Welcome to a new year! To celebrate, this post contains a menagerie of mythical figures who convey past and future, endings and beginnings, and oppositional double-natures.
Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings, and the origin of the name “January”. His two faces look towards the past and future, as he himself is situated in the present moment as mediator of the two. Related to these themes, he is thus also known as a god of doorways (physical points of transition) and is often depicted holding a key.
Arthur Koestler calls him the god of holons—his term for an entity which is both a “part” and a “whole”. As in, a person is whole, but also part of a city. And a city is whole, but part of a country. Holons therefore have two Janus-like faces which lead them simultaneously to express their partness and wholeness—sometimes harmoniously and sometimes catastrophically.
“This implies that every holon is possessed of two opposite tendencies or potentials: an integrative tendency to function as part of a larger whole, and a self-assertive tendency to preserve its individual autonomy... Under favorable conditions, the two basic tendencies...are more or less equally balanced, and the holon lives in a kind of dynamic equilibrium within the whole—the two faces of Janus complement each other.” - Arthur Koestler
I think from a human perspective, Janus symbolically stirs us to action, and inspires us to value both our drive towards individuality and towards community. When the two drives are balanced, one transcends oneself through benevolent participation in the good of everyone, while remaining essentially oneself—knowing that only true individuals can form communities, while those who lose themselves to something suprapersonal can only form herds and mobs.
Janus is one way to imagine the oppositional tendencies within us—which, in turn, helps us strive towards their dynamic balance.
Aker is an Egyptian god depicted as two lions guiding the setting sun (or solar god) as it descends into the night.
“The solar god…is surrounded by the eternal serpent that bites its tail, standing on the double-lion god of the horizon, Aker… The lion looking towards the West alludes to yesterday and death; while the one facing the East alludes to tomorrow and resurrection.”- Alicia Maravelia
Aker seems fitting for our metamodern epoch, which is not erasing the past, but including it in something new which both embraces and transcends what has come before.
As “yesterday” and “tomorrow”, Aker awakens us to the idea of an arrow of time—an irreversible flow from past to future. These two faces could therefore also be interpreted as energy and entropy, which, together, give us a measurable, objective way to tell yesterday from tomorrow.
“Energy is called ‘mistress of the world’ because everything that happens in the world does so via changes of one form of energy into another... The other forms of energy—potential and kinetic, thermal and chemical, electrical and magnetic—are the direct sources of the work carried out in nature and technology. Work is done when one of these forms of energy is transformed into another... Entropy is called ‘the shadow’ of the mistress of the world because it can be used as a measure of the depreciation of energy, if we understand the value of energy to lie in its availability for transformation into useful work.” - Mikhail V. Volkenstein
This January, let’s remember to keep looking forward and behind. May we remember that which we left in the past, and cherish that which is still ahead.
A lunar god of great importance in ancient Egypt—Thoth is frequently depicted as an ibis (or human-ibis hybrid), a baboon, or the moon itself.
“Some myths cast Thoth as the actual moon, and in others he is the moon’s guardian… Because of the waxing and waning of the moon, one of Thoth’s many titles was the ‘Measurer of Time.’” - Pat Remler
Thoth was widely known in Egypt as a god of language, knowledge, magic, and death—these themes being more closely entangled than a modern reader might think.
“Thoth as ‘lord of the sacred words’ gave to the Egyptians the knowledge of how to write by picture symbols, hence hieroglyphs could always possess a magical force... Thoth represented to the Egyptians the embodiment of all scientific and literary attainments, being in command of all ‘the sacred books in the house of life’.” - George Hart
This makes him one of the earliest figures who represents the dual-nature of benevolence and malevolence, or the “above” and the “below” which (like Hermes from Greek mythology) he unifies. Philosophically, this may also be interpreted as striving to be in touch with the best and worst of our potential as people. We attempt to grasp a transcendent and absolute perfection and make our actuality its faithful image. And we do so, like Thoth and Hermes, by also engaging our shadows and our genius for good and evil.
“To confront a person with his Shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the Self. Anyone who perceives his Shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle.”- Carl Jung
While Thoth does not, like the Janus or Aker, literally have two faces, he stands as an early example of how symbolic/mythological representations of cosmic principles can help us reconcile our own double-natures.
In this way, Thoth also reminds us to confront the unknown bravely but cautiously—since the very valuable and very dangerous are often neighbors.
“The pairs of opposites (being and not being, life and death, beauty and ugliness, good and evil, and all the other polarities that bind the faculties to hope and fear, and link the organs of action to deeds of defense and acquisition) are the clashing rocks that crush the traveler, but between which the heroes always pass.” - Joseph Campbell
This heroic mediation of opposites shares similarities to the idea of a challenge, as described by Francis Heylighen. A challenge unifies the ideas of “problem” (negative), “activation” (neutral), and “opportunity” (positive). And a figure such as Thoth enshrines the moment prior to differentiation into one of these categories. It is a “Schrödinger’s cat” type of moment where multiple possibilities are incubated. May we always stay aware of the decisive moment when we solidify our actuality from nebulous possibility, and appreciate the unidirectional series of actions which create more or less perfect futures.
Baba Yaga is one of the many mythical figures who personifies a double-nature specific to mythological women or, more broadly, the feminine aspect of the universe. This tradition and its literature are vast: The snake surrounding the cosmic egg; the sea as a simultaneously creative and destructive force; the Morrígan as wartime messenger of either victory (new life) or defeat (death); the Ciguapa who faces forward but walks with backwards feet; mermaids and sirens as either sources of salvation or doom; even the modern femme fatale trope; or any number of triple goddess figures—for when two faces just aren’t enough.
“Baba Yaga…[is] good or evil according to the manner in which she is approached.” - Joanna Hubbs
Yaga, as the elder aspect (or crone) of the feminine archetype, contains the multiplicity of the “maiden” and “mother” aspects which compose the typical feminine trinity. This triune structure inherently relates to a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. She is typically associated with symbolic imagery, such as a mortar and pestle, which amplifies these themes.
“Baba Yaga…is a spinner; her house is sometimes represented standing on a spindle… The embroidery goddess is the patron of woman as spinner. In folk belief, spinning is associated with birth-giving and nurture. It provides the visible basis for a cosmology suggesting the continuous creativity of the divinity spinning all living things out of her own body. Yaga is like the withered flower pod brimming with new seed. She is the expression of realized potential, the fulfillment of the cycle of life associated with woman… In her the cycles of feminine life are brought to completion, and yet she contains them all… [And] the symbolism of the mortar and pestle is both complex and deceptively simple: It is used not only to grind grain but also to prepare the flax which women use in spinning cloth. Mortar and pestle are the instruments of destruction and of nurture and protection (clothing). In their symbolic form, they represent the human sexual organs, womb and phallus. Birth, generation, nurture, and death are all conjoined here.” - Joanna Hubbs
I think, rather than approaching actual women as walking embodiments of a cosmic double or triple-nature (which is only advisable in very rare circumstances!), Baba Yaga has us meditate on ambiguity in all of its forms. Her imagery and mythos animate us to attempt a synthesis of opposites within ourselves—unshaken by the knowledge that we will fall short. The ego, as Jung would say, always fails in the complete individuation of the self, but should always seek that distant-yet-close point on the horizon.
“In nature the opposites seek one another—les extrêmes se touchent—and so it is in the unconscious, and particularly in the archetype of unity, the self… The self, however, is absolutely paradoxical in that it represents in every respect thesis and antithesis, and at the same time synthesis… Without the experience of the opposites there is no experience of wholeness and hence no inner approach to the sacred figures.” - Carl Jung
When we reach towards perfection, every step is beautifully coherent, and it doesn’t end up mattering that we never arrive at the end. Contradictions persist, and that’s ok.
“The result is not a synthesis, but a unity‑in‑contradiction, an identity of opposites.” - Robert E. Carter
As we go forward into the new year, I think it would benefit us to do so with openminded fluidity. A situation which at first looks threatening may reveal great treasures to those who confront the storm. Lines between nemeses may blur and transform into something generative of growth, beauty, and love. January connects the death of a past year with the birth of a new one. Let us be present with both.