Calendars: An Overview

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The absence of a historical dimension and the scant attention paid to the religious aspect of the question are the most notable limitations of the specialized literature on calendars during the nineteenth century and into the first decade of the twentieth century. Thus, such monumental works as L. Ideler's Handbuch der mathematischen und technischen Chronologie (Berlin, 18251826), F. Ginzel's work of the same title (Leipzig, 19061911), and even the entry "Calendars" in James Hastings's Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, vol. 3 (Edinburgh, 1910), although they provide indispensable information, amount to little more than unconnected descriptions of various calendars. These descriptions are not satisfactorily situated against the background of the cultures in question, but are treated as if they are solely concerned with chronology and astronomy.

The sacral aspect of the question has, however, been discussed in the subsequent scientific literature, in which the specialists are divided into two opposing camps: those who believe the calendar originated as a secular phenomenon purely utilitarian in its purposes (a view accepted by the majority of scholars), and those who believe it was originally a religious institution (Ernst Cassirer, Martin P. Nilsson, Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss, Gerardus van der Leeuw, Mircea Eliade, and others). Less common are harmonizing positions such as that of Bronislaw Malinowski, who in an article on the calendar of the Trobriand Islanders (Journal of the Anthropological Institute 57, 1927, pp. 203ff.), viewed systems for computing time as meeting both practical and sacral demands.

Disagreement on the subject has been largely overcome since the publication of such works as Eliade's Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return (New York, 1954) and Angelo Brelich's Introduzione allo studio dei calendari festivi (Rome, 1955). The reality of periodicity in the world; the religious importance of this periodicity in helping to overcome the crisis that is coextensive with human existence (the duration of which is irreversible) by establishing frequent contact with the sacred time proper to the feast or festival (which is outside of ongoing duration); the parallelism between natural and sacral periodicity, both of which have as a constant a continual renewal in the same forms, so that in even the most diverse civilizations the sacral periodicity provides an effective means of keeping a timely eye on the natural periodicityall these ideas are now well established in our discipline. As a result, any modern work on any aspect of the vast complex of problems raised by calendars must nowadays start with the acceptance of a concept that proves to be constant across the most varied cultural contexts and the most diverse calendrical forms and manifestations, namely, that time is of interest not in and of itself and as a simple fact of nature, but only as a dimension of life that can be submitted to cultural control.

Such control is very difficult to exercise over something abstract, especially in social contexts still far from possessing even rudimentary astronomical knowledge. Nevertheless, by making use of a procedure now familiar to historians of religion, the various civilizations managed to gain this kind of control. They did so especially by concretizing time, whether this be understood in absolute terms or in relation to the various measurements (hours, days, months, years, etc.) that were gradually imposed on time, depending on the culture in question.

Mythology makes clear how the chronological dimension (especially if limited to the distinction and alternation of the light and dark times of the day, or to the lunar phases, which are harmoniously ordered within the arc of the month) can acquire such a material form in the minds of the peoples under study that it becomes the subject of stories without causing the least disturbance in the civilizations involved. It is told, for instance, that time was wrapped in leaves (the Sulka of New Britain); enclosed in a bag (the Micmac of Nova Scotia); kept in a box (the Tlingit of the U.S. Northwest Coast) or a trunk (the Hausa of the Sudan) and later taken out; extracted from the wattles of a fowl (the Nandi of northeastern Africa); hidden and found (the Pomo of California); hung up (the northern Paiute of Nevada); hoisted up to heaven (the Pomo; the Aleut of Alaska); pierced by arrows (the Caddo of eastern Texas); or cut up with an obsidian knife (natives of Mota in Melanesia). In each case, time is looked upon not only as something very concrete but also and especially as something capable of being handled at will.

Meanwhile the concrete treatment of time was strengthening this tendency toward materialization of the chronological sphere, for the latter was being treated in such a way as to acquire an ideal spatial coherence. As a macroscopic example, one can cite the persistent attempts to identify time with space, both in language and in the calendar, by the primitive cultures of North Americaa tendency also found at a higher cultural level in the Aztec calendar, and in the Indo-European area as well (Müller, 1967). In addition, a real spatiotemporal dimension is found in Roman religion, where close, complex, and functional relations are discernible in the mythological tradition and in cult, as well as in the calendrical linking of the two, between time and Terminus (the symbol of boundaries and, at the same time, a divinity in charge of the juridical, political, and sacral aspect of territory). Moreover, the projection of a cosmic framework on the layout of the circus, and this in such a detailed form (with the aid of a rich set of symbols) as to make the circus a universe in miniature, automatically transformed the chariot races in the arena into the course of the sun through the arc of the year.

Thus, it can be a rather short step from the concretization of time to its material embodiment. The example just given shows how, while the spectator at the circus (which is assimilated to the vault of heaven) feels himself to be witnessing the calendrical rotation of the sun, the charioteer is a direct protagonist in this drama as he drives his chariot.

Yet the title "protagonist of time" belongs with greater justice to those who, through actions in which it is not easy to distinguish the sacred and profane dimensions, do not limit themselves to concretizing and materializing time but also embody it in a true calendrical system. Thus the native who in certain cultures uses knotted cords for computing time does not simply concretize this dimension by pinning it down to so many firmly fixed points of its otherwise limitless and therefore uncontrollable extension but also defines it in a calendrical manner that, though rudimentary, proves functional in relation to the needs of his society. The astronomer in ancient Peru, who used stone columns called "tools for knotting the sun" (inti-huatana) as a position for observing the stars, did not merely give material form to that which in and of itself would be simply the calculation of solstices and equinoxes; he also carried this materialization to a higher level by developing a calendar that was primarily a means of binding the heavenly corps in its otherwise incoherent and unusable movements. (But note, too, among the Aztecs, the "knot of years," or xiuhmolpilli, a great cycle of fifty-two solar revolutions subdivided into four periods of thirteen years that were described as "knotted together," thalpilli. ) The magistrate in ancient Rome who was in charge of the ritual hammering in of the clavus annalis ("nail of the year") on the Ides of September (which was New Year's Day in one of the many Roman calendrical systems) thereby not only turned time from an abstraction into something that could be pinned down but also compelled it to remain, from one September to the next, within the limits of the solar year.

It is possible to view in a similar perspective those who, in civilizations already familiar with writing, either ideally or in actual fact superintended the compilation of calendars, and this specifically in the form of inscriptions. In this case the concretization of time was accomplished either by binding the dimension of time to stones and/or metals, which were moved about or incised to this end, or by imprisoning it in the no less constraining nets of the various graphic forms. Evidence here is the widespread use in the ancient Near East of the alphabet as a calendrical memorandum as early as the second millennium bce (Bausani, 1978), as well as the example, cited above, of the clavus annalis, which in early Rome was regarded both as a palpable sign of the year and as a functional "writing" of a chronologico-juridical kind at a time when few people could read the symbols of the alphabet.

The key role played by human beings in these operations whereby time is concretized and straitjacketed (especially within the compass of, and for the purposes of drafting, calendrical systems that are more or less developed according to cultural level and social demands) is such that, in case of need, the materialization of time can be further specified by giving it human traits in the true and proper sense. This specification may be limited to introducing into the calendar the physiological rhythms of those who are the protagonists of time. This is seen in the assimilation, widespread and found in the most diverse cultures, of the lunar month of twenty-eight days to the menstrual cycle of the same duration; or in the projection of the period of human gestation (260 days) onto the identical time period of nine lunar revolutions, as in the Aztec tonalamatl or the Numan calendar at Rome.

But this process of specification can also lead to a more or less concealed identification of a segment of time (located within the calendar and thus describable in precise terms) with a part or belonging of a person who usually enjoyed an important sociocultural and, in particular, religious status. Thus, as a result of Islamic influence on the Cham of Cambodia, to give but one example, the first three days of every lunar cycle are assimilated to the three favorite wives of Muammad, and every year of the twelve-year cycle is equated with one of the Prophet's members.

Finally, this process can even find expression in a personification of time in its various parts. Thus in Achaemenid Iran the retinue of the magi seems to have usually comprised 365 young men dressed in red, one for each day of the year, with the color symbolizing the lighted period of the day. At Rome, on the Ides of March (New Year's Day, according to one of the many Roman calendrical systems), all the negative aspects of the old year were eliminated through the ritual expulsion from the city of the mythical carpenter Mamurius Veturius.

This kind of progressive, and in some cases even paroxysmic, personification of time seems on closer examination to be simply an expression of the persistent tendency to re-create, on several distinct but complementary levels, the temporal dimension that is so important at the human level, thus asserting the priority of the unqualifiedly cultural essence of time over the mere natural fact of time.

If, on the one hand, this cultural point of reference is indispensable because it is linked to any latent or open calendrical system, on the other hand such a system, whatever its character (heliacal rising of a constellation; blooming of a species of plant; period of sowing and/or harvesting; migration of animals; etc.), becomes by this very fact a field of action for the cultural process, which immediately begins to act therein in the form of well-defined and often massive interventions. In the case, widespread in both higher and primitive civilizations, of a discrepancy between the lunar and solar years, for example, the intervention takes the form of an intercalation that makes up for the difference; in other words, a portion of human, cultural time is inserted into the living body of natural time, which is computed on the basis of the revolution of the heavenly bodies.

The awareness that the intercalated period is the work of man, and the conviction that, as such, it merits a privileged position are made manifest at various levels. This is seen in the view that the year, having been thus manipulated, is now complete as compared with nature's presumably defective version of it, whence the designationprevalent among various primitive peoples, but also found in Mesopotamia, Rome, and Chinaof the year or month as "full" or "empty." It is seen too in the systematic insertion of such intercalated periods immediately after moments in the calendar that sanctioned human control over the world of nature: at Rome, for example, the intercalation came immediately after the celebration of Terminalia, a festival that appealed to mythical time in order to give sacral confirmation to the cultural definition of space. Further evidence is found in the tendency to locate during the intercalated period those events that were of capital importance for the particular civilization and that evidently could not be left to the blind and irrational course of nature's time, precisely because these events were due in the maximum degree to the human will and creativity. A prime example: the definitive liquidation of monarchic rule, which was constantly assimilated to the negativity of the period of origins, in order to make way for a republic was traditionally dated by the Romans on the very day, February 24, on which the intercalation usually began.

A negative proof pointing in the same direction is the resistance to and even rejection of intercalation in those civilizations that most clearly show the assimilation of natural time to sacred time. Such rejection was preferred despite the inevitable practical nuisances it entailedabove all, discrepancy with the rhythm of the seasons. Two examples among many can be cited. First, in ancient Egypt (which adopted the practice of intercalation only in the Alexandrian period, and then not without hindrances) an oath not to intercalate was taken by the pharaoh, who, in his capacity as the future Osiris and, therefore, an important participant in the field of action proper to the sun god Re, was probably reluctant to intervene in a dimension of reality that was projected in its ideal form onto the sacral level. Second, Muammad categorically prohibited changing the number of the months, which "Allāh ordained when he created the heavens and the earth" (sūrah 9:36 of the Qurʾān), and which "Allāh has sanctified" (sūrah 9:37). Thus the Islamic lunar year, though without any correspondence to the seasons, has proved surprisingly functional for a religion now practiced in varying latitudes. Such interventions in the course of time became even more drastic in the great calendrical reforms of Julius Caesar (46 bce) and Pope Gregory XIII (1582 ce).

This kind of attempt to reduce time to a cultural creation is even more pronounced in those widespread cases in which the most varied means are used to emancipate time from natural phenomena on which calendrical computation is usually based and to replace these phenomena with others. Thus, the Aztecs chose the duration of human gestation, and not the Venusian year to which astronomy bears witness, as the basis of the tonalamatl; the Egyptians based their calendar on the rising of Sirius (Sothis), "the second sun in the heavens," and not on the true sun; while, in the most diverse primitive cultures, it is the periodic return of the ancestors, regarded as dispensers of foodstuffs, and not the particular seasonal moment that gives a specific economic meaning to the great New Year festival. Comparable motivations probably explain the otherwise incomprehensible perseverance, on the part of the most varied types of civilization, in adopting lunisolar calendars and continuing to use them right down to the present day, despite such problems as the discrepancy between festive complex and seasonal moment, the consequent necessity of intercalating, and so on. It is as though this very difference of a few days or parts of a day represents a kind of margin of security for man, who thus has leeway to act on natural time instead of passively enduring it.

This desire to be actors rather than spectators in the development of calendrical time is even more evident in those systems in which, by highly artificial means, months are established whose duration is identical with or superior to the lunar month, and in which a short period is set apart and defined in a special way, independent of the features this period may assume from time to time in any other culture. By way of example, we may think of the five "supernumerary" (nemontemi) days that the Aztecs set apart at the end of the 360-day year, considering them to be nefasti (taboo) and unsuited for work of any kind; or, in the Egyptian calendar, of the epagomenai ("superadded") days that did not conclude the old year, as might have been expected, but were a prelude to the new year, a kind of "little month" directly linked to the mythical time in which the gods were born. Similarly, in the Zoroastrian religion the "days of the Gāthās " were added to the end of the year; on these days, the celebrants, assuming the title of Saoshyant ("rescuers"), participated ritually as protagonists in the renewal of the world. Along the same line, but at a more advanced level, is the creation of units of time comprising several or more days, months, years, centuries, or even millennia, which apparently, at least, are independent of the rhythms of nature. Examples include the very widespread seven-day week (already used in Mesopotamia); the cycles of three days and three, seven, and thirty years among the Celts; the seven-year period, the jubilee, and the groups of seven-year periods among the Hebrews; the octaetēris or eight-year period of the Greeks; the Aztec xiuhmolpilli; and the Indian kalpa.

But perhaps the most radical humanization of the chronological dimension (the one in which the cultural intervention into nature is the most extensive, and the dependence on nature for the computation of time is reduced to a minimum that is obscured and even deliberately ignored) is found in cases in which the historical situation determines and defines the calendar. We may pass over those restructurings that are promoted or imposed on time by important politicians (i.e., the aforementioned Julian reform). In some civilizations, the personal name of the ruler was given to the current year (eponymy among the Assyrians and in the classical world, the "regnal name" in prerevolutionary China), or events of capital importance led to a complete resystematization of the calendrical pattern, the beginning, rhythm, and shape of which, though in substance inevitably following traditional lines, had to be at least formally determined by the new order of things. The prime example here is the French revolutionary calendar, which, though it started at a particular equinox, numbered 365 days, needed periodic intercalation, and linked the new names of the months with seasonal motifs, nonetheless presented new features: a beginning (September 22) that officially coincided not with the autumn equinox but with the inauguration of the republic (September 22, 1792); the abolition of the seven-day week in favor of the decade or ten-day week; the elimination of feasts; and the nonetheless festive solemnization of five or six days (significantly called sans-culottides ) added at the end of the year as a definitive break with Christian worship.

In connection with the historicization of time, one may also consider such phenomena as the adoption of calendrical systems belonging to other civilizations, as, for instance, the entrusting of calendar reform in China in 1629 to the Jesuits, and the adoption of the Gregorian calendar as the only valid one for civil purposes by the republican government of China in 1930; the acceptance by Japan in 1684 of the Chinese calendar as reformed by the Jesuits and then in 1873 of the Gregorian calendar; and the adoption of the Gregorian calendar by Russia after the October Revolution in 1917 and by various primitive peoples as they gradually accepted the lifestyles of the Western civilizations. Finally, there is the tendency, which practical considerations and economic reasons have made stronger than ever in our day, to create a universal and perpetual calendar that is binding on all. Such a calendar would be supremely artificial, since it seeks to be as independent as possible of natural rhythms, but for that very reason would transcend the various cultures.

See Also

Chronology; Sacred Time.


The extensive bibliography of scientific writing on the subject has been brought together and discussed splendidly by Angelo Brelich in his Introduzione allo studio dei calendari festivi, 2 vols. in 1 (Rome, 1955). The reader is also referred to this work for the historico-religious approach to calendrical problems. Festive time in relation to the New Year is extensively discussed and documented in Vittorio Lanternari's La grande festa, 2d ed. (Bari, 1976). On the concretization of time at various levels, compare the following works: Werner Müller's "Raum und Zeit in Sprachen und Kalendern Nordamerikas und Alteuropas," Anthropos 57 (1962): 568590, 68 (1973): 156180, 74 (1979): 443464, 77 (1982): 533558; Hugh A. Moran and David H. Kelly's The Alphabet and the Ancient Calendar Signs, 2d ed. (Palo Alto, Calif., 1969); Alessandro Bausani's "L'alfabeto come calendario arcaico," Oriens Antiquus (Rome) 17 (1978): 131146; J. H. Scharf's "Time and Language," Gegenbaurs morphologisches Jahrbuch 128 (1982): 257289; and Ulrich Köhler's "Räumliche und zeitliche Bezugspunkte in mesoamerikanischen Konzepten vom Mondzyklus," Indiana 7 (1982): 2342. Also compare my Elementi spettacolari nei rituali festivi romani (Rome, 1965); Terminus: I segni di confine nella religione romana (Rome, 1974); and "La scrittura coercitiva," Cultura e scuola 85 (1983): 117124. Raffaele Pettazzoni treats the primitive myths on the origin of time and provides a bibliography in his Miti e leggende, 4 vols. (Turin, 19481963). Alexander Marshak discusses Paleolithic systems of noting time in The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol, and Notation (New York, 1972). While Marshak's views are somewhat controversial, they have been widely discussed.

Giulia Piccaluga (1987)

Translated from Italian by Matthew J. O'Connell