The Dance of Time: The Origins of the Calendar

The Dance of Time: The Origins of the Calendar

by Michael Judge

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Did you know that the ancient Romans left sixty days of winter out of their calendar, considering these two months a dead time of lurking terror and therefore better left unnamed? That they had a horror of even numbers, hence the tendency for months with an odd number of days? That robed and bearded druids from the Celts stand behind our New Year’s figure of Father Time? That if Thursday is Thor’s day, then Friday belongs to his faithful wife, Freya, queen of the Norse gods? That the name Easter may derive from the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring, Eostre, whose consort was a hare, our Easter Bunny? 
Three streams of history created the Western calendar—first from the Sumerians, then from the Celtic and Germanic peoples in the North, and finally from Palestine with the rise of Christianity. Michael Judge teases out the contributions of each stream to the shape of the calendar, to the days and holidays, and to associated lore. In them, he finds glimpses of a way of seeing before the mechanical time of clocks, when the rhythms of man and woman matched those of earth and sky, and the sacred was born.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781628723540
Publisher: Arcade
Publication date: 11/21/2011
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 8,852
File size: 823 KB

About the Author

Michael Judge has been an actor, playwright, screenwriter, folklorist, and congressional historian and guide, as well as editor of the Senate newsletter, the Inkwell. He lives with his wife in Washington, DC.

Read an Excerpt

The Dance of Time

The Origins of the Calendar

By Michael Judge

Skyhorse Publishing

Copyright © 2011 Michael Judge
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62872-354-0


And Life Time's Foot

Starting now the hours of the clock Will hang on a hair around my neck Starting now the stars will stop In their courses sun cock-crow shadows And everything that time proclaimed Is now dead and dumb and blind For me all nature is silenced With the ticking of the law and its measure.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

The flowing river of time, carrying us from inception to eternity, is both invention and illusion; a phantom child of mortal dreams and fears. So the scientists tell us. They assure us that velocity can stretch time like wool spun on a distaff, and that relativity makes time merely another variable in a host of equations whirling around the universe.

Certainly our time, Western time, the spliced and segregated seconds, minutes, and hours by which we regulate our busy lives, was an invention of the late Middle Ages. Before then, time was measured naturally, and by those things of which it was made: the sun, the moon, and the stars; revolving watches of sleepy soldiers; human criers at dawn and cattle lowing in the gloaming; burning tapers during peace and burning cities during war; national disasters and signal triumphs; the reigns of kings, the death of princes, the fall of empires; comets and their strikes, freakish births, sudden miracles, and the rumor of dragons; heavy rains, sweeping plagues, hard winters, and sudden springs; and, of course, by church bells tolling, cocks crowing, and sand bleeding through the hourglass.

In ancient days, the world itself served as a vast clock. People closely watched the seasons change: winter thawed into spring, which warmed into summer; summer surrendered to cool autumn, until the first freeze of winter descended and the cycle began again.

The heavens kept time with the earth. The sun dependably marked off the day's hours as it journeyed westward across the sky: one circuit of the sun from dawn to dawn is, in fact, the very definition of a day The sun also acted like any sensible person, retreating from winter's cold and returning with the warming days of spring.

After sunset, in any season, the lambent moon rose to guide travelers through the night. The moon also, mysteriously but conveniently changed its shape, growing from thin crescent to full orb and shrinking back to crescent again in a cycle that took about twenty-nine days. The inconstant moon proved a reliable measure for longer stretches of time, from new moon to new moon. The ancient Germans called this period of about thirty days a monath, and, but for a sliding vowel, so do we still.

From the most ancient times, people recognized that the earthly and celestial turning points of the year were linked. The sun's travels delineated the seasons. The solstices, when the sun reached its farthest northern and southern position in the sky inaugurated summer and winter; the equinoxes, when the sun stood midway between the solstices and the length of day and night were equal, marked the advent of spring and autumn.

The gauzy night sky held other signposts. Certain stars appeared annually, like heralds announcing the seasons. Throughout the Western world, the great hourglass-shaped constellation of Orion warned of impending winter, while Leo the lion's right triangle marked a sure sign of spring. The Pleiades, so diaphanously lovely that to really see them one had to look the other way, led summer into fall.

All nature obeyed the dictates of cyclical time, not least human beings. Just as the sun waned from blazing summer strength to a feeble spark on the far horizon, so too did the young eventually grow old; just as the trees in the forests and the crops in the fields withered with the onset of fall, so too did human beings age, sicken, and die. Nature yearly reiterated the life cycle of humankind, and each individual's fate reflected the dance of the cosmos.

These cycles of time, and the mysterious connection between people and their surrounding universe, were codified in sacred festivals, temporal maps charting out the course of the year as mariners charted voyages. The great festivals of the year, held at the solstices, equinoxes, and important agricultural turning points, ritualized this connection between the cycles of human life and those of the natural world.

Festivals marked out the progress of the year. They celebrated the return of the sun after the winter solstice, marked spring's first planting under favorable stars, called revelers to delight in the flowering May, and solemnly observed the final whispering night of autumn. They also loaned the power of ritual to life's simple necessities: ripening crops, the birth of new flocks, ice breaking on a river, the day the rains came. These simple events took on a patina of sanctity, of destiny, in a world still ruled by neighborhood gods.

Although life was shorter, time was longer, moving with the steady but unhurried sun from one season to the next, changing in increments with the moon, wheeling with the great circle of the stars.

Then, around 1350, carefully stowed beneath the decks of trading ships, keeping company with gunpowder and the astrolabe, the first mechanical clocks arrived in Europe. Modern time made its debut, and changed its creators.

Modeled on the ancient Chinese water tower, early clocks used falling drops of water to count out the seconds and minutes of the day. For fourteenth-century observers, accustomed to marking the hours by the shouts of town criers and the tolling of church bells, the first clocks must have been startling reminders of humanity's bondage to time, counting out the seconds as misers counted coins. Moreover, with an ear bent toward the new machine, one could literally hear time fall; one drop of water after the other stealing the seconds away.

Shakespeare may have caught something of this anxious mood and placed it in the dying mouth of the gallant rebel Hotspur in Henry IV, Part l. A man of great humor and courage, Hotspur nonetheless is representative of the old medieval order, the old way of seeing things. Like a knight charging a cannon, he flies to his death at the hands of Prince Hal, who will go on to decimate many medieval notions on the plains of Agincourt.

"Oh Thought's the slave of life," Hotspur gasps in Hal's arms, "and life time's fool." Hotspur, the child of a slow-moving, expansive, and natural world, makes the final realization that time, like his thoroughly modern enemy Henry V, is a force to be reckoned with.

Although rare and expensive, early clocks were woefully inaccurate by modern standards, losing as much as half an hour a day. The invention of the verge-and-foliot mechanism, in which a wooden escarpment seized a turning gear at exact intervals to count out seconds, made clocks more precise. That crucial gear connected to more shafts, spinning still more gears, connected to even more shafts. So clocks remained large, unwieldy devices: networks of brass gears, wooden phalanges, iron pendulums, and leather pulleys, encased in finely wrought cabinets that dominated the hallways of the rich and royal.

In 1502 Peter Heinlein, an enterprising German clock maker, produced the Nuremberg Egg, the world's first portable clock. What once stood in palaces could now rest on a merchant's mantel. Some years later, the invention of the self-winding spring ensured that a clock could carry its own coiled power source. The watch had arrived, and time itself could be carried.

Gradually, it began to carry its carriers. No longer an aspect of divinity, time became a commodity: it could be bought, sold, bartered for, wasted. In the seventeenth century, Sir Isaac Newton recast the universe as an enormous, precise, and incontrovertible clock, with planets and stars whirling out their unchanging paths through infinite reaches of space and time. Once upon a time, people had named the stars by which they measured their passage through the year, and created constellations that recalled heroes and goddesses, instruments, and animals: whole mythologies painted in starlight from horizon to horizon. After Newton, people no longer seemed a part of the night sky's now remote procession.

The old festivals, which had sanctified humanity's connection to the universe, gradually lost their sacred meaning and, though still observed, became secular occasions: revels held in honor of connections long severed, rituals long forgotten, gods long dead. Time gradually stopped being a reflection of the natural world, and became a mechanism.

Now nature itself has been mechanized in the service of time, one second being measured, by international agreement, as the precise interval it takes for an atom of the element cesium to make 9,192,631,770 vibrations, spilling its coiled energy into the cooling universe, hastening the frantic world on, marking time.

All the while, the old world watches. Embedded in our technological age, there remains an ancient artifact, a reminder of the days before mechanical time, when the rhythms of earth and sky matched those of man and woman. This strange survivor still recalls an ancient way of seeing, still celebrates the seasons and their different moods: the sun in his azure sky, the eerie moon wrapped in her mantle of stars, and the habits, sacred and profane, of mortal beings. It has, over many centuries, woven the festivals, observances, and customs of humanity into a tapestry on which the lineaments of human life may still be traced. It is called the calendar.

Unlike a watch or a clock, the calendar does not presume to duplicate time. Instead, it serves as a landscape of time, a description not of the thing itself, but of what the thing may mean; a cry not for scientific precision but for emotional understanding. Unlike other timekeeping devices, the calendar is organic: a social contract reminding hurried modern creatures of their debt to nature and to the past.

Most people have forgotten, having surrendered their time to mechanisms, why Halloween falls at the end of October, why the birth of Christ is proclaimed in winter's darkness, why Easter and Passover come hand in hand with the spring. Yet it is exactly in answering these questions that we discover a remarkable world, far and yet near, ancient and yet as new as tomorrow's sunrise, where symbol and reality conjoin.

I mean this: in late autumn, with the shadows growing, the calendar summons children to carve leering faces into pumpkin flesh; a tribute, though they do not know it, to all of their dead ancestors, returning for one night from the loam, and a reminder, though they need not yet heed it, of the ghosts that they will one day become.

The calendar fences the latter days of December away from the rest of the common year, commanding the vulgar world to pause and await the birth of the savior and his symbol, the returning sun.

The calendar commands that Easter can only occur after the vernal equinox, when Christ returns amid robins and blooming hyacinth, lengthening days, and sudden rains, and, like nature after winter's cruelty, is reconciled to the world.

Halloween and the death of the year, Christmas lights shining in the depths of winter, Easter services held at the rising of the gentle spring sun: these things, the simplest things, recall a universe in which we were not strangers. That universe is with us still — in fact it lies one step beyond the stoop. Its story is ours, as old as humanity. It's cast is immense — wind and weather, stars and saints, kings and peasants — and the lead is none other than dear old Mother Earth herself, who waltzes around our sun in stately time, trailing the seasons in her train. Yet for many, that world remains hidden, just out of sense, like the half-heard murmur of an underground stream. Uncovering that stream, and inviting you to drink from its waters, is the purpose of this book.


The Marriage of Heaven and Earth

All praise be yours, my Lord, for all that you have made First, my brother Sun, who brings the day And shines your light upon us How beautiful he is, how radiant in splendor; Of you he bears the likeness

Praise be to you, dear Lord, for sister moon and stars, So beautiful and radiant and clear Saint Francis of Assisi, "The Canticle of the Sun"

Modern scientists and their ancient forerunners share a common perception across the gulf of years: that the world and time are one. The motion of the first creates the latter; the grinding of the second wears away the first. Ancient philosophers and astrologers knew little of what we call physics, but they knew that the world of their mortal labors and the larger, natural world were intimately connected. They chose to explain this connection through a combination of rough science and precise poetry, ascribing to gods and goddesses the changing seasons, weather patterns, the lives and wanderings of animals, the flowering and fading of plants, and — most profoundly, because most removed from the quotidian — the journeys of the planets and the motion of the stars.

The ancients found changes in the earthly world rather easy to explain. Animals and plants were close at hand, and resembled men and women in their lives and responses to the seasons. Animals ate, coupled and reared young, fled from the cold of winter and basked in summer's warmth. Plants grew like children, drank water, and thrived or withered with the wheeling of the year. Beasts could be herded, and plants could be gathered. The world of the earth surrounded mankind, available for inspection and manipulation.

The sky offered no such partnership. The vital sun, the wandering moon, the star-daubed path of the Milky Way: these sights presented unfathomable mysteries. The true nature of the lights above seemed utterly unknowable, a secret treasure of the gods. For thousands of years people thought it best simply to watch and to worship. The sky, overarching, endless, redolent of eternity, was humanity's first cathedral.

* * *

The first people who made the sky a subject of recorded analysis settled in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley (now Iraq) about seven thousand years ago. We know them as the Sumerians, and they were industrious folk. On the low plains of Mesopotamia, the Sumerians developed the fundamental elements of civilization: writing, cities, a sophisticated political system, organized religion, and beer.

The Sumerian view of the cosmos came from what they saw around them: a looming sky, and a dense, Stygian mystery beneath the feet. Ki, the flat disk of the earth, and An, the overarching bowl of heaven (made of precious tin), were born from Abzu, the primordial sea. Shining within Ans wide vault lay Lil, the atmosphere; its gases had long ago congealed to form the sun, the moon, the planets, and the stars. Up there, amid the shimmering lights, dwelt the gods. Deep below the earth lay a dark and gloomy underworld, lair of blood-drinking ghosts and pestilent demons, whose thick cries could be heard during earthquakes. Evil seemed to come from below; the good must surely lie above, in the lights.

Casting their patient eyes and probing minds toward the lights of heaven, the Sumerians slowly learned to measure the passage of heavenly bodies over the earth.

They marked the important turning points of the sun's journey, the solstices and equinoxes. They followed the moon and stars with equal fervor, and unlike the sky watchers of earlier, illiterate eras, they wrote down what they saw.

The Sumerians became the first human beings to record for succeeding generations, for us, the astonishing fact that the essential events of their lives — the growth of crops, the rising and falling of rivers, the mating and birth of animals, and all the other marvels of the world — seemed to be in thrall to the wanderings of the sun, the moon, and the stars.

They learned that the celestial events corresponding with the earthly could be used as markers reminding people when to go about the various tasks involved in earning a living. When a certain star that had not been seen for many months rose just after twilight, it was time to sow. Another star called in the harvest. And they began to recognize and record whole groups of stars, tracing the outlines of deities or fabulous animals between the distant points of light: the constellations.

Religion and astronomy were inseparable, just as the dictates of astronomer-priests presented farmers and herdsmen with a reliable almanac of the working year. Astronomy began not as science, as we understand it, but as an attempt to capture the elusive designs of the gods.

Gods whom the Sumerians worshipped, but did not trust. Gloomy, apt Sumerian poetry still warns man that his life is a bitter, mocking gift; that he is dust in the great wind of the ages, and that all of his works last but a little moment. So it proved with the grandparents of Western culture. The Sumerians, so busy at so many graceful, unwarlike things, had a pathetic idea of an army and were defeated and defeated again.- by Akkadians and Hittites, Assyrians and Persians. As a power, they passed away; as a people, they infected their conquerors with the subtlety of their thought, and taught them to observe and measure the wandering lights of An. As a power they passed away; but in all the subsequent empires founded on their fall, Sumerian astronomy became the thing to do — the hobby of kings and the duty of priests — and Sumerian mathematics, the standard of education. After all, the good of the state depended on correctly mapping the lights through which divinity silently spoke. The Sumerians made astronomy. Their conquerors made it stick.


Excerpted from The Dance of Time by Michael Judge. Copyright © 2011 Michael Judge. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Part One: The Tale of Years,
I. And Life Time's Fool,
II. The Marriage of Heaven and Earth,
II. Calendarium,
IV. A Day and a Night,
V. Converting the Faithful,
VI. Empty Pockets,
Part Two: Heaven's Round,
January: The Father of Morning,
January 1: New Year's Day,
February: The Secret Birth,
February 1 and 2: Cross-Quarter Day,
February 15: The Lupercal, Saint Valentine's Day,
March: Rain, Mud, and Hope,
March 20-25:0 Quarter Day,
April: Awake!,
April 1: April Fools Day,
Passover, Easter: The Dancing Sun,
May: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn,
May 1: Cross-Quarter Day,
June: At the Height of Glory,
June 24: Quarter Day,
July: Caesura,
August: The Gateway to Splendid Beauties,
August 1: Cross-Quarter Day,
September: Intimations of Mortality,
September 20-21: Quarter Day,
October: The Dead,
October 31-November 2: Cross-Quarter Day,
November: The Beauty of the Bone,
December: The Invincible Sun,
Advent: From the Sunday nearest Saint Andrew's Day to Christmas,
December 17-25: Quarter Day,
December 31: New Year's Eve,
Picture Acknowledgments,

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