If you are like me, you never thought much about calendars and the way we tell time. Usually a person starts thinking about these subjects when they first encounter a foreign language or go to another country. Those of us in the West inherited an Egyptian calendar that has Roman months, a Babylonian week that has Roman names for the days, and a Roman set of months, that make so little sense that we have a rhyme to memorize how many days each month: "thirty days hath September, April, June and November, all the rest have thirty-one excepting February alone." And no one thinks much of our twelve hour clock, or the military or European clock of 24 hours. Yet they are all what we call "constructs" or invented ideas to try to tell time.
Well, you are not alone if you do not understand calendars and time. The above disc is dated from 1600 BCE, about the time of Crete, a bit after Stonehenge. It is from an old European observatory almost 1000 years before Babylon. There is much speculation about the disk. At that time, the Egyptians had a forty day month, three seasons of three months each for a total of 360 days in the year with five "free" days or holidays. This disk has forty holds perforated around the rim. With nine of these holes outlined in gold (for nine months) it would appear to be a day counter. Some have speculated about the moon and sun figures and the "stars" which some assume to be the Pleiades and their surrounding neighbors. This configuration showed up at the time of the Vernal Equinox, or the beginning of Spring at that time. (See the Astronomy pages.)
The Days of the Week
Let us begin with what might be familiar to you: the weeks and the months. The days of the week are easier to understand. They are named after the seven planets visible in the ancient sky which were associated with gods. Sunday is the English version of the Roman Dominica and is the exception. In most European languages, Sunday is called the Day of God. Only in English is it still named after the Sun. Monday is after the Moon. Tuesday is after the Germanic equivalent of Mars, Tyw. Wednesday is short for Wodan, or Odin who is the Germanic Mercury. Thursday is after Thor, the Germanic Zeus or Jupiter. Friday is after Freya or the Germanic Venus. Saturday is after Saturn. The seven day week is from the Babylonians, who measured their year by moon months of 28 days.
Months are much more difficult to understand. The first thing that most people notice is that the name, "September" is supposed to be "seven", yet the month of September is the ninth month on our calendar which begins in January. If you find this confusing, believe me, everyone does. Our months are a carryover from Rome and the Church. Rome began their year with the Spring Equinox. If you know anything about Zodiac signs, you know that they, too, begin in the Spring with Aries, the Ram. If we begin the year with March instead of January, you then see that September (7) October (8) November (9) and December (10) all have the correct month and number of month. The other months with two exceptions are named after Roman gods: Janus, Februar, Mars, Avril, Mai, and Juno. July is after Julius Caesar and August after Augustus Caesar. Both of these Caesars wanted 31 days in their month, and so robbed February, at that time the last month of the year.
If you look at the cycle of the Moon, from new to new or full to full, the Moon circles the Earth in about 29 days, not thirty or thirty-one. Yet even this number is not completely accurate. The lunar phase is full to full and is 29.53 days in our modern time. Yet the orbit is only 27.3 days or when the Moon appears to be in the same part of the sky each month, i.e. Pleiades to Pleiades. This difference is because the Earth is moving forward as the Moon orbits so the Moon must "catch up" with two more days. You can see from this calendar of lunar phases, that the Moon drops back one day each month.
Many calendars in modern times are lunar. The one with which many people are familiar is the Jewish calendar because it controls the date of the Christian holiday of Easter which occurs three days after the Jewish holiday of Passover. The holidays will get earlier in the year until an extra lunar month is added and then they will "jump" ahead. The Muslims let their calendar and their holidays precess so that the holy festival of Ramadan is earlier in the year until a complete cycle is made and it syncs up again with the Jewish holy month of Rosh Hashanah. Most people are comfortable with two or three calendars, one for religious dates, one for official dates of the state and a third, an agricultural calendar.
The Chinese also use a lunar calendar with leap years of 13 months, like the Jewish. All of these people begin their day at sunset. Most of them begin their month with the first visible new moon. I became interested in our ancient European calendars when I first went to Anieth, yet let me try to explain our own official calendar before I talk about ancient Europe.
This should look familar to most of you. We learn this official calendar as children. Yet you may not know that this calendar was adopted only after Julius Caesar took Egypt. Before that, most of Europe used a lunar calendar. Caesar adopted the twelve months and the four-year leap day from the Egyptians, yet to keep this calendar accurate, another day must be added every hundred years. By the 17th Century CE, the calendar had lost eleven days and their were riots when the British government updated it and "stole" those days from people.
Here is another calendar that most people are not familiar with, also named after Julius Caesar. It simply is a way to count the days without starting over each month. Look at April, one merely adds 100 to the days that begin again with zero. Thus July 19 is day 200 on a regular year. On a leap year is is day 201. This calendar is useful to people trying to calculate the number of days in different cycles, as in accounting, or business, or in astronomy. Most day calendars have the Julian date on the page.
Before the modern era, the only people who kept a year tally were religious institutions. Most people counted the years in the way we count the days: the years of a king's reign. You will find many old manuscripts who refer to "year 10 of her highness Elizabeth the Great" rather than the year 1568. Even the Christian calendar is based on the year of the birth of Christ, which is rather controversial! To try to make the calendar less religious, we now say CE (current era) rather than AD (Anno Domini). 2014 is 5775 in the Jewish calendar and 1435 on the Muslim calendar, 1935 on the Indian calendar (old style), and the Chinese only began counting years instead of knowing the dates of the Emperors' rules in 1911. Most people became familiar with one of the Mayan epochs which was over in 2012.
Why go to all this bother? The agrarian caledar was always very simple: people needed to know when to plant their crops. By the Roman Age, the calendar of religious holidays to gods, tax days, merchant days and other days of luck and duty was so complicated that only the government could keep track of it all. Take a look at the number of holidays on this reconstruction.
It was even more complicated by Medieval times:
There were two rival factions who fought over the calendar: the church and the state. Often they were content to have two calendars as they do today. The church tracked holidays and often forced people in power to give their people the day off in order to collect support in church for that particular diety or saint. The state tracked days merely to collect taxes and to record judgements and mete out punishments. Yet, long, long ago, the tenure of the rulers was fixed and tied to agricultural events. If the king did not die on such and such a day, the crops would not grow or people would not flourish. At that time, the church controlled the rule of the kings who were usually representatives of the gods. It was not until much later that the kings decided to extend their rule and put in a sacrifice in their stead. At first it was a human sacrifice then an animal sacrifice. By Roman times, sacrifices were done by all to insure luck and ward off evil. The role of the church had expanded from tracking time for one sacrifice to tracking time for thousands of sacrifices. Later, instead of sacrifices, people gave money or gifts. In the Christian countries much of this was simplified by reformists to giving on one day a week when everyone was obligated to go to church with the exception of a couple of holidays. Yet the state still enforces their calendar very strictly with huge penalties if tax days are missed.
We want to start with a way of tracking time. The month was obvious to the ancients. The word itself is tied to the word for moon. One moon cycle of 29 days or one moon cycle of 27 days. Given the problems that modern peoples have with a lunar month, it is no wonder that ancient people like the Egyptians did not use it as a calendar.
However, my journey was to try to reconstruct the calendars of ancient Europe. I wanted to start with a fact that shows up in odd places. The Celts talk about dark months and light months.
This is a reconstruction of bits of a bronze calendar that is dated from the time of the Romans called the Coligny Calendar after that place. There is much speculation about this calendar fragment, but most consider it a way to reconcile the moon and sun in a seven year calendar. It is assumed to come out of Egypt via Babylon. I believe this to be a new calendar introduced into Europe at a much later date than the henge peoples. I also believe it to be an attempt to reconcile the Babylonian lunar calendar and some old knowledge that survived the invasions of Europe. In the following articles I will lay out different ways of thinking about the month. The Egyptians had a system of six months of sixty days each, and also twelve months of thirty days for their solar/stellar calendars. The Babylonians tried to use a lunar calendar of 29 days which has carried over in the two major religions of that area. Yet evidence points more and more to the theory that the peoples of Stone Age Europe used stellar calendars and that Stonehenge, famous for its solstices, is a later introduction. Europeans were fascinated with the sun and the moon, marked eclipses and the passage of the sun and moon, yet seemed to rely upon the stars to tell time and mark time. This habit survived among rural people until quite late in the 19th Century.