“Two-headed Janus, source of the silently gliding year” (Ovid)


The god Janus gives his name to the month of January, a name meaning passage or doorway. Janus is usually pictured as a two-headed deity, with the gift of seeing two ways; he looks forward and behind, simultaneously. He is bearded and smooth-faced, old and young. On this first day of January, sitting at my desk, I look out at green woods, where animal trails lead away from the house and towards it. Last week a quartet of Roosevelt elk found their way to us, two cows, one lying down in moss while the other kept watch, and their two calves, half-grown, grazed on periwinkle and lichen.

The god of whom Ovid wrote,

Two-headed Janus, source of the silently gliding year,
The only god who is able to see behind him

I am thinking of that double seeing this morning, particularly the ability to see behind oneself, having spent a couple of days in Victoria, the city where I was a child. As we drove from the hotel where we stayed to Cattle Point for a walk among the oaks, I kept saying, Well, we’re approaching another Memory Lane, because the city is threaded with them, tangled with them. The road running past the funny old apartment, formerly a movie theatre, a place where I found myself as a writer. (A ground-floor suite, where once someone reached in my bathroom window while I was in the bath to borrow matches from a box on the sill.)

oak bay apartment

The roads in and around Clover Point where I rode a small blue bike, exploring the edges of the known world, and where I once ventured as far as Thunderbird Park where I watched Kwakwaka‘wakw master carver Mungo Martin working on something, I don’t remember what exactly, but I do remember curls of cedar falling from his hands and how he showed me the sharp adze he was using. (I think it was an adze.) The road leading off the highway to the beach where I swam my horse on hot summer mornings, leaving the saddle on a log at the high tide line. Sometimes I’d ride him bareback along the sand afterwards, to dry out, seaweed trailing from his fetlocks. A curve of Rockland Avenue where I first knocked on a door that opened to something I am still trying to puzzle my way through. On that particular Memory Lane, we slowed the car so I could see if the studio where I sat on a flowered cloth for hours was still there, and yes, it was, or at least its windows were, multi-paned and mysterious.

Later in the week, I will have a birthday. Not a significant one, unless they all are; but one that guides me into the last years of a decade. So much undone still, so much to finish.

Janus is often depicted with a key in his right hand. He could open any door, the one you dream of, the one you stepped through into a new life, and the one you watch for now, the door into the dark.

All I know is a door into the dark,
Outside, old axles and iron hoops rusting;
Inside, the hammered anvil’s short-pitched ring

              –Seamus Heaney

Last night someone was taking the old year into the new with fireworks, not exactly an anvil and hammer striking sparks, but loud bursts like gunshot in the night. It reminded me that Janus is also represents the middle ground between barbarism and peace. Oh, a god we need now, in a world torn apart and burning, to look back at our excesses and perhaps point to the possibilities of our better nature.

7 thoughts on ““Two-headed Janus, source of the silently gliding year” (Ovid)”

  1. This post has piqued my curiosity in so many ways. That old building – I must have seen it, but I can’t place it. It reminds me of the one I lived in on the corner of Cook and Balmoral. Also, knocking on a door that opened onto something you are still puzzling your way through, decades later – wow. I hope you’ll write more about that! Happy new year, Theresa!

    1. Hi Leslie, Happy New Year to you too! Corner (more or less) of Oak Bay Avenue and Foul Bay Road. Formerly a movie theatre and when I lived there, in the 1970s, a very sweet place. It’s a bit more derelict now. But I remember wooden floors, a claw-footed bath, lovely old windows, and I paid $96 dollars a month. I wrote two poetry collections there, more or less, and hosted (when it was my turn) our poetry group. I had no chairs but we sat on big cushions and drank cheap wine out of Woodwards glasses. Think of PK Page reclining on a corduroy cushion, sipping Similkameen red, reciting something spectacular…

      1. Oh yes, I just looked at it on Google maps. I have seen it a thousand times and yet couldn’t conjure it up. The scene you just described sounds like a pretty sweet life!

      2. When I lived there, the building was soft pink. It’s now sort of yellow-y peach and quite worn. But I sort of felt blessed there, leaning my bike against the wall under my kitchen window (it was stolen once but returned…), doing my laundry across the road, walking or cycling over to the Rec Centre late at night for the Night Owls swim.

  2. “So much undone still, so much to finish.” I know the feeling, seemingly more urgent with each new year. But will it matter if some things remain undone and others unfinished? Perhaps the idea of doing something, or beginning it are sufficiently worthwhile and rewarding.

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