Category Archives: Sabine
Pronunciation: ˈjaːnʊs or jayn’-uhs
Alternate Spelling: Iānus (Latin)
Other names: Bifrons,Ianuspater (“Janus Father”), Ianus Quadrifrons (“Janus Four-faced”), Ianus Bifrons (“Two-faced Janus”), Dianus, Dionus
Other Names and Epithets: Ianitos (Keeping Track of Time), Iunonius, Consuvius (‘”The Guardian of the Beginning of Human Life”), Cozeuios, Conseuius the Sower, Patultius (the Opener), Iancus or Ianeus (the Gatekeeper), Duonus Cerus (the Good Creator), Geminus (Double), Rex King, Father of the Gods (or part of the Gods), God of Gods, Pater, Patulcius, Clusivius or Clusius (Closer of Gate), Κήνουλος (Coenulus), Κιβουλλιος (Cibullius), Curiatius
Etymology: “Arched Passage, Doorway” (Latin)
Janus is quite simply, the Roman god of Beginnings, Gates, Transitions, Time, Duality, Doorways, Frames, Portals, Passages and Endings. To the ancient Romans, Janus is one of their primordial deities who was there at the beginning of time and all existence. While Janus has an important and prominent role in the Roman Pantheon, he is not the Sovereign Deity of it.
It should be noted that there is no Greek equivalent to Janus. However, I should note, that some later Greek authors would place Janus as having been a mortal from Greece. Plutarch specifically, says that Janus was from Perrhebia.
Day of the Week: The first day of every month
Number: 300 & 65
Patron of: Transitions, Travelers
Planet: Sun, Moon
Plant: White Hawthorne, Olive Tree
Sphere of Influence: Transitions, Giving form to Chaos
Symbols: Keys, Staff, Two-Faces, Doors, Archways, Gateways, Portals
Given the many aspects that Janus presided over, many of which are abstract ideas and concepts for duality, Janus is often shown as having two faces. One looking forward to the future and the other looking back towards the past. Additionally, one face is bearded while the other is not. Later, both faces would be bearded. In Janus’ right hand, he holds a key and a staff in the other.
The double-faced head is found on many early Roman coins. In the 2nd century C.E., Janus is sometimes depicted with four faces.
During the Renaissance, the two-faces of Janus not only represented the past and future, but wisdom as well.
Janus had no flamen or specialized priests dedicated to him. However, the King of the Sacred Rites, the Rex Sanctorum, would carry out Janus’ ceremonies.
There are several rites for Janus. All prayers, regardless of which deity was to be invoked, didn’t start without Janus first being mentioned, regardless of which deity was being invoked. For that matter, every day, every week, every month began with invoking and calling on Janus. Incidentally, every prayer and rite ended with invoking the goddess Vesta.
Military Season – For the Romans, the start of their military season began with March 1st with the Rite of Arma Movere and ended on October 1st with the Right of Arma Condere. The first rite is also known as the Rites of the Salii. The aspect of Janus as Janus Quirinus would be invoked on the anniversary of the dedication to Mars on June 1st that corresponds with the festival of Carna. Another festival was held on June 29th which had been the end of the month under the Julian calendar for Quirinus.
The Military Season also marks something of a seemingly paradoxical connection between Janus and the war god Mars. The peace-loving King Numa sends out the army to ensure peace while later, it’s the warmongering King Tullus in his battle with the Sabines who sees Roman Soldiers coming home to peace.
It’s a connection that makes sense that for the Romans, having been attacked once, vowed that peace would come when everyone else around them was subdued. This creates a couple other epitaphs for Janus of belliger and pacificus, depending on which role he is in. As Janus Quirinus, the deity brings the closing of the Rites of March at the end of the month and then later in October as soldiers return victorious.
Janus doesn’t seem to have many prominent temples for worship. We do see that the covered portaculis and areas over gates to a building are called iani. There is an altar, that later becomes a temple for Janus near the Porta Carmentalis that leads to where the Veii road ended.
The gates of the Argiletum were called Ianus Geminus. This gate yard was built by Numa around 260 B.C.E. after the Battle of Mylae. Other names for this passageway are Janus Bifrons, Janus Quirinus, and Porta Belli. These gates would be open during times of war and closed during peace, something that didn’t happen often with Roman history. A statue here dedicated to Janus shows him with the symbol for 300 in the right hand and on the other hand, the number 65 for the days in the solar year. There were also twelve altars, one for each month. In the Christian religion, early Christian clerics claimed that these gates were closed when Jesus was born.
There is also the Porta Ianualis that protected the city of Rome from the Sabine that were all thought to be places where Janus was present. Janus was also seen as having a presence at the Janiculum leading out of Rome towards Etruria and the Sororium Tigillum that lead to Latium.
What’s In A Name?
In Latin, Janus’ name is spelt as Ianus as their alphabet has no letter “j.”
Jansus’ name translates from Latin to English as “Arched Passage” or Doorway.” In turn, there’s a root word from Proto-Italic language of “iānu” for “door” and another from Proto-Indo-European of “iehnu” for “passage.” There is also a cognate word found in Sanskrit of “yāti” meaning “to go” or “travel.” Another cognate in Lithuanian of “jóti” meaning “to go” or “ride.” And lastly found in Serbo-Croatian is the word “jàhati” meaning “to go.”
Some modern scholars reject the Indo-European etymology though others see in the word “Iānus,” an action name that expresses movement. My favorite though is how the word “Janitor” derives from “ianua” and Janus.
Among the ancients, there are a few different interpretations that all tie into the nature of Janus as a deity. The first is Paul the Deacon’s definition that connects Ianus to chaos. As seen in the phrase: “hiantem hiare” to “be open,” indicating the transitional state of this deity.
The second definition comes from Nigidius Figulus where Ianus would be Apollo and Diana. That the “D” in Diana’s name has been added as it has a better sound. It would be related to Diana’s name to the word “Dianus” with the Indo-European root of “dia” or “dey” for day. This idea is somewhat flimsy and not usually, widely accepted as being accurate. It seems to be what happens when you’re stretching and trying to connect everything back as all originating from one deity.
The last proposed etymology comes from Cicero, Ovid and Macrobius, where they explain that the Latin form of Janus for “to go” refers to Janus as the god of beginnings and transitions. That one feels a little more on the money with how many people view and interpret Janus’ name.
Parentage and Family
As a primordial deity, Janus isn’t given any parentage. If any are mentioned, it is:
Caelus (The primal god of the Sky) & Terra (The Earth)
The gods Camese, Ops and Saturn are given as Janus’ siblings.
Camese – Depending on the version of the myth (Greek in this case,) they become Janus’ sister and wife.
Jana – A Moon Goddess
Juturna – Goddess of Wells & Springs
Venilia – Goddess of the Winds & Seas
Canens – A nymph and personification of song.
Fontus – Son of Janus and Juturna
In a Greek version of the myths, where Janus is mortal and marries his sister Camese, they have the following children: Aithex, Olistene, Tiberinus
Primordial Gate Keeper
You could say that Janus is the Ultimate Gate Keeper, even possibly the Custodian of the Universe and probably the only one we should have. This connection makes Janus a Liminal Deity, guarding boundaries and passages.
Janus guarded the gates of Heaven. Doorways, Gates, any passageways, Janus presides over these as well. As a Doorway is the literal transitioning, moving from one area to another. Nothing changed, transitioned, moves, or altered it’s/their states without Janus’ presence and influence. Even the abstract ideas of going from war to peace and back, from birth to death and rebirth, to journeys, exchanges, barbarism and civilization, the start of and any ending of conflicts, their resolutions. Janus presided over all transitions.
Key – Janus is often shown holding a key that symbolized his protection over doors, gates and thresholds of many kinds. Both physical and spatial boundaries. The key symbolized that a traveler would be able to find a safe place or harbor to trade their goods in peace.
Staff – This symbolized Janus’ guiding travelers on their paths.
Order Out Of Chaos
If, in the beginning, everything is a primordial ooze and chaos, Janus is the being who brings order from it all, as everything transitions from one state to another. Modern science will have fancy technical terms and jargon for everything and how everything forms and comes into being. For the ancient Romans, this is all explained as Janus being responsible for the formation of the elements and harmony from Chaos and getting the whole shebang going.
Janus’ functions denote that he is a liminal deity who watches the borders. As rivers are frequently natural borders and boundaries, Janus presided over these along with the bridges that cross over them. Four of Janus’ altars and temples were built along rivers.
Janus is a god of dualities, representing numerous abstract and literal concepts for beginnings and endings. The very transitioning from one state to another. Janus was present at the very beginning and start of the universe before any of the gods existed.
With Janus being depicted as having two faces. One face facing towards the future and the other towards the past, Janus is said to have held the gift of prophecy. Omens and portents were very much so the domain of Janus as he could see all.
A Solar Deity & Divine Twins?
This idea comes from Macrobius who in turns cites Nigidius Figulus and Cicero. The idea is that Janus and Jana (a variation of Diana) are a pair of deities worshiped together as Apollo & Diana; the sun and the moon.
Adding to this is one A. Audin who connects the solar motif back to the Sumerian cultures. They mention two solar pillars that are located on the eastern side of temples and denote the direction of the rising and setting sun and the solstices. These two solstices would connect to the idea of the Divine Twins often seen in mythology, particularly the myth where one twin is mortal and the other is immortal.
Morning Time – The start of the day or morning is thought to be Janus’ time, when men awoke and began their daily routines and activities. Janus is called Matutine Pater, meaning “Morning Father by Horace. It is thought this association with this time of the day is what links Janus with being a solar deity.
Winter Solstice – In keeping with the solar connection, under the Roman calendar, the Winter Solstice was held to be on December 25th, a remarkably familiar date that carries over to Christianity for when Christmas is celebrated. Where solar deities are revered, the Winter Solstice is often when these deities are said to be reborn and their power grows again.
Month – January
It is generally accepted that the month of January is named for Janus (Ianuarius) and why, with the Gregorian calendar, it is the first month and beginning of the calendar year. Under the ancient Roman calendar, their year began with March as the first month, incidentally when Rome would begin its war and campaign season.
For further, in-depth history, we can credit Numa Pompilius, the second of seven kings who ruled Rome before it became a Republic. In the 6th century B.C.E., Numa added the months of Inauarius and Februarius to ten month “Romulus” religious calendar. Under this new calendar, Inauarius would become the first month starting in 200 B.C.E. of the Roman Republican Calendar. Inauarius, pronounced as Januarius means the “Month of Janus.”
One interesting thing to note, when looking at the translations of old Roman Farmer’s Almanacs, the goddess Juno is who presided over the month of January initially, not Janus.
Since we’re on the subject of time and dates… as a god of beginnings, the very concept of time even starts with Janus. In one of the few temples dedicated to Janus there is a statue of him where the position of the hands signifies the number 355 for the number of days in a lunar year. Later, this number becomes 365 to symbolize Janus’ mastery over time.
New Year’s Day
Another calendar date that carries over from the Romans to modern day in much of Western culture, January 1st marks the start of the New Year. For the omens, the beginning of anything was an omen and would set the tone for the rest to follow. It was customary to greet people with well wishes. People would exchange gifts of dates, figs and honey. Gifts of money or coins called strenae were also exchanged.
Additionally, cakes made of spelled and salt were offered up to Janus on his altars. These offerings or libums were known as ianual. There is likely a corresponding connection to another offering of summanal on the Summer solstice for the god Summanus. However, these offerings would be made with flour, honey, and milk, making them sweeter.
This is another festival held on January 9th for Janus. A ram would be sacrificed at this time.
This is a bit of an oddball festival for me. It was held on October 1st, during the month that Rome’s War Season is ending, and soldiers are returning home.
It’s a purification rite that commemorates Marcus Horatius making atonement for the murder of his sister. The representative for Marcus has their head covered as they pass beneath an archway. The ritual seems to be used as a purification rite for soldiers returning from war to cleanse them from the taint of war as they return to civilized society.
This rite has also been connected to a pairing of Janus and Juno through the epitaphs of Janus Curiatus and Juno Sororia. Janus in his role as a god of transitions and Juno in her role as a protectress of young soldiers.
Several early Roman coins depict Janus on them. With one face being clean shaven while the other is bearded.
This connects Janus as the founder of financial commerce and trade systems as humans transitioned from an age of barbarism to civilization. Roman myth holds that Janus was the first to mint the first coins.
There is a rite or custom where a bride would oil the posts to the door of her new home with wolf fat when she arrived. While this rite does not specifically mention Janus, it is a rite of passage connected to the ianua.
King Of Latium
As old as Janus is, predating the Roman Pantheon, it is very likely that he was a real person at one time.
In a story told by Macrobius, Janus had been exiled from Thessaly and sailed to a place known as Latium with his wife Camise and their children. They settled in a place along the Tiber river that would be named after his son Tiberinus.
Where Janus and his family settled, they built a city called Janiculum. After his wife died, Janus ruled in Latium for many years. After his death, Janus became deified.
Janus’ rule in Latium is part of the Golden Age in Roman mythology that saw a lot of wealth and agriculture come to the region. This era would be what caused Janus to be associated with trade, streams, springs and a sky god.
Variations: Hyginus in his retellings, Camese is male and Janus succeeded him as ruler of the kingdom.
Greek authors place Camese as Janus’ sister and spouse and that they have a son by the name of Aithex and a daughter by the name of Olistene.
Janus & Saturn
In Ovid’s Fasti, the god Saturn welcomes Janus as a guest and eventually shares his kingdom with them in return for teaching the art of agriculture.
Another slight variation to this, is the custom of Roman to depict their gods as having been mortal and ruling the city of Latium during a Golden Age of Peace. Janus as the ruler of his own Kingdom, welcomed Saturn in after he had been expelled from the heavens by Jupiter.
Janus & Romulus
In this myth, Romulus, as in one of the legendary founders of Rome; with the help of his men, kidnapped the Sabine women. In response, the Sabine men retaliated, trying to get their daughters back. Luck was with the Sabine men as a daughter of the city guard betrayed her fellow Romans and let the Sabine men slip within the city.
When the Sabine men tried to make their way up the Capitoline Hill, Janus is credited with causing a hot spring to erupt, causing a mixture of boiling water and volcanic ash that forced the Sabine men to turn back.
It’s from this myth, that the Romans and Sabines would later form a new community and the gates being open during war and closed during peace to keep in would come from.
Janus & Canens
A story found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis; Janus is the father of Canens with the nymph Venilia. Canens was the personification of song and married to Picus. When Picus spurred the love of Circe, she turned him into a woodpecker.Canens searched for six days for her husband before throwing herself into the Tiber river where she sang one final song before dying.
Janus & Carna
Also known by the name of Crane.
Carna was a nymph of the sacred grove in Helernus. Whenever Carna found herself being pursued by the unwanted advances of a young man, she would call out to the young man only to slip away to hide in various crags and other places. Janus saw her hiding and of course, what ancient Roman wouldn’t, Janus rapes Carna.
By way of apology, Janus gives Carna a whitethorn branch so that she may guard all thresholds and doorways, making her a goddess of hinges and then becomes known by the name of Cardea. As a goddess, Cardea would be responsible for protecting and purifying thresholds and doorposts. Incidentally, she also protects newborn infants from stirges. That… is really interesting given the connection between Vampires and not being able to cross thresholds.
That, however, is a post for another day…
I think it is also possible, given how old this myth is, that Janus and Carna had consensual sex and not rape. It would explain giving the hawthorne as a gift between two lovers and Janus elevating Carna from a nymph to a goddess with close to the same powers and abilities as he does with guardianship over thresholds.
Janus & Juturna
A minor myth is that Janus and Juturna, a goddess of wells give birth to Fontus, the god of wells and springs. Comment has been made that Fontus or Fons is another name for Janus. This myth is more likely used to explain why two festivals, Juturna on January 11th and Agonium of Janus on January 9th were so close together. Plus, further explaining why there is an alter for Fontus or Fons near the Janiculum and the connection to spring and beginnings.
Janus & Vesta
Janus presides over the beginnings and guards the doors and entries. Janus would be invoked first in rites and Vesta would be invoked last. It has brought some curious observations. The presence of Vesta shows that there was importance for the hearth, its life-giving fire and thus the home. A community couldn’t survive or thrive without the safety of the household. To be able to exit the untamed and unknown wilds to the safety of the community and civilization.
As has been the case with many deities, Janus was made a martyr and then later the Saint Januarius by the Roman Catholic Church.
Janus was also made a martyr by the Roman Catholic Church and later became known Saint Januarius.
During the Medieval or Middle Ages, the Italian city of Genoa used the symbol of Janus or Ianua. Many other European communes also used the symbol of Ianua.
For those interested in tracing an Indo-European religion and pantheon of gods that links the European deities with those of Vedic origins. There’s been a lot of study into it. As a god of beginnings and transitions, a primordial deity, Janus has been connected to the Vedic Vâyu. Most notably in the works of G. Dumézil. There certainly was a cross-pollination of ideas and religion when you see how much further east Greek culture was at one point and trade routes.
Portunus – Syno-Deity
Portunus is a similar deity to Janus. The difference is that Portunus presided over harbors and gateways in regard to traveling, commerce, trade and shipping. Like Janus, the key and staff are also one of Portunus’ symbols. Portunus’s festival day was held on August 17th.
Janus the Sailor – Because of how similar Janus and Portunus are, there is a hypothesis put forward that Janus may have originated as a god of winds and sailing, brought to the communities by the Tiber river. The connection has more to do with when Saturn sailed to ancient Latium and was welcomed by Janus.
Aditi – Hindu Goddess
The Vedic goddess of Infinity, Aditi is depicted as having two faces. She is seen as the feminine form of Brahma. Like Janus, Aditi is invoked at the beginning of ceremonies and she concludes them as well.
Ani – Etruscan God
In the little-known Etruscan mythology, Ani is the god of the sky and sometimes shown as having two faces. This has led some to conclude a possible connection between Ani and Janus.
Belinus – Chaldean God
Also called Baal-Ianus, a William Betham has made arguments that Janus’ cult would originate from the Middle East with the Chaldean culture.
Brahma – Hindu God
The imagery of double or four-faced deities in Hinduism is common. Brahma is the god who created the universe.
Culśanś – Etruscan God
In the little-known Etruscan mythology, Culśanś has been identified as being the counterpart to the Roman Janus. This connection seems more likely given Culśanś’ role as a god and protector of doorways and his depiction of having two faces.
Heimdallr – Nordic God
As guardian of the Bifrost bridge, the functions that Heimdallr has for standing in a place between time and space have been noted to be similar to Janus.
Isimud – Sumerian God
Also known as Usimu in Babylonian. A deity featuring two faces appears several times in Babylonian art. Isimud is the messenger of Enki.
Greek Connection – Which brings us to another point. However much the ancient Greeks and Romans tried to claim that Janus had no Middle Eastern connection, and that Janus is solely a Roman deity, there are some much later writers who would equate Hermes with Janus, especially so during the Hellenistic era of Greek culture.
Svetovid – Slavic God
Depicted as having four heads or faces, Svetovid is the Slavic god of war, fertility, and abundance.
Janus In Astronomy
On December 15th of 1966, the astronomer Audouin Dollfus discovered and identified, orbiting around Saturn, a moon that would later be called Janus. This moon is also known as Saturn X. It would take a little over a decade before it was recognized that Janus was one of two satellites or moons occupying close to the same orbit. The other is called Epimetheus. These names would become official in 1983. Janus also has two craters on it named for the characters of Castor and Pollux in mythology.
Other names: Rhea, Opiconsivia, Opis
Other Names and Epithets: Ops Consiva, Ops the Sower, Ops Opifera
Originally from Sabine, Ops is the Roman Fertility and Earth-Goddess of the harvest, bounty and wealth. Her place in Roman mythology would directly lift from Greek mythology with the Earth Goddess Rhea.
Sphere of Influence: Abundance, Agriculture, Fertility
Symbols: Bread, Cornucopia, Crown, Seeds, Tambourine
King Titus of Sabine is who created a cult dedicated to Ops where in a short time she would come to be seen as a goddess of plenty, wealth, riches and abundance, both for an individual level and for the nation of Sabine. It wouldn’t take long for the Romans to adopt and import this fertility and earth-goddess, equating her with Cybele and Rhea.
Ops had a couple of different temples in ancient Rome. The first was a sanctuary in the Regia found at the Forum Romanum. The second was a Temple of Ops found on Capitoline Hill.
When paired with Consus, the God of Storage as her consort, Ops would be honored at the harvest festivals on August 21st, Opiconsivia on August 25th and a later celebration of Opalia held on December 19th (sometimes this date is the 9th). There is another festival, held in Ops’ honor that was to have taken place on August 10th.
In statuaries and coins, Ops is shown sitting down, a feature characteristic of Chthonic deities. Ops is also showing holding a scepter and a sheath of grain.
What’s In A Name?
Ops’ name comes from the Latin word meaning “plenty” or a catchall for the words: abundance, gifts, goods, riches and even wealth. In many of the Latin writings from this era, the name or word Ops wouldn’t be used as it’s singular and instead, the word opis used as it’s plural.
Ops’ name is also where the word opus, meaning “work” is derived from. Not just any work or labor, but the very tilling and working the land for farming with plowing and sowing. Without this abundance of the earth and the forthcoming harvest, no one could eat. There are many rituals and festivals in the ancient world that attest to the sacred nature of the earth and the fertility of the land.
A last final thought I came across is the suggestion that Ops’ name is also related to the Sanskrit word of ápnas that also means: “goods” and “property.”
Parentage and Family
Caelus (The primal god of the Sky) & Terra (The Earth)
The gods Janus and Saturn are given as Ops’ brothers.
Consus – The god of Storage, he is also worshiped with Ops as her consort.
Saturn – The god of agriculture, he is often paired up with Ops.
Ceres, Pluto, Neptune, Jupiter, Vesta, and Juno
A Crisis Of Identity
While Ops has her origins in Sabine culture and mythology; her being imported and adopted by the ancient Romans, sees her getting identified with Cybele, the Magna Mater or Great Mother of Rome. The other notable goddess identified with Ops is Rhea, to the point that their stories are identical, just change out the names.
Epitaphs & Other Names
This time, I’ll be mainly looking at a few different epitaphs that Ops is known by.
Juno Opigena – Sometimes Ops would be used as an epitaph of Juno, the Queen of the Gods. This makes sense as Juno herself is a mother goddess, goddess of marriage and childbirth. Though, given Juno is Ops daughter, that comes off as a little confusing.
Ops the Sower – In this role, Ops protected the sowing of crops.
Ops Opifera – When called by this epithet, Ops is believed to bring help.
Ops & Saturn
Ops is often paired up with the god Saturn. The primary myth of these two directly lifts from the Grecian source as seen with Ops being equated with Rhea and Saturn with Cronus.
That said, Ops is the wife of Saturn, who one day learned of a prophecy in which one of his children would kill him, thus taking his throne as king of the Gods. Just like his Grecian counterpart, Saturn decided he would prevent this fate by devouring his children as they are born.
This leaves a very grief-stricken Ops, who decides with the birth of her sixth child, Jupiter (Zeus) that she would hide him away from Saturn. Ops takes and wraps a stone in swaddling clothes to present to Saturn as their latest child.
Even in the original Greek version of this story, they don’t explain how Rhea or Ops, in this case, manages to trick Saturn (Cronus).
Yet, there we are, Saturn has swallowed the stone. Opis hid away her youngest son, Jupiter and raised him in secret. Later, when Jupiter was older, he got a position as a cupbearer his father, the King. With this position, Jupiter is able to add a potion to Saturn’s drink that causes him to vomit and disgorge all of Jupiter’s siblings along with the stone.
The Titanomachy, a ten-year war would soon follow between Saturn and his children. Eventually, Jupiter would finally win the war, ending the Golden Age with Saturn’s death. Taking the throne, Jupiter would become king of the Roman pantheon.
Queen & Mother Of The Gods
That makes sense, Ops is the mother of the Roman Pantheon. As a queen, she would pass this title on later to her daughter Juno.
Rhea – Greek Goddess
Rhea has been identified with a couple of different Roman goddess, one is Cybele and of course Ops. Which can lead to some confusion when matching and pairing up just who’s a Grecian counterpart to who in Roman mythology.
The Romans were famous for subsuming many deities in their conquest across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area, and identifying their gods with those of a conquered culture. The most famous being the Greeks, where many deities were renamed to those of Roman gods. Prominent examples like Zeus and Jupiter, Hera and Juno, Ares and Mars and so on down the line.
With the Hellenization of Latin literature, many Greek writers and even Roman writers rewrote and intertwined the myths of these two deities so that would virtually become one and the same. As the centuries have passed, the tradition of accepting both of these goddesses as one and the same has become generally accepted. Just that there are still some differences that separate the two.
Rhea’s best-known story is with the birth of the Olympian gods. Cronus fearing that a son of his would kill him and take over, devoured all of his children as they were born. Rhea managed to rescue her youngest son, Zeus by tricking Cronus into swallowing a rock. She hid Zeus in the Dictean Cave in Crete. Zeus, after growing up, succeeded at overthrowing Cronus and rescuing his siblings.
Also known as: Befana, Befanta
Etymology – Epifania or Epiphania – the Italian name for the religious holiday of Epiphany. It is thought by some that Befana’s name comes from the Italian mispronunciation of the Greek word “epifania” or “epiphaenia” which means “appearance” or “surface” and “manifestation.” It certainly is the source for the English word epiphany. Another line of thought is that the name Befana comes from the word Bastrina which refer to gifts given by the Sabine goddess Strina.
Perhaps I’m a bit early in posting for La Befana, the Italian Christmas Witch or Fairy. However with the holiday season, I find it easier to get her in now before January 6th arrives.
For children in Italy, Befana plays a role very similar to Santa Claus, however instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer, she flies around on a broom, delivering her gifts of candy to good children in the first week of January. Italian children are very lucky, they not only get visited by Befana; they still get visited by Babbo Natale; both of whom bring presents and gifts.
La Befana is described as an old woman wearing a black shawl while riding a broomstick and carrying a bag of gifts. Sometimes Befana is said to ride either a goat or a donkey.
Like her counterpart of Saint Nicholas or Santa Claus, La Befana is also known for coming down the chimney to bring her gifts to children. Presents and candy for those children who have been good and coal for those who have been bad. In more modern times, the coal is actually a piece of black rock candy. Befana’s being dressed in black explains her being covered in soot from going down chimneys, which she will sweep up after she’s done with her visit and leaving gifts.
Where Santa will receive plates of cookies and a glass of milk as a treat or offering left out for him; Italian children will prepare and leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for La Befana as she no longer has any good teeth left. Other foods such as a glass of wine or broccoli may be left too.
Another aspect that Santa Claus and Befana share in common is that children will write letters to them, requesting a special need or want. Some cities in Italy will set up a mailbox for letters to La Befana in the same manner that Post Offices such as in the U.S. will have mailboxes set up for Santa. Some children will hide their notes or letters to Befana in their chimney for her to find.
La Befana also doesn’t like to be seen and will smack any child caught spying on her with her broomstick. Obviously this part of the story seems a way of parents keeping children in bed while gifts are left out.
The Basic Story And Legend
There are a few different versions to the legend and story behind La Befana.
On the second hill in Via della Padella, there is a village where La Befana lives. In this story, she is said to be part fairy and part witch. La Befana spends the entire year in the company of her grotesque assistants known as the Befanucci preparing coal, making candy and toys and mending old stockings which are given out during the nights of January 5th and 6th, which is said to be the longest night of the year.
The second story is a Christianized version and probably one of the more familiar ones.
When the three wise men were on their journey to visit the young Christ, they stopped at the home of an old woman with a broom who asked them where they were going. They told her that were following a star that would lead them to the newborn baby and savior Jesus.
The wise men asked the old woman if she wanted to come with them, but she replied that she was far too busy cleaning and didn’t have time to go.
Later when the old woman, La Befana had either finished her cleaning, changed her mind about going or realized that the baby whom the wise men spoke of was the prophesied redeemer, it was too late. She was too late in coming to visit the Christ child, he had already left. Other versions of this story have La Befana getting lost on the way.
Ever since then, La Befana has been searching for the baby Christ and leaving gifts in the homes where children live in hopes that one of them is the young Christ. In some retellings, Befana has come to see and realize over her many years of searching, that in a way, the Christ Child can be found in all children and this is why she will leave her gifts.
Slight variations to this story have Befana running as fast as she could to catch up with the Wise Men that she began to fly on her broom she was still holding onto.
Another variation to the flying broom is that angels appeared, coming from the bright star in the sky and enchanted Befan’s broom so she could search more easily for the Baby Jesus.
Zoroastrian Connection – With this idea in mind, the Magi, Kings in their own right, were fire priests from a privileged caste in Persia. The gifts the Magi carry in the biblical story, represent thre worlds: earthly gold, celestial incense and myrrh from beyond the grave. These three elements were linked to the sacred fires of Vedica, India and Avestica, Persia. There may be a connection between them, their gifts and La Befana with them all arriving on January 6th, the Epiphany.
In a story similar to that involving the wise men, this story too has Christian connections.
With this story, La Befana was a mother who lived during the time of King Herod. When Herod made his decree that all the first born male children and male children born that year were to be killed in his efforts to try and prevent the new king, La Befana’s son was among many of those slain by Herod’s soldiers.
So traumatized by grief with the loss of her son and in deep denial to his death, La Befana became convinced that her son was merely lost. She placed all of her son’s belongings in a sack and went out searching for him, going from house to house. The stress from worry, caused La Befana to quickly age, becoming an old woman.
With what seemed liked forever for the grief stricken mother, yet only a few days, La Befana found a male baby in a manager. Certain that she had found her son, La Befana laid out all of her son’s belongings for the infant. The baby in question was Jesus Christ and he blessed the lady as “Befana,” the giver of gifts.
Every year since, on January 5th, the eve of the Epiphany, La Befana would be Mother to all of the world’s children and care for them by bringing gifts of treats, toys and clothing. While some families will leave out a plate of soft ricotta cheese for her, other families will have a plate with broccoli and spice sausage along with a small glass of wine for La Befana.
In this story, La Befana is benevolent and kindly old Witch who saw the emptiness that children suffered during the long, dark nights of winter. Because of her great love and affection for all innocents, La Befana wanted the children to know that even in the darkness of winter, that kindness and hope could still be found.
Starting with the eve of Yule, typically around December 21st, La Befana would, in secret go from door to door, leaving a basket of gifts. Inside each basket would be bread, cheese, sweets and gifts for the children. A final gift, more important and precious than the others was a colored, scented candle; a Solstice candle. Families would light this candle on the night of the Solstice, the flame of this candle both symbolized and brought the light of hope for the coming year. It is a reminder that even in the darkest cold of winter, the light and warmer days of summer would come again.
Epiphany – Little Christmas
January 6th marks the final day of the holiday season in Italy. This is the day that La Befana arrives, bringing gifts and treats for children, marking the end of the Yule Season. Epiphany or Twelfth Night is also when the 12 Wise Men are said to have finally visited the baby Jesus, bringing with them their gifts.
As Little Christmas, the Epiphany is traditionally a holiday for children in Italy. In the region of Abruzzo and other Southern areas, one festivity that children celebrate is called Pasquetta and commemorates the arrival of the Magi to Bethlehem when visiting the infant Jesus. There are parades held that feature La Befana. She is sometimes accompanied by her male companion, Befano. Children will sing songs to La Befana and leave out dolls in windows. Some families will burn the dolls as a means ending the past year and bring good luck for the coming year. Family and friends will from house to house visiting each other after opening their gifts from La Befana in the morning. Firework displays are also part of many modern Epiphany celebrations. Her arrival is also celebrated with traditional foods such as panettone, a Christmas cake.
The celebration of Befana during Epiphany is huge in Italy where she has become a national icon. In the areas of Marche, Umbria and Lazio, Befana is associated with the Papal States where Epiphany has the strongest presence. Befana’s home is thought to be Umbria.
The stories and traditions of La Befana are older than those of Babbo Natale; Santo Natale, the Italian names for Father Christmas or Santa Claus. She can be found going back centuries with some speculation that La Befana may be the goddess Hecate. Historically, La Befana first appears in writing in a poem written by Agnolo Firenzuola in 1549.
La Befana’s festival has taken over an ancient pagan feast celebrated on the Magic Night, the 6th day of the New Year. One aspect of the Epiphany celebrations as part of an ancient holiday for celebrating the New Year, is a time for purification. This is seen in Befana’s carrying a broom that she uses to sweep around the fireplaces of those whom she visits as a mean of clearing away the old, negative energies of the previous year and cleansing it for the coming New Year.
Other rites used for purification were burning effigy dolls of Befana to symbolize the death of the old year and the birth of the New Year. The end of the long winter nights and the return of the longer days of spring and summer. The coal Befana is known for leaving for naughty children has connections to sacred bonfires and is a symbol of fertility with the renewal of the earth at spring. The sacred bonfires are also seen in the ceppo or yule logs burned at this time of the year. The ashes from the burned yule log would be kept and sprinkled out in the fields for good luck and to ensure a healthy crop.
Sometimes the Ceppo is a pyramid made of wood, a tiered tree believed to have started in the Tuscan region of Italy. This tree would have three to five shelves and the frame decorated. On the bottom shelf is the family’s Nativity scene and the remaining shelves would hold greenery, fruit, nuts and present. The Nativity or Presepio represents the gift of God. The fruit and nuts represent the gifts of the Earth and the presents the gift of man. The top of the tree would have an Angel, star or a pineapple that represents hospitality. Sometimes candles are attached to the outside of each shelf, which is why the ceppo is also called the “Tree of Light.”
In Abruzzo, on the morning of Janurary 6th, sacristans would go from house to house leaving what is known as “Bboffe water.” This water was used for devotions or sprinkled around the house ward off and keep away negative energy or magic.
In the region of Romagna, the celebration of Epiphany was a time for connecting with their ancestors, which would help to ensure a successful crop and fertility for the coming year. This connection is seen in the Befanotti who represented the ancestors going from house to house singing Pasquella and in Befana coming down the chimneys to leave a gift.
The Italian anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco make a connection of Befana’s origins back to Neolithic times, beliefs and practices. They make a further connection of Befana having evolved into a Fertility and Agricultural goddess in their book “Una Casa Senza Porte” (“House without a Door”).
Ancient Sabine Goddess – Strenua
La Befana is thought to be connected to the Sabine/Roman goddess known as Strenua or Strina who was a goddess of strength and endurance. This connection has been made mention in the book “Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily” by Reverend John J. Blunt. Strenua presided over the New Year, Purifications and Well-Being. She would give gifts of figs, dates and honey. Strenua’s festivities were opposed by early Christians who viewed them as too noisy, riotous and licentious.
On January 1st, twigs were carried from Strenua’s grove, likely located in or near Via Sacra where she had a temple, in a procession to the citadel. This particular rite is first mentioned happening on New Year’s Day in 153 B.C.E. This is the year when the consuls first began assuming their office at the beginning of the year. With the switch and change over from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendars, it’s not clear if January 1st had always been the date that Strenua’s New Year celebration had been observed or if it had been held on the original New Year’s Day, a date sometimes thought in this case to have been March 1st.
The name Strenia is thought to be the origin for the word strenae, which were New-Year’s gifts that the Romans exchanged to promote good omens. Various strenae have been branches or twigs and money. Another name for these gifts is Bastrina and it is thought to have given their name to La Befana.
According to a Johannes Lydus, strenae is a Sabine word meaning “wellbeing” or “welfare”. It is unknown how accurate this may be as many words attributed to the Sabines are only singular, one word or there and no surviving scripts or inscriptions have been found. Saint Augustine says that Strenia was a goddess responsible for making a person vigorous or strong. And if you haven’t guessed it, the root for the word strenuous.
There seems to be a lot of strong agreement that Strenua rites and celebrations survive in the festivities surrounding La Befana.
Other Mythological Figures Possibly Connected To Befana
Giubiana – An old woman or crone and festival of the same name held in the Northern Italy region of Lombardy. An effigy of Giubiana and sometimes her male counterpart and spouse, Ginée who is the personification of January. An effigy of Giubiana is burned to ashes to symbolize the burning away of the old year and the end of winter.
Nicevenn – La Befana has been connected to the Scottish figure of Nicevenn as a source of inspiration for her legend and traditions. With Nicevenn or Gyre-Carling as she was also known, it was considered unlucky to leave any unfinished knitting lying around lest she steal it.
Perchta – A southern Germanic goddess from the Alpine countries. She is sometimes identified with the Germanic goddess Holda. Both goddesses are known as a “guardian of the beasts” and making an appearance during the Twelve Days of Christmas; overseeing spinning. Perchta is a goddess who went from being benevolent to more malevolent with the passage of time and rise of Christianity. At one time during the Yule Season and Epiphany, Perchta will leave a silver coin for those who have been good and she reportedly will slit open the bellies of who haven’t and stuff them with straw and pepples. Thankfully, Perchta has become more tempered again and will leave coal instead if someone’s been bad.
Befana Poems And Songs
There a number of different songs sung about Befana with slightly different versions found in different regions of Italy.
The following is one version:
“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”
The English translation is as follows:
The Befana comes by night
With her shoes all tattered and torn
She comes dressed in the Roman way
Long life to the Befana!
A poem by Giovanni Pascoli:
“Viene, viene la Befana
Vien dai monti a notte fonda
Come è stanca! la circonda
Neve e gelo e tramontana!
Viene, viene la Befana”
The English translation is as follows:
“Here comes, here comes the Befana
She comes from the mountains in the deep of the night
Look how tired she is! All wrapped up
In snow and frost and the north wind!
Here comes, here comes the Befana!”