Monday, 18 May 2015

The Divine and the Limit

This is an extract from a document (not a chapter in The Sacred History of Being) which was put together as part of a project to understand the role and function of the threshold and the boundary in Mesopotamia in general, and Assyria in particular. The purpose of this part of the document was to explore parallel cultural concerns with thresholds and boundaries elsewhere in the ANE, and also around the Mediterranean.  The extract concerns ancient Rome. I've not changed the footnote numbers, so since this is an extract, they start at 26.

In exploring these details, over a long period and in some depth, it is hard not to have the disturbing feeling that often, much of what we have understood to be the 'religion' of a culture, isn't anything of the sort, but a form of public show, which actually disguises what is regarded as important. As noted below, at sacrifices, the name of Janus was mentioned before that of Jupiter. Jupiter is supposed to be the supreme god of the Romans! There are strong connections between the public faces of the gods and the underlying ideas concerning reality of course, but often they aren't spelled out, or are otherwise glossed in a manner which misdirects those who do not belong to the priestly class.

I'm not referring to the traditional distinction that academics make between theology as the core of a religion, and the exoteric show as its external expression.These details are esoteric in nature, and exist below the surface level of whatever theology can be discovered.  In Assyria the role of the Sacred Tree is a perfect example. Its image is everywhere, but there is no formal discussion of it anywhere which survives. It plays a role in shaping their theology we know, but it seems that, like the Kabbalah for many centuries, its significance and use was confined to oral communication and discussion.

A short study of the significance of the threshold in Mesopotamia and Assyria will be published separately. The role and function of the Assyrian Sacred Tree is extensively discussed in The Sacred History of Being.


Temple of Janus represented on 
sestertius ca 65 CE,  reign of Nero Augustus.

...The Romans also had a tradition of veneration of the boundaries and limits of things. Oskar Seyffert describes the god Janus as ‘A god peculiar to the Italians, with no corresponding divinity among the Greeks’. However, the lack of a corresponding divinity does not mean the importance of limits and boundaries to their patterns of belief was unknown to the Greeks. Seyffert continues that ‘even the ancients were by no means clear as to his special significance; he was, however, regarded as one of the oldest, holiest, and most exalted of gods’.

Of course, if the special significance of Janus was close to the heart of Roman religion, an absence of discussion might, rather than signifying a lack of clarity about his special significance, mean quite the opposite, and that the written tradition is quite misleading as to the Roman understanding of Janus, at least within the priestly community.

 ‘In Rome the king, and in later times the rex sacrōrum, sacrificed to him’*26 'At every sacrifice he was remembered first; in every prayer he was the first invoked, being mentioned even before Jupiter’. Which is indication of high status. If we recall the remarks of Pythagoras on what comes first and why, we can see that the significance of Janus is extremely important indeed. This is further emphasised by the fact that ‘in the songs of the Salii (‘jumpers’ or dancers) he was called the good creator, and the god of gods; he is elsewhere named the oldest of the gods and the beginning of all things’ *27. The Salii were an old Italian college of priests of Mars, said to have been originally introduced at Rome by Numa Pompilius, the legendary 2nd king of Rome. He was said to be a native of Cures in the Sabine country, and was elected king a year after the death of Romulus.

William Smith says that ‘he was renowned for his wisdom and piety; and it was generally believed that he derived his knowledge from Pythagoras’*28. Given that the foundation of Rome is traditionally 753 B.C.E., this is impossible, since Numa and Pythagoras would have been two centuries apart. However the fact that later the institutions of Numa were associated with Pythagorean influence suggests that there was a perception of a relationship between the doctrines of Pythagoras and the foundation of Roman religion. Smith continues: ‘…he devoted his chief care to the establishment of religion among his rude subjects’, and to giving them appropriate forms of worship. He was instructed by the Camena Egeria (Aegeria), one of the twelve nymphs in Roman mythology. Numa later dedicated the grove in which he had his interviews with the goddess, in which a well gushed forth from a dark recess, to the Camenae.* 29

Seyffert continues regarding Janus: ‘It would appear that originally he was a god of the light and of the sun, who opened the gates of heaven on going forth in the morning and closed them on returning at evening’. Rather, Janus, being the divinity associated with boundaries, is associated with gates, crossings, risings and settings, beginnings and endings, and the daily movement of the sun is the most important visible instance of beginnings and endings. In course of time (Seyffert suggests) ‘he became the god of all going out and coming in, to whom all places of entrance and passage, all doors and gates were holy’ [my italics]. Seyffert, writing in the late 19th century, is assuming an evolution of the nature of the god. He continues:

In Rome all doors and covered passages were suggestive of his name. The former were called ianuae; over the latter, the arches which spanned the streets were called iani 

which Seyffert suggests, ‘is a term perhaps symbolical of the vault of heaven’*30. Many of these were expressly dedicated to him, especially those ‘which were situated in markets and frequented streets, or at crossroads’. In the case of crossroads, Seyffert tells us that ‘they were adorned with his image, and the double arch became a temple with two doors, or the two double arches a temple with four’. The way Janus was generally represented was ‘as a porter with a staff and a key in his hands, and with two bearded faces placed back to back and looking in opposite directions.’

Further, he is also the god of entrance into a new division of time, and was therefore saluted every morning as the god of the breaking day (pater matutinus); the beginnings of all the months (the calends) were sacred to him, as well as to Juno; and, among the months, the first of the natural year, which derived from him Ianuarius. For sacrifices on the calends twelve altars were dedicated to him; his chief festival, however, was the 1st of January, especially as in B.C. 153 this was made the official beginning of the new year. On this day he was invoked as the god of good beginnings, and was honoured with cakes of meal called ianuae; every disturbance, every quarrel, was carefully avoided, and no more work was done than necessary to make a lucky beginning of the daily business of the year; mutual good wishes were exchanged, and people made presents of sweets to one another as a good omen that the new year might bring nothing but that which was sweet and pleasant in its train.

The beginning of the year is a time when a major change occurs, and is marked by ceremony and ritual. For the Romans, this juncture of the year, like every other juncture over which Janus presided, was a region in which change was more possible, more likely, than at any other time. Therefore any immoderate behaviour, any departure from the normal daily pattern of life, whether through a quarrel or some other unpleasantness, might easily have taken root, and they might have found their whole lives dislocated as a result.

Seyffert continues that: ‘the origin of all organic life, and especially all human life, was referred to him; he was therefore called consivius (‘sower’). From him sprang all wells, rivers, and streams; in this relation he was called the spouse of Juturna*31, the goddess of springs, and father of Fontus*32, the god of fountains’. And:

As the god of coming and going and of traffic, he had power not only on land, but also on sea; he was therefore described as the husband of the sea-goddess Venilia*33 and as the discoverer of the art of shipbuilding. For this reason the Romans bore the impression of a ship on the obverse of the head of Janus.

In addition to this, in connexion with war:

... he was known in the fane founded by Numa near the ancient Forum, as Ianus Quirinus. When war was declared,the consul opened the double doors of this sanctuary and summoned the Roman youths capable of bearing arms to march through it with him. As long as war continued, the doors stood open, but on the declaration of peace they were closed. From the time of Numa to the year of the birth of Christ, this happened on four occasions only, and twice in the reign of Augustus. While Janus appears as the most ancient of the Roman gods, he is at the same time named as the most ancient king of the land, who dwelt upon the Janiculum on the right bank of the Tiber, and erected a temple to the gods and gave a friendly reception to Saturn. In very late times, he is represented with a bearded and an unbearded face; and, instead of his having the usual attributes of the key and the staff, the fingers of his right hand exhibit the number 300, and those of his left hand the number of the remaining days of the year.


26 the Rex Sacrōrum (or Rex Sacrificulus: ‘king of sacrifice’), was the name given by the Romans to a priest who, after the abolition of the royal power, had to perform certain religious rites connected with the name of king’. Thus, like the Greeks, the king formerly occupied a key role in the religious and cult activity of the Romans. ‘He resembles the archon basileus of the Athenian constitution. He was always a patrician, was elected for life by the pontifex maximus with the assistance of the whole pontifical college (of which he became a member), and was inaugurated by the augurs. Although he was externally of high rank and, like the pontifex maximus, had an official residence in the Regia, the royal castle of Num, and took the chair at the feasts and other festivities of the pontifices, yet in his religious authority he ranked below the pontifex maximus, and was not allowed to hold any public office, or even to address the people in public. His wife (like the wives of the flamens) participated in the priesthood….’ Seyffert also says that the rex sacrorum used to ‘summon the people to the Capitol on the calends and nones of each month’ (in the days before the knowledge of the calendar became general), ‘and to announce the festivals for the month. On the calends he and regina sacrificed, and at the same time invoked Janus…’.

27 Seyffert, Oskar, Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, [rev & ed. by Nettleship and Sandys], 1906, 'Janus'.
28 Smith, William Smaller Classical Dictionary, 1891Janus'
29 the Camenae being the fountain nymphs who belong to the ancient religion of Italy, and which are sometimes identified with the muses.
30 19th century philology tended to the view that many of the gods developed from a primitive picture of the sky and the sun, and that the etymology of the names of the gods reflected this.
31 Juturna (Diuturna) was the nymph of a fountain in Latium (according to Smith), famous for its healing qualities, whose water was used in most sacrifices. A pond in the forum, between the temples of Castor and Vesta, was called Lacus Juturnae. The nymph is said to have been beloved by Jupiter, who rewarded her with immortality and dominion over the waters…’
32 According to Seyffert, Fontus was the Roman god of springs, son of Janus and Juturna, who had an altar in Rome on the Janiculum. A special festival, the Fontinalia, was held in his honour on the 13th October, at which garlands were thrown into the springs, and laid round the wells.
33 Venilia was a nymph, daughter of Pilumnus, sister of Amata, wife of king Latinus, and mother of Turnus and Juturna by Daunus [Smith: Venilia]

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