The two headed god. The Roman god of transition.
The god of doorways, and boundaries. The god of births, marriages and deaths, who guarded the entrance to the heavens. The god who opened his temple gates at the outbreak of war, and closed them when peace returned. The god of beginnings and endings, in both space and time.
The god invoked on Kalendae Ianuariae. The first of January; the passage from the old year to the new. Romans made offerings of spelt cake and salt to Janus. To everyone else, they gave cheerful greetings of good will, an omen of hope for a New Year.
I imagine this ancient deity looking back, and looking forwards. I wonder what he sees.
For so many people 2016 has been a tragic year. Around the world people are fearful of what 2017 will bring.
We’ve seen a demagogue voted into power in arguably the most powerful country in the world. We’ve seen a Middle Eastern city torn to shreds, live on our television screens. We’ve wrung our hands, many of us have donated money, we’ve asked our politicians to speak, and to what avail? We’ve watched migrants drown in record numbers in the Mediterranean seas. Arctic temperatures have climbed. My old home town has been rocked by earthquakes – the destabilisation of the world made physical. Meanwhile political alliances have been torn apart by words and ink ticks on paper.
The world feels on the brink of something. But what?
Janus. The carved pillar, a head facing forward, a head facing back. Immovable he stands and watches. The world so different from the one he ruled over. Millennia of change and yet the image – the idea – he invokes still carries its power. We understand his meaning, even if we no longer understand the Latin prayers offered in his name.
We pass under his threshold. A New Year.
Here in the north the days will grow longer. Winter still has its grip on us. Cold winds blow. The real snow has yet to hit. It will come, we are confident in the predictability of this. One day soon I will look outside and see the white ground, grey sky. The world will be cold and still, but for the ice blowing through the air.
Change is the only constant in the universe. It creates the ancient rhythms of the world. From ice, to water. From winter, to spring. From dark, to light.
Here in Denmark we will begin the year surrounded by fireworks. Each New Year a cacophony of light and noise. Fireworks that last from early evening to long after midnight, as each party will have their own. The crackle of fire, then the boom and the light that will rend the dark. Colours spread through the night, ephemera in the sky. The following day will smell of smoke. But that too will pass.
Last year we huddled inside as the old year was blasted away. Our children were terrified by the noise, the unpredictable but constant explosions. We soothed them, confident these blasts brought no danger, our walls would remain intact. A luxury not everyone in this world shares.
I was not sorry to see the end of 2015; it had been a difficult year. I looked back, and I looked forward, holding onto a hope that the next year would be better. And for all the destruction 2016 has wrought worldwide, it has been a better year for us, for my own small family. Sometimes with the dark, there comes the light.
This Christmas Eve we wandered through the quiet streets to a playground. My son ran ahead to the swings with my husband. The sun hung low in the sky. As I followed up the hill he swung back and forth, eclipsing the light as he passed through it. I felt my breath catch in my throat as my children laughed.
By the time we walked home Danes were on their way to their traditional evening gatherings. At the traffic lights I could see men in ties, and women with jewellery burning brightly in their ears and around their throat. Faces lit with joy, smiling at us as we passed in front of them. The usual social barriers have been broken down; we are reminded of our commonalities. The desire to mark the passage of time, the ritual celebrations, is the human constant.
Small children change daily. Milestones passed as they march towards that great transition: from childhood to adulthood. Each achievement incremental, sometimes hardly noticeable. We need the rhythms of the year, the seasons to remind us of where we once were – last birthday, last Christmas, last Year.
Many of us feel that bit more fearful for the world our children will grow up in than we did last year. Yet still we celebrate. We mark the change from the Old Year to the New. Because that is all we can do. Because this time, however fragile it might be, is all we have.
The world will swing through space, from light to dark, from winter to spring to summer. As it always has and as it always will. We carry on, and sometimes we hold our breath, unable to see what lies before us. As we all swing our children laugh; even in the darkest winter there is light.
Sometimes I think that all we can do in this world is nurture that light at home. Love and laugh and hope. There will always be suffering in this world, but we have faith in our children, that in small ways or perhaps even big ways, they will make the world a better place.
This is my non-religious prayer to a god no-one believes in anymore.
This is my wish for you in the New Year.
May our children be the starburst of colour that lights the dark.
Image Credit: Head of Janus by Loudon dodd licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0