January, New Year and the Compitalia
Ancient Pagan festival to honour the household gods
By Pat Regan
For many people, after the December festivities January comes as a quite a gloomy anti-climax. However, Classical Pagans (i.e. those following a Roman/Greek pantheon) perceive the world with somewhat different eyes.
Subsequent to the festivities of Yuletide and the Midwinter Solstice, or Christmas – if one subscribes to the more recent Christian ethos, we swiftly arrive at the start of another contemporary year. I accentuate the word ‘contemporary’ because calendars have so frequently changed over the centuries.
The bucolic, pre-Christian, Celtic land dwellers regarded the period we now call Halloween (originally Samhain) as the end of summer and commencement of winter. It marked the start of the New Year.
When we disregard the ‘man-made’ calendar and take a long look at nature's moods, this old agricultural method of time calculation begins to make a great deal of sense.
At the beginning of the modern New Year celebrations, trees have already started to produce swelling buds and migratory fish like wonderful salmon and sea trout have long since dropped their eggs in upland streams.
Mother Nature celebrates her own New Year, like the Celts did, several months before today's more thoughtless occasion.
Many customs of our modern culture are thinly based on the immense wisdom of our ancient Pagan ancestors. Naturally, trouble-making religious fundamentalists, eager to gain a podium for their intolerant, messianic worldview, often struggle to rebut this historical fact.
January for instance receives its title from the great Roman god of doorways/new ventures, ‘Janus.’ This deity was frequently portrayed in art with two heads; one looking to the past whilst the other viewed the future.
Some ancient scholars have preferred to think of this god as presiding over the commencement and finish of the sun's journey though the daily sky. I personally think that both schools of thought contain a modicum of truth.
With Janus we must carefully observe the following:
‘What was, what is, and that which is yet to come’.
Herein we will discover the magickal key of wisdom freely given to us by Janus. Hail Janus!
Janus then, lends his name to the New Year's beginning and like us he looks nostalgically back at the past and subsequently into the stirring future to come. He is very much a god of the whole year and his authority extends into far greater realms than many academics had initially presumed.
The Romans held a sacred feast day on the 12th of January (and also on the 6th of March) called the ‘Compitalia.’ This antediluvian festival was performed in honour of the household gods, the ’Lares.’
These much-loved deities were two in number and their father was ‘Mercury’, Messenger of the gods. Their mother was Lara.
Throughout this occasion masters would serve meals to their servants, as they did in December at the Saturnalian feast. Special incense was burnt on the Lares' altar and oil lamps would light the chilled night air. Tree branches decorated the rooms and hallways, whilst small images of the Lares adorned tables. The Lares were also venerated in May when bright flowers featured largely in the joyful event.
The name Compitalia relates to the title ‘Lares-Compitales,’ meaning ‘Protective deities of the crossroads’. Thus a significant part of the Compitalia itself was celebrated at places were pathways crossed. The name Lares comes from the Etruscan word ‘Lars’ which means, conductor or leader.
The Romans made an alcove behind their doors or close by to the family fireplace to hold small statues of the Lares. The statutes resembled a monkey adorned with dog’s skin, which included a dog in the act of barking at the feet of the deities. The protective countenance of the Lares was clearly marked herein with the sentinel dog to watch over the family.
Primarily the Lares were gods of inferior power, limited to the home and family. As time passed their influence grew and extended to the country and the sea.
Images of straw men and the dried heads of poppy flowers were a favourite offering to these Roman gods.
The wise old Romans were exceptionally spiritual people in many ways, having a deity for everything and its action. Divinity engrossed upon and extended to all things and had to be duly marked.
Most accidents now appear to occur in the home. Therefore, perhaps a judicious word or two with the Lares this New Year is just the tonic needed by contemporary man to forestall this ill state of affairs.
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