine virgins. (Remember, they were raised by a she-wolf. How much politesse can one expect?)
When the Sabines attempted an assault on Rome, Janus, no doormat, caused a hot spring to erupt, preventing the incursion. After that, the two gates of his main temple—Janus’s temples were numerous—the Aedes Janus, were kept closed, except in times of war, when they stood open, so the god could intervene when and where he was needed. It’s interesting to note that the magnificent arch on the Forum Romanum, through which legionnaires marched when they went to war, was dedicated to Janus, not Mars.
The god was also known as Janus Quadrifrons, or “four-faced.” This more complicated divine physiology permitted him to “doorkeep” the four seasons of the year, their beginnings and endings, among other quaternary things. While each season had its own Olympian overseer, Janus was the one who made sure that they passed smoothly through the equinoctial and solstitial passages, preventing those doors from getting jammed.
It’s curious to note that historians have found no Greek counterpart for this god (although he is sometimes associated with an Etruscan god named Ani). Perhaps portals didn’t have the same significance in Hellenic culture. But such a god could still be discovered in some dusty Ionic temple; that door hasn’t yet been closed.
February: The God/Nun of Fire and Poetry
As Christianity spread from its origin in Galilee, it, like its Judaic progenitor, encountered a number of other metaphysical belief systems and their gods. Most gave way to the newer religion over time, their force eroded by the tide of Christian conversion and faith, but some deities offered sterner resistance than that. It is suspected that, when sword and scripture couldn’t vanquish such entities, one of two courses was taken: more commonly, the deity was demonized, tainted by supposed similarities with the Christian devil or his followers. But in other cases, the pagan figure was “raised” to the status of Christian sainthood. In the former course, the pagan god and her or his subscribers were banished, destroyed, or driven underground. But in the latter one, so that the followers could more readily be brought into the Christian fold, another holy figure was added to the sanctified rolls. St. Brigid of Ireland, whose feast day is celebrated on February 1—also known as Imbolc or Imbolg (from i mbolg “in the abdomen”) or Oimelc (“ewe’s milk”)—may be one example of such divine conversion.
In some versions of her history, the woman who would become St. Brigid was born in fifth-century Ireland, the daughter of a pagan clan chief, Dubthach, and Brocca (or Broicsech), a Pictish slave woman, who’d reportedly been converted to Christian belief by none other than St. Patrick. Dubthach’s wife objected to this productive liaison, and the pregnant thrall was sold to a succession of owners, eventually giving birth. While the legends differ regionally regarding the details of the child’s upbringing and attainment of Christianity, in all accounts, she is soon found to have power, a special blessing from on high, that involves an ability to control or suppress fire. This parallels the pagan god for whom she is named, who was the governor of a sacred flame in Cill Dara (Kildare) among other responsibilities (such as overseeing the production of smithwork, poetry, and other artwork and inspiring wisdom and healing abilities in her followers).
In other versions, the human Brigid first becomes a priestess of her namesake god before taking on the “habits” of Christianity. In still others, she was cast out by her father for giving away too much of his material wealth, including a jewel-encrusted sword, to the needy.
The Christian saint, coincidentally, is said to have founded an abbey in Kildare, circa 470 C.E., which included an art academy that produced the illuminated Book of Kildare. (Obviously, the connections between the saint and the god are numerous. Besides sharing an interest in art, St. Brigid is also said to have disfigured her face to make herself undesirable to men when she became a nun but was later healed without a trace of a scar when “recognized” as an abbess by St. Mel, suggesting the god’s divine occupation with healing.) Because of a supposed mix-up in the consecration that was read by the aging St. Mel on the occasion of her recognition, she and her successors held a rank equivalent in authority to that of a bishop, until the Synod of Kells in 1152.
After a life of profound generosity and miraculous abundance, at least in legend—everything that she took charge of multiplied—St. Brigid died circa 525 C.E., on February 1. Brigid is ranked in the Irish registry of saints after only Patrick and Colmcille.
St. Brigid's Cross.
As a Celtic deity, Brigid, whose name means “exalted one,” is the daughter of the Dagda, the chief of the Tuatha dé Danaan, the central tribe of gods of the ancient Celtic Irish. She, along with two sisters, constitute a paradigmatic example of the Celtic triple goddess and all of its associations with the human aging process: youth (maiden), maturity (mother), and old age (crone). How three sisters could be that far apart in age raises questions. But the dé Danaan were immortal, after all.
According to Irish author Proinsias Mac Cana, Brigid, through Brigantia or Brigantis, a god of the continental Celts, is the Celtic parallel to Athena/Minerva, the Greco-Roman god of wisdom.
Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, notes in its entry on pagan-god Brigid that she had a magical apple orchard in the Celtic otherworld, sometimes called Annuvin or Avalon. Through this, she has been associated with the Lady of the Lake of the Arthurian legends.
Other legends of St. Brigid include the ability to hang her mantle over a sunbeam and the creation of the first St. Brigid’s Cross, woven from rushes to convert a dying pagan chieftain, like her father, whom she found in her travels. The St. Brigid’s Cross remains a symbol of her worship to this day; cloth ribbons or handkerchiefs (St. Brigid’s Mantle) are still hung outside for her blessing; oat cakes and butter are still left for her on her feast day in case she visits; bonfires are still built for her; and there are pools of water and wells dedicated to her across the Irish countryside. In these regions of tradition, myth, and legend, the distinctions between the saint and the goddess grow particularly nebulous.
One thing that can be said, at least, since St. Brigid may have been invented in whole sackcloth by Christian missionaries to aid in converting the Irish pagans, is that the Celtic god may be just as real as the Christian saint.
March: A Colorful Holi-day
An event that’s almost universally observed, in one form or another, in March is the vernal, or spring, equinox (or autumnal equinox, if you’re south of the equator). An equinox (“equal night”) is one of the two points in the year when the earth’s axis is perpendicular to the direction to the sun, i.e., day and night are of equal length and are evenly distributed over the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Humans have been tracking the solar cycles for thousands of years, and equinoxes and solstices are typically regarded as important symbolic as well as astronomical events. The precise solar equinox for spring this year will occur on March 20, at 6:25 P.M. Greenwich Mean Time, north of the equator.
There are many ways in which the vernal equinox is observed around the world and many religious observations and holidays that fall near it on the world’s calendars. The word vernal comes from the Latin ver, meaning “spring,” and is related to verno, “to bloom,” as flowers do, bringing with them bright colors after winter’s spectral stillness. For that reason, color plays an important role in many celebrations of spring. After all, when was the last time you saw children hunting for plain, white hardboiled eggs at Easter? But one celebration of spring that truly makes full, if not excessive, use of color is the Hindu festival that’s known as Holi.
Holi, also known as Holaka or Phagwa, is a time for, among other things, public misbehavior, somewhat reminiscent of Mardi Gras and Purim. St. Brigid’s Cross. No Lord of Misrule is present, and no one’s pockets or ears are eaten in effigy, but people do get pretty wild. At its basis, it is an agricultural festival, celebrating the release of winter’s grip on the land and the people, and that grasp isn’t all that loosens. License is granted for freer contact between folks of different ages, sexes, and social strata; it is even traditional for some of the barriers of the Hindu caste system to relax for the occasion. Even normal prohibitions against rude behavior crumble; “Bura na mano; Holi hai” (“Don’t feel offended; it’s Holi”) is the cry that rings through the streets, along with shouts, insults, and general auditory chaos.
Holi is also known as the Festival of Colors, because of the variety of colored powders and liquids that are flung onto passersby by Holi participants. Clothes, bodies, and faces are stained a multitude of bright colors. For anywhere from two to five (or more, in some places) days— the duration of Holi varies regionally— no garment or patch of exposed skin is safe from chromatic assault. This attempt to colorize one’s fellows apparently comes from a story of Lord Krishna, an embodiment of love and joy, a trickster, and an incarnation of Vishnu. In this tale, Krishna is saddened by the fact that he is blue (in color and mood) while his love, Radha, is light-skinned. His mother, Yashoda, suggests that he apply color to Radha’s face to alter that situation. Naughty Krishna is thought to have not limited this practice to Radha alone, and the practice soon became popular among the people. Playful Krishna would certainly approve of the bedlam that Holi is; the places where Holi’s duration is longest are those most associated with the god. Apparently, even those who must clean up afterward enjoy the wild madness of this time of social freedom.
Other stories of the origins of Holi and its practices vary, as can be expected of a festival in a religion as ancient as Hinduism. One version of what is being celebrated by the occasion tells of the death of Holika, a demon who was the sister of a wicked king, Hiranyakashipu. He had seized control of a kingdom and forbidden his subjects’ worship of Vishnu, wishing to become their object of veneration instead. His own son, Prahlad, continued to prefer Vishnu, which angered Hiranyakashipu, who decided to put the boy to death for his insubordinate religious practices. Prahlad’s own aunt, who could walk through flames unharmed, was told to pick up the boy and carry him through a blazing fire. Fortunately for Prahlad, Vishnu intervened and spared the boy from harm. Unfortunately for Holika, her resistance to fire worked only if she entered the flames alone, so she burned to death.
In other versions, Holika is a member of a community of cannibals, who troubled and devoured people of neighboring villages. In still others, she is an ogre called Dhundhi, who is susceptible to only the assaults and abuses of young boys and, therefore, can be driven away only by them. (Hence, youths are given special allowances for their social monstrousness on Holi.)
At the end of the festival, wood and other flammable objects are collected in each city and village and a bonfire is built. The mass is set ablaze in commemoration of the triumph of Vishnu and his earnest servant, Prahlad, over the forces of pride and evil.
Holi falls during the lunar month of Phalgun in the Hindu calendar. This year, it begins on March 15 in most regions.
About the Author
David Park Musella is editorial assistant for Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer magazines. This article originally appeared in the Secular Humanist Bulletin.