Origins: A Year in Review
As the year comes to a close, we take a look at the English names for the months of the year, and the mythical figures that have inspired them. For some months, their name’s provenance may be more obvious (if confusing) such as October coming from the Latin octo meaning eight, as it was once the eight month of the year. It is also fairly well known that July was named for Julius Caesar. But others are slightly more obscure, and most of them find their roots in Roman mythology.
Janus is the Roman god of new beginnings, and so the perfect namesake for the first month of the year. While he is known as a Roman god, Janus is actually thought to predate the founding of Rome. In addition to presiding over beginnings, he was also said to be the god of doorways, endings, and change. As a god of beginnings, Janus was often invoked first in prayer, and the beginnings of the day, month, and year were all sacred to him. He is usually depicted as a god with two faces, allowing him to face both backwards and forwards as once – one face is said to face the past, and the other the future.
Februalia was a Roman festival of purification that took place in spring of each year. The festival involved a month-long period of atonement, where people would pray, meditate, and give offerings and sacrifices to the gods.
Over time the festival is thought to have become associated with the goddess Vesta. Vesta was associated with fire, in particular the fires of the hearth. Her associated with the festival is thought to have come from the purifying properties of flame, connecting her to a festival of purification.
March is named for Mars, the Roman god of war. It is thought that Mars was once more of an agricultural deity, and that it was his affiliation with the Greek god Ares that transformed him into a more combative deity. An important deity in Rome, he was sometimes said to have been the father of Romulus and Remus, the twin heroes raised by a she-wolf who founded the city. He was the equivalent to the Greek god Ares and, like Ares, was engaged in an adulterous affair with the goddess of love, Venus (Aphrodite) only to be discovered by her husband Vulcan (Hephaestus).
April has two different possibilities for its origin. In one, the word April is derived from the Latin Aperire meaning to open, which may be a reference to flowers blooming in spring. A second suggestion is that April gets its name due to the goddess Venus.
April was sacred to Venus as the Veneralia, a festival held in her honour, took place during it. It has been said therefore that April may get its name from Venus’ Greek counterpart, Aphrodite and may originally have been known as Aphrilis.
Compared to April, the month of May is more obviously named for a goddess, Maia. Maia is thought to have once been two different goddesses, with the same name. One was Greek, and one was Roman.
As a Roman goddess, Maia was identified with earth and the goddess Gaia, in particular embodying the idea of growth. As a Greek Goddess, Maia was the eldest of the Pleiades sisters, daughters of Atlas. She was one of Zeus’ lovers, and bore him the godly son, Hermes, though there are few other legends of her that survive beyond this one.
June is named for the Roman goddess Juno, the queen of the gods and wife of Jupiter. She looked after the people of Rome, particularly the women, who she watched over in her roles as the goddess of marriage and childbirth.
Juno was one of the three oldest Roman gods. She, along with her husband Jupiter, and the goddess Minerva, were worshiped in a grand temple on Capitoline Hill. They were said to be the Roman versions of deities worshiped by the earlier Etruscan people.
Juno was the mother of several gods, but she was said to be the sole parent of Mars. Envious of Jupiter for birthing Minerva from his head when childbirth was Juno’s dominion, Juno conceived and birthed Mars alone.
July & August
Unlike the other months seen so far, July and August were not named for gods, but rather historical figures. July was named for the famous Julius Caesar, leader of Rome, while August was named for Caesar’s great-nephew and adopted son, Emperor Gaius Octavius, who later took on the name Augustus.
While they were real historical figures, both men were deified after their deaths. Despite begin overthrown and betrayed, Julius Caesar was later seen as a martyr. He was elevated to godhood and given the title ‘The Divine Julius’. As the son of a god – albeit adopted – Augustus declared that he himself was also a god.
September, October, November & December
The last four months of the year are a bit more prosaic compared to the others. Rather than named for gods, they are instead numerical, named the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth month of the year respectively. While that may have made more sense in Rome, nowadays the addition of two extra months have pushed these back to becoming nineth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth.