What’s a Calendar for, Anyway?

Calendars have a long and varied history. Presently, I believe they serve the same purpose as the census: a tax gathering tool. But the calendar did not start that way.

Some scholars think it was originally used to help with agricultural cycles, but I cannot see a culture living in tune with nature and the seasons – as they most certainly needed to be – require some numerical artifice to tell them when to plant and harvest; nature itself does that well enough.

It seems calendars were first devised to help honoring special days. Precisely why the solar anniversary of an important event was celebrated is unknown but it goes back to the misty beginnings of humankind. Perhaps it had something to do with our own birthdays.

But these special days were generally of religious significance. So the calendars were formed with religious overtones. The seven day week and the seven days of Creation from the Bible immediately come to mind.

Many early cultures used the Moon as the basis of their calendar rather than the Sun. This repeating cycle gave us the month, named for the Moon. The lunar cycle (about 29 days) falls just short of the modern month (30/31 days), so they would quickly fall out of alignment and the year measured by moons would end earlier and earlier each solar year. The Hebrews solved this by adding an extra lunar month every few years.

The length of the solar year seems to have undergone some adjustment as well. Some of the very earliest calendars have the length of a year set at 360 days and the lunar month at 30 days. These numbers led the ancients to devising the circle of 360° and the twelve astrological signs at 30° each. Historians think it strange that the ancients had such difficulty in counting the true length of a year. They marvel that the ancients did not notice the variance after a couple of years; in less than twenty years, the spring solstice would have moved an entire season!

Still, the ancients did make an adjustment. After many years, cultures around the world noticed the year was suddenly five days longer. Most simply tacked the extra five days to the end of their year in its own short “month” and considered them evil days.

Could it possibly be that the year in ancient times was only 360 days long? Could the Sun and Moon actually have been that closely synchronized? Historians mock the ancients for their obvious ineptitude but considering the ancients’ careful concern for the movements of the heavens, another solution seems appropriate. And judging by the widespread belief that the year was shorter, I would tend to favor the eyewitnesses.

Though the movements of the Sun and the Moon became the building blocks for the year and month, the origin of the week is less certain. Some think it a measure for the various phases of the Moon but no one knows for sure. It has been around a long time as evidenced by its inclusion in the Book of Genesis. Since the Jewish texts have it as the metaphorical length of time it took for the Creation perhaps a metaphysical or esoteric interpretation may point researchers in the right direction.

Still, most of the phenomena assigned to the birth of calendars are of celestial origin. So were the gods of the ancients. With the Sun, Moon, and planets deified, the basis for the calendar takes on even more religious overtones.

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