A few years ago, a dear friend brought me a gift on her return from Ireland. It is a small silver pendant with a Celtic figure inscribed on both the front and back. It is unusual for just that reason; it is double-sided and looks forward and backward at the same time.
We refer to these types of figures as "Janus" or "Janiform" figures, seen more frequently when the calendar year has just turned and we are still glancing back even as we are moving forward. As well, the month of January is named after Janus, the Roman god of doors and gates.
This particular pendant is fashioned after a rough, carved stone located on Boa Island, County Fermagh, Ireland. Dating from approximately 1000 AD, the carved figure stands in the small overgrown graveyard of Caldragh. Each side holds its arms (or legs) in front of it in a distinctive "X" pattern and the sides are joined by stone inscribed with chevron and zig-zag markings that some believe represent hair. There is a depression at the top of the figure which may have once held a headpiece of some sort or may be a basin for the collection of water.
The figure, with its large back-to-back heads slightly different from one another, attracts much interest and even more speculation. Though most visitors assume the figures are male, it is unlikely that both are male and it is possible that neither is.
"Janus" figures like the one on Boa Island are particularly interesting when viewed from a larger perspective. From the dreamtime of the Upper Paleolithic some 25,000 years ago come double-headed figures carved on stone slabs -- female figures, each side slightly different from the other. The primary deity of the Paleolithic was the Great Goddess, the Giver of Life who cyclically turned her attention from summer to winter, light to dark, past to future.
By the Neolithic era, double-headed female figures were often beaked or masked and considered divine sisters, representations of the Bird Goddess. The Bird Goddess is the winged mediator of heaven and earth for whom water and the cycle of life are sacred. Decorated with chevrons, zig-zags and "X" markings, the primordial Great Goddess is parthenogenetic, that is, she can bring forth life without male fertilization. She is fruitful simply by being.
With time and the rise of patriarchy, the position of the Goddess shifted. Now legitimate only as a wife, dutiful daughter or lesser goddess, her attributes were often anointed upon other Gods. For example, Carmenta, Roman goddess of childbirth and prophecy was originally celebrated at her festival, the Carmentalia in January. Addressed by her adherents as "Postvorta and Antevorta," she was considered to "look both back and forward," a characteristic we now recognize in the Roman Janus. Early depictions of Janus portray a bearded male looking one direction and a female face looking the other.
In time few Old World goddesses retained their primitive independence. Interestingly Mary, the Goddess in Christian guise, mimics the old parthenogenetic goddesses by giving birth without male insemination. Another Western goddess who retained her creativity is the regenerative Irish goddess, Brigit, patroness of the hearth, healer, poet and Seer.
Brigit is a pre-Celtic goddess who shares her cyclic aspect with the Cailleach of winter and Danu of summer. Celebrated at twilight on February 1, Brigit's festival day, now known as "St. Brigid's Day," marks the first day of the Celtic spring. Like all ancient goddesses she brings forth light and fertility from under the ground and her blessing can be sought in the waters, wells and loughs of Ireland.
There are other goddesses in Irish mythology who remained powerful deities after the advent of the Christian era. Early sovereign goddesses of the land such as Macha, Badb and Morrigan, known collectively as the Morrigna, remain although they became militarized and are now more likely associated with war and strife than with the fertility of the land.
Still, like the ancient Bird Goddess, the Morrigna are often associated with birds -- ravens, crows, vultures and owls. They foretell the future and the word "Badb" refers as well to the Irish banshee, the White Lady of Death. Similarly, the name Boa Island originates from "badhbha" or "Badb," and it has been suggested that the area of Boa Island is the mythological home of the Cailleach, the Divine Hag of winter.
The landscape of Ireland is ensouled by the silent features of the land, be they of stone, earth, vegetation or water. And on Boa Island, the Janus figure that is not a Janus figure waits patiently. It is possible that one side is male, the other female. Does it watch the meandering of past into future, of the slow turning of Goddess to God, or does it represent the divine marriage of the soul that includes aspects of both female and male?
If entirely female, does the figure, standing in the territory of the Cailleach, symbolize the turning of the year from winter to summer through the springtime of Brigit?
The waters of Lough Erne lap at Boa Island. A hazel grove, the Celtic tree of divination, encircles the small graveyard. The place is purported to have the feel of a sanctuary. As we gaze at the enigmatic two-sided figure, whether on a pendant, in a picture or in our minds' eye, we take our place as the third perspective. We are not past, not future, but present in this season and time. Our simple presence of mind draws these seemingly disparate features of symbol and history together into the splendor of one universal moment.
Welcome spring, welcome Brid. May we learn from but not be tethered to the past, may we see but not be frightened of the future. And most of all, may we experience richly and deeply this moment of the present.