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The Moon "is there to tell the time"

To the Yukaghir (people who were the original inhabitants of North-East Siberia before the middle-ages) the moon had been put in the sky to enable people to tell the time.

A complete moon or month, is the number of days from when the moon's first crescent becomes visible through full moon to the last thing crescent and it becomes invisible. the actual period totals about 29.5 days, but since only whole days were counted, a month could be 29 or 30 days. Usually 30 days, which fits conveniently into a year of 360 days leaving only 5 days left over to worry about.

Often only the days that the moon were visible were counted.

For example: In the calendar of the Ostyaks (Khanti) in the west of Siberia, the next month was not started before the new moon was visible. They used to keep track of the days with a wooden board with 28 holes in it.

The extra days when the moon was invisible were called "emptyand they took them off work.

In the Chukchi calendar (that is in Chukotka in the far north-east of Siberia) the period between two moons was called the "moon interval".

The New Moon

The first appearance of the moon's crescent was not only noticed, it used to be greeted in many ways.

Old English customs include:

  • turning over the money in your pocket,
  • bowing to the new moon nine times
  • and making a wish,
  • and you had to avoid seeing the new moon for the first time through a window or over your left shoulder.

    Formerly sacrifices were made to the new moon. And Shamans prayed to the new moon, to invoke curses.

    The Man In The Moon

    The moon was seen by many cultures as a god.

    To the Inuit in Alaska, the moon was the god who directs the tides, storms, eclipses, earthquakes, falling snow, and also takes care of game and wild fowl. He has a pool to keep sea animals in, and files away the souls of dead animals. He watches over the behaviour of humans and sins rise up to him as pungent smoke, hurting his eyes and angering him.

    When hunting was bad, the Alaskan shamans went up to the moon in their trances to ask for help.

    Anyone who looked too hard at the moon risked being caught in the moon's lasso and hauled up. (as in picture).

    The moon also carried people off the sky in a sled drawn by four black-headed dogs. This could be lucky for a woman anxious to become a mother, for if the moon carried them off to his home he made them fertile and sent them back to Earth to have their babies. If they then died in childbirth, they were sent straight back to the moon.

    A woman who was anxious not to become pregnant, had to avoid the moonbeams.

    When the moon was invisible he was busy conveying souls back to Earth to begin a new life.

    And the moon protected the orphans.

    Counting Seasons by the Moon

    Traditionally, the years were counted season by season.

    How many seasons depends where you live and the climate. Thailand has three seasons which basically are: very wet and hot (the monsoon starting slowly in May and really flooding until end October), not wet and not so hot - dry and very hot. In Darwin, the seasons are The Wet and The Dry. In Britain we count spring, summer, autumn, winter. For people who lived traditionally by hunting and gathering, there may be many more "seasons", dependent on what needed to be done to collect food, and survive.

    The Yukaghir had six seasons. Few of them remain now, and they are mixed with others, but their territory once covered much of north-east Siberia up to the shores of the Arctic ocean. The beginning of the year for them was summer, which came in early June, when the ice melted on the rivers. Then they could load their families and possessions onto rafts and sail down the rivers to the place where they could put up their tents and fish for salmon. In autumn, they returned to their winter homes, and the hunting season began. Then came the First Spring, when the snow still lay on the ground, about February to April. The second spring, when the snow melted by day, but it froze at night, from April to May, and the third spring, when the snow finally melted.

    Chukotka is so far to the north east that it crosses over to the west. The Chukchi who live there, used to count thirteen seasons in a year. Bogoraz who had been exiled there and later was sent on an American anthropological expedition there with his wife, at the end of the 19th century, lists them in order from midwinter:

    1. in the extending days;
    2. in the lengthening days;
    3. during days growing long;
    4. in the calving of the reindeer;
    5. in the new summer growing;
    6. in the first summer;
    7. in the second summer;
    8. in the middle summer;
    9. with the fresh air going out;
    10. with the first light frost;
    11. with the new snow;
    12. in the autumn;
    13. in the winter.

    If you have that many seasons you may as well count them by the moon.

    Counting days by the moon: Maori calendar

    Now we go south from Chukotka in North Pacific right down to the South Pacific. People with boats have roamed the Pacific by boat for thousands of years, even during the last ice-age, perhaps earlier, settling islands, and down the coast of America from north to south. Eventually, about 700 or 800 years ago, they reached New Zealand. To these traditionally sea-faring people, navigation was vitally important. They were able to map the night sky, and all the changes in the sea and the sky and the birds, whales, fish, currents and so on that indicated that were approaching land.

    New Zealand is the "land of the white cloud" not just because it rains a lot, but because this was how they found it. There is a statue to this discovery in the harbour of Wellington.

    The Maori moon calendar, not just marks the months, but day after day. Good days for certain sorts of work. And bad days when it was best to take a holiday. The picture is from a display showing the Maori days of the month, in the Te Papa museum in Wellington harbour.

    The girl and the moon

    The apparent connection between the moon, and women's fertility and periods, has no basis in fact. The moon's tides have little effect upon us so we do not normally notice them unless we are on a beach. It has given rise to a wealth of folklore as well as the image of the many-breasted moon goddess Diana (who must have had a hell of a job getting bras to fit). It also gave rise to many stories about the girl in the moon, or the hare in the moon, or she could be both.

    There are many legends in Canada and North America about the girl in the moon. In one version she is "Lone Bird" in another "Sweet Strawberry", and in all the versions, the moon falls in love with her and carried her up there (Clark: 1973).

    Similar stories are found in Siberia, so they may date back some thousands of years, as the first native Americans came mostly from Siberia.

    A Siberian version from Yakutia, also explains the eclipse of the moon.

    A poor orphan girl was given to a rich man to work for him as a maid.
    He was very cruel and made her work very hard.
    One cold night he sent her out with a bucket to collect water from an ice hole.
    The girl slipped on the ice, broke the bucket and spilt the water.
    Shestood and wept. "I have no one to pity me"; she cried.
    But the Sun pitied her and came down, and so did the Moon.
    "I shall take the girl" said the Sun, for I am the elder."
    "I shall take the girl" said the Moon. "You work in the daytime when you have plenty of company and it is cheerful for you. I work at night and it is lonely."
    So the Moon carried the girl off.
    She was terrified and grasped at some willow twigs pulling them with her.
    You can see her in the moon, holding her bucket and the twigs.
    Sometimes she misses Earth so much that she faints and the Moon darkens with grief - causing an eclipse, until the girl revives.

    The story can be found in Shklovsky, 1916.

    The Chukchi maiden who attracted the Moon, was of tougher stuff. She forced the Moon to work for Man. This story can be found in Bogoras, The Chukchee.

    There was a girl who was the daughter of a reindeer breeder.
    Each summer and winter she went with her sled drawn by a large and magic reindeer to watch over the herds.
    One day her magic reindeer called out to her "Watch out! Watch out! The moon wants to carry you off!".

    The Moon was coming down with two reindeer drawing his sled.
    The girl's magic reindeer quickly hid her by disguising her as a hump of snow so the Moon could not find her.
    But they heard the Moon say he would return and find her.

    The magic reindeer and the girl dashed back home to their yaranga (the big round Chukchi tent).
    "Quickly! what shall I turn you into before he gets here" asked the reindeer
    "A stone block? a hammer? a hair on the bed curtain?".
    They decided that the magic reindeer would change the girl into an oil lamp.
    And they were just in time.
    The Moon was back.

    The Moon searched through the reindeer herd and then through the tent, but he could not find the girl.
    He was just giving up, and had untied his reindeer to start off home, when the girl changed back,
    jumped up and stuck her head out of the tent door crying out "Here I am! Here I am!".
    The Moon rushed back inside but the girl had jumped back to the hearth and turned back into the lamp.
    The Moon could not find her.
    He went back out, and again the girl looked out of the tent crying "Here I am! Here I am!".
    Again the Moon looked all over the yaranga for the girl but could not find her.
    He grew tired.

    Then, seeing the Moon had become weak and tired, the girl came out, grabbed the Moon, threw him onto his back, bound his legs and pulled him into the yaranga.
    "Woe is me!" cried out the Moon, "She is going to kill me!
    Well, why not, go ahead, for I wanted to kidnap you!
    If you want to kill me, kill me.
    But before I die, put me down inside the sleeping tent, otherwise I shall freeze." he said cunningly.

    "Nonsense!" scoffed the girl. "How can you freeze!
    You are always outside in the open air! Stay outside now."

    "If I am to stay forever in the cold," pleaded the Moon, "Let me stay outside.
    I shall be a light at night for your people if you let me go.
    I shall tell them the time of the year if you let me go.
    I shall turn night into day.
    I shall measure the whole year season by season.
    First I shall be the Old-Buck-Moon,
    then Cold-Udder Moon,
    then Genuine-Udder Moon,
    Calving Moon, Water Moon,
    Making-Leaves Moon,
    Rubbing-off-Velvet (from the new antlers) Moon,
    Light-Frost Moon,
    Wild-Reindeer-Rutting Moon,
    Muscles-of-the-Back Moon (see body calendar to explain that),
    Shrinking-Days Moon."

    "Oh, all right", said the girl. "But if I set you free and if you are rested again, and the marrow in your bones is fat and strong once more, won't you come after me again?"

    "No, no!" cried the Moon. "I shall not! I have had enough! You are far too lively for me. I shall never leave my home in the sky again. Let me go, and I shall lighten up again."

    The girl let him go, and he lit up."

    Names of Months

    Months were originally named after something that indicated the time of the year, particularly the work that had to be done at thattime of the year. This means that nearly every group of people had their own names for each month.

    Evenk Months

    The Evenk of Central Siberia are of Tungus/Manchurean origin. They migrated north in the middle ages with their reindeer herds.

    Their name for the Moon and for the month was Bega. The year began in spring which is about the end of May. There were two seasons: Thespring and summer season was called Nogani and the autumn and winter season was called Anyani.

    Here are the months of the Evenk calendar which were given to me by the director of the museum at Bratsk, they were part of the manuscript of a book but were not included when it was published (Tugolukov: unpublished ms).

    1. Mochun - grass growing
    2. Parulin - sap rising
    3. Kanyakit - root gathering
    4. Irkin - fat reindeer and fewer mosquitoes
    5. Sirgodyan - water freezes
    6. Uun - reindeer pregnant
    7. Mudkarpye - darkness
    8. Atka - days lengthen again
    9. Mira - chasing reindeer
    10. Gurhun - frozen snow crust
    11. Oktankir - snow lingers on
    12. Turan - coming of the ravens
    13. Shonkin - river opens

    These months were not the same for all the Evenk people. The names of the months varied, according to the different life-styles and work of the different groups of people. And also where they lived, as they were scattered over a vast area. Reindeer eatlichen which takes many years to grow again, so the herds have to be moved on every few weeks.

    For example, for the Evenk who lived mainly by hunting for furs, the month about October was Gobchon-Bega - from the term for "going hunting". It was the month when they hunted for squirrels and sables.

    Yakut(Sakha) Months

    Each year was counted as two years - a winter year and a summer year. This dual year system is found in other countries in the far north such as Iceland and Alaska, where there are climatic extremes. And the winters are so cold that people almost hibernated.

    The eleventh month was around March, Kulun Tutar, (kulun = foal, tutar = keep off, that is keeping the foal off its mother by tethering it, so the mare could be milked. The mare's milk is made into kumiss for the summer kumiss festival.

    The twelfth month is Muus Ustar (ice drifting month), when the ice breaks up on the rivers. And can cause flooding, especially where it melts up-river in the south, but has still not melted in the north where the river drains into the Arctic Ocean.

    May is Yam Yja (fish spawning month). Traditionally this was when people left their winter houses (the balagan) for summer tents of ornamental birch bark (the uraha) which were huge ornate teepees. They still move to summer homes (dacha) and you can still see families and friends camping in tepees for summer fishing trips.

    June is Bes Yja (Pine month). The pine sap wood was collected and in the winter made into flour. This was a substitute for grain which could not be grown so far north. A century ago they were still sometimes forced from lack of any suitable alternatives, to make the mortars to grind the sap wood from fresh cow dung over which water was poured and frozen to make it hard. But as the sides of the mortar were struck bits broke off and mixed with the flour.

    July is Ot Yja (haymaking). Still mainly done by hand. The ground is uneven and can be swampy. So you get little humpy haystacks in the meadows like we still had in England when I was a young girl.

    August is Atyrd'akh Yja (Pitchfork or hay-drying month). The round heaps of hay are collected into haystacks which have to be raised off the ground. When in times past, they could not get enough hay for the cows they were fed on fish which made the milk taste fishy and then their tea tasted awful.(The Sakha like the British have their tea with milk).

    The months used to be measured exactly by the moon. Twelve lunar months are shorter than the solar year by about eleven days, so every three years an extra month was added to summer to bring the months back in line with the seasons.

    September is Balagan yja, (Balagan month) when they returned to their winter home, the balagan. This was traditionally built of logs, caulked with mud and covered with mud and roofed with turf. The small windows had panes of ice during the winter.

    Although summers are warm and sunny (the sun shines 24 hours a day in the north), the winters are long, dark, and cold, very cold. In the past, not much happened in winter as people survived on stores in their winter homes.

    October is Altynyy, (8th month)

    November is Setinyi,

    December is Ahsynnyy,

    January is Tohsunnii,

    February, the tenth month, is Olunniu.

    The summer of the Yakut calendar now begins on 22nd May with the first cuckoo, and lasts three months until the 18th August.

    The summer is divided into three periods.

    Beautiful summer is the hottest time of the year (it was 36 degrees when I was in Yakutsk in late July). It is also the time of thunder storms, which start forest fires in the taiga. Under the taiga are peat bogs with oil and coal, and lightening can cause the taiga to be on fire underground. An eerie experience described by Kate Marsden who at the end of the 19th century went there to help the lepers and found herself riding through a smoky forest. However rising smoke from forest fires can indicate where the oil and coal reserves are.

    There are masses of flowering plants, producing fruit. Birds are in their nests. Fish are not only in the ocean, they come up the rivers. (Was fed salmon for nearly every meal including party fare, when I was there in July and August).

    From the 12th June summer at its height. Medicinal plants are gathered each day, used for treatment by many doctors. It is possible to collect ripe berries, red currants, raspberries and strawberries. On Yakut estates there are special days for haymaking.

    And then they hold the kumiss festivals. These are presided over by the white shamans and people dress up in their colourful traditional dress. The kumiss is made and dished out with traditional, sacred equipment, made mostly of wood and is drunk from a turned and carved wooden cup called a choron.

    The carved decoration represents the sardana, the red lily which is the traditional flower of Yakutia and comes out in the spring.

    The cycle of the moon's phases provided a convenient means of counting days. Here is the method that was used in Yakutia (less detailed than that of the Maori).

    Translated from: Ionov: 1913.

    The Yakut month was fixed as 30 days long, and was divided into two halves: the New Half and the Old Half.

    The New Half ended on the 15th day with the full moon. The days of the Old Half were numbered backwards back down to one, beginning with the "Beautiful-Flowering-Moon" on the 14th day. Day two "Finished-like-a-lady's-round-earring". The last days of the Old Half were "Hidden".

    Fitting lunar months into the solar year and keeping up with the seasons

    In the Yakut calendar, as mentioned, every three years an extra month was inserted after the hay-drying month, to bring the calendar back in line with the season. Such adjustments were necessary in all lunar calendars because the lunar months do not fit into the solar year. A year of twelve months is eleven days too short, and after three years the discrepancy is 33 days - over a month.

    If this is not adjusted, the months fall badly out of line with the seasons after which they are named. This happens in the Islamic religious calendar, but this was deliberate to distinguish the religious calendar from the secular one by which people organised their everyday lives.

    So in most calendars where the months are fixed by the moon, every three years or so, there are thirteen months instead of twelve. Alternatively there may be thirteen months, then a month was omitted when necessary. For most people, ritual was part of the seasonal round of activities, and the correct rites had to be carried out at the correct time, if people were going to eat well and be prosperous for the year to come.

    That problem exercised shamans, then astronomer priests, then professional philosophers and astronomers such as those in the Greek Empire, which by the 2nd century BC, following the conquests of the Macedonian King, Alexander the Great, stretched as far as Northern India and the Borders of China, and into North Africa.

    Athens was a centre for great philosophers including (until he was driven out by anti-Macedonian demonstrations) Aristotle, pupil of Plato, tutor to Alexander the Great, whose concepts of the physical universe were to dominate the future of astronomy and affect the structure of modern astronomy.

    The citizens of Athens used two official calendars, one fixed, and the Civil Calendar, which was used to fix the dates of religious ceremonies and rituals, and correlate the lunar and solar cycles.

    Athenians counted twelve lunar months earch year, so each year was too short.

    The Athenian months were Hekatombaion, Metageitnion, Boedromion, Pyanepsion, Maimakterion, Polsideon, Gamelion, Anthesterion, Elaphebolion, Munychion, Thargelion, Skirophorion.

    These months were adjusted by the city authorities, to ensure festivals were held at the right season. The right time for a festival was sometimes also determined by the need to detract the citizens from problems for which they might hold their governing authorities responsible. They might forget their woes and grudges if they were partying. So the calendar was constantly adjusted by government committees. And this is recorded in their minutes. For example, in 302BC: "On motion of Stratocles, it was voted to call the current month which was Munychion, Anthesterion, and so to regard it, and the lesser rites at Agra were performed for Demetrius, after which Munychion was again changed and became Boedromion instead of Anthesterion."

    Fixing the calendar by markers.

    The Inuit in the north of Canada, had a 13 month year. (As recorded by Boas 1888). They adjusted the winter month called Siringilang which meant "without sun". It included the whole time in winter when the Sun cannot be seen above the horizon. When a new moon and the winter solstice coincided, this month was omitted.

    They calculated the summer solstice, by reference to certain fixed landmarks in relation to the sun, from the angle of the sun's rays on the rocks, or from the position of the bright star Altair when it rose just before dawn. A large boulder fixed into the ground, or a cairn of stones was sometimes used to align with a particular point on the horizon where the sun rose or set on a particular date. This traditional method of fixing the calendar was also still in the use in Northern Europe in the 17th century.

    Fixing the calendar by the Pleiades

    The Sakha fitted their lunar calendar to the seasons of the solar year by observing the rising of the Pleiades cluster of bright new, still whispy, stars. In Yakut and other related Turkic languages, the Pleiades are called "Urgel" meaning a "Sieve".

    They were drawn looking like a sieve or grid rather than a star cluster, on the shaman's tambourines and on rock drawings.

    Here is an extract from the book by Martin Sauer published in 1802, as a report on the expedition sent by Catherine the Great, under Captain Billings to the North Pacific.

    "If the Pleiades...appear before the moon when seven days old in the month of January, they expect spring to commence in the beginning of April; if when nine days old, at the end of April; but if this happens on the tenth day, they expect a late spring, and begin to be very saving of their fodder."

    A Yakut legend associates the Pleiades with the coming of the cold winter; it tells how a shaman ascended to the sky to cut the nine stars of the Pleiades down so the Earth would be always warm. the shaman told everyone that they were not to watch while he did this, but one woman could not resist going out to look at the sparks dropping from the sky as the shaman hacked at the star cluster with an axe. When he saw her, he stopped his work immediately, having only cut out two of the nine stars, so it only became a little warmer on Earth.

    Using the Pleiades as a seasonal calendar is mentioned by the Greek writer Hesiod who lived in the 8th century BC about the time of Homer. In his "Works and Days" he recommends beginning the harvest when the Pleiades is first seen rising about the horizon. Winnowing the grain when the constellation of Orion rises later on. And ploughing the fields when the Pleiades disappear below the horizon in spring.

    People on Kodiak Island, Alaska, used to begin their year with the month called the equivalent of "When-the-Pleiades-Begin-to-Rise" in autumn, which was followed by the "Orion-Rises" month.

    In Africa the bright star Sirius which in the Northern Hemisphere is seen after Orion, being below and further east, was used to fix the calendar. This is only seen in mid winter further North, but this part of the Sky with the Pleiades, Orion and the Ecliptic the path of the sun and planets, which is visible in Northern Winters can also been seen the other way up in the Southern Hemisphere.

    In the North of Australia legend, the constellation of Orion heralds the monsoon season. In a legend from there, Orion (seen the other way up to what it looks like north of the equator) is the boat of three fisherman and their fishing nets (the Pleiades, and the other cluster of new stars nearer Orion, the Hyades). The men went fishing for taboo fish late in the season, because they were hungry, but the gods were angry and they were sucked up to heaven in a giant waterspout.

    To the Polynesians, the Pleiades indicated the month when the mother turtles crawled up the beach from the sea to lay their eggs in the sand. But they often had some difficulty in agreeing beforehand when this would happen, and there were months of argument until the event occurred, then they partied.

    Australian myths have the Pleiades as "seven sisters" as in Europe and also have stories about the beautiful heavenly maidens coming to Earth, and two of them being captured by a man to become his wives. Only to escape back to the heavens again.

    In Thailand, they are seven little chicks part of a rather sad story about an old, poor couple, who to their dismay found a monk by their front door who they were obliged to feed. They had only their much loved hen and her chicks. They had to kill the hen to feed the monk. The little chicks jumped into the pot as well to be with their mother. They are all in the heavens now, the fluffy chicks and their mother.

    Fixing the calendar by the birds

    Birds have regular habits.

    Most species appear with much noise at the crack of dawn, flying off to get food.

    They go home to their nests or roosting in trees etc. at night. At which time the nocturnal birds like owls would emerge.

    Early navigators used the birds to find land. They knew that the birds they saw in the day out at sea would return to land to their nests before dark.

    Birds migrate. In autumn, most of the birds fly off in formation to a warmer place. In spring they come back. You could set your calendar by them.

    In the 8th century, Hesiod in his "Works and Days" says that when you hear the crane, the time has come to plough the fields, the time of the chilly rains.

    In the Greek comedy play "The Birds" by Aristophanes, which was first performed in 414BC and is still popular - (it gave us the term: "Cloud-Cuckoo-Land"), the birds tell the audience how humans depend on them to tell them the seasons of the year.

    When you see the birds flying away you know that winter is coming, when the birds return, it is time to sow your crops.

    In West Siberia, the Ostyaks (Khanti) set their calendars (wood boards with holes indicating the days) by the spring return of the eagles "Eagle Month". If the eagles had not arrived in "Eagle Month" they added an extra month. So the eagles were used to fit the lunar months into the solar calendar.

    In Alaska, "Opening Summer Doors" month happened when the door in the wall was no longer snowed up and could be opened.

    During winter people went in and out through the chimney. These round, half underground houses were traditional in Eastern Siberia and across the north, including Britain up to the late Iron Age. Which is why Father Christmas comes down the chimney. It was the winter entrance to the house.

    Winter ended with "Arrival of Geese" month. The end of summer was indicated with "Geese Moulting" month, "Swan Moulting" month, and "Flying Away" month.

    Fixing the Calendar by the Sun

    In Arizona and New Mexico, the calendar was fixed each spring by observations in an observatory. At Matsatya, an ancient Zuni city, in ruins by the 19th century, this ceremony was still carried out. The Zuni Pekwin, the Sun Chief, set out late at night, with the Bow Priest, who served the Morning Star (Venus) who was the God of War.

    They entered the special tower used as observatory and sat before a pillar marked with the sun wheel symbols (see directions of time). Here the Pekwin waited, praying and chanting, for the sunrise. His concern was not simply the point at which the sun rose over the horizon, but on which morning "the shadows of the solar monolith, the monument of Thunder Mountain, and the pillar of the Gardens of Zuni" lay in a single line". Which is why he continued to return to the old observatory in the abandoned town.

    When he saw this event, the Pekwin thanked the Sun, the Bow Priest cut a notch in his wooden calendar, and both hurried back home to announce that the time to being to prepare the fields and plant the crops had arrived.

    The Sun Chief was also responsible for marking the exact times of the summer and winters solstices around which a number of crucial ceremonies were based. Should he get the timing wrong, or the omens be bad, he would be wise to get away as quickly as possible since Pekwins who made mistakes could be murdered in various horrible ways.

    Gnawing Bootstraps month

    The vital importance of keeping track of the seasons, and of the work to be done to gather and store food, and prepare the home, etc. is borne out by the names of the months in early spring that we still use today.

    February is named after the Roman god of death - Februus. If people had planned well and had a flourishing economy they could look forward to the end of the cold winter. For reindeer herders, who were protected from famine by very large herds, the month about February or March was called "Shedding-of-the-antlers-of-the-reindeer". But for those who survived by hunting, these months toward the end of winter and beginning of spring were "Month-of-last-stored-food" and this was following by "Hunger Month" or "Gnawing Bootstraps Month". (We still talk of being reduced to "gnawing our bootstraps" - it was once a real possibility).

    Kennan described how in 1864 he returned to Anadyr to find, what a few months before had been a thriving town (the capital of Chukotka) deserted. The Russians, who were dependent upon summer fishing, were rescued from total extinction in this region by the Koryaks and Chukchi with their large reindeer herds. Shklovsky described what a normal spring was like in Sredne Kolymsk in the 1890s:

    "By the month of March all the store of fish is consumed and the inhabitants begin to eat the food usually given to dogs, such as fish bones, entrails and half-decayed fish. At this time it is impossible to enter the house of a Kolymian because of the nauseating, overpowering stench of rotting fish, and towards the end of spring conditions become and worse."

    "In May the inhabitants are forced to eat the leather leggings and straps, also the skin of nalim (a big fish). (In the summer this was used for window panes - in window they used ice for their glazing.)
    "To live in Sredne Kolymsk then is torture. The sight of the yellow, swollen faces and glittering hungry eyes drives one mad. Gaunt, half-dead dogs stagger weekly in search of the corpses of the companions and greedily devour them".

    In the past, and not so long ago, as it can still happen, many populations have been wiped out in the spring through starvation and disease. The survival of mankind in the northern parts of the world was heavily dependant on the ability to predict times of food shortage and to store provisions accordingly. Without an adequate calendar of the seasons, human society would have made little technological progress.

    Only in an equatorial region with a constant source of much the same food and a constantly warm dry climate (so no need to prepare shelter and store food), would you be able to find people who could really exist without an annual calendar. The few cases in which apparently primitive people have been found in such a state in recent times, have so far turned out to be set-up hoaxes. And few equatorial places are both free from seasonal heavy rain storms and with a constant supply of food growing on trees or ground. Usually either wet for part of the year or a desert.

    The Moon and Days

    The changing shape of the moon each night, made it a convenient instrument for counting days. In many traditional calendar systems, all over the world, the days were named and numbered after the appropriate phase of the moon. (from Ionov, 1907).

    In Yakutia, in the traditional Sakha/Yakutian calendar each day of the month was named after the appearance of the moon.

    The month was fixed as 30 days long, and was divided into two halves: the New Half and the Old Half.

    The first day of the New Half was called "Closed New".
    The second day was "Glittering like the eyelash of a maiden".
    The third day: "The Moon is like (the hem of) a jacket". (The traditional short Sakha coat has a circular hemline).
    The fourth and fifth days were called "Sharp like the horn of a three-year-old cow".
    The 6th and 7th days were "Like apiece of the outside of an ancient cross-bow".
    Then came "Like a far-off neighbour's cooking pot".

    The New Half ended on the 15th day with the full moon.

    The days ofthe Old Half were numbered backwards back down to one, beginning with the "Beautiful-Flowering-Moon" on the 14th day.
    Day two: "Finished-like-a-lady's-round-earring".
    The last days of the Old Half were "Hidden".

    The Moon and weeks

    The phrases of the Moon also divide the month naturally into halves, quarters (the origin of our 7-day week, or thirds as in the Roman calendar.

    The Evenk compared the phases of the Moon to the birch tree.

    Like the Moon, the birch is periodically "born". That is in spring it bursts into leaf and catkins, these develop, and then in autumn, the leaves die and fall, and in winter the tree looks dead.

    So each quarter was named accordingly: (from Vasilevich, 1963)

    The Body Calendar

    You do not need to make a calendar to reckon the months of the year.

    At one time not so long ago, counting and measuring was done using parts of the body to aid in reckoning. This goes for the calendar too. The method survives in Yakutia. It was demonstrated to me by Rosa Bravina, who was Professor of Anthropology at Yakutsk University, and also a white shamaness. When she demonstrated the Yukaghir body calendar it looked very graceful - like dance movements.

    The method is also recorded by Sauer who was reporting on the Billings Expedition at the end of the 18th century, and Jochelson, at the end of the 19th century.

    You begin in summer (about June) with your fingers and the joints on your hand "middle-of-the-summer month" - which was when the Yukagir used to go to the rivers to catch the salmon coming up river from the sea for spawning.

    You count wrist, elbow, - the neck is the seventh month, then down, shoulder, elbow, write - tenth month - "hunting month", eleventh month - "leaf month" and twelve is "ice-melting month" - the beginning of summer.

    Evenks started the body calendar with the head. (Tugolukov, 1969)

    Keeping a Record

    Evenks used a round wooden board with holes drilled all round it, one for each day of the year, with a peg to mark the current day. This was hung in the "best" part of the teepee at the back with the little display of prized items, china, religious objects etc. Each day it was the duty of the "master of the household" to move the peg on. Special days were marked out.

    Another common sort of calendar used throughout Europe and Northern Asia was the staff calendar. In England called a Clog Almanac, the picture shows a 17th century Staffordshire Almanac. The concept may have reached Britain by way of the mercenaries from eastern Europe in Roman times.

    Usually a six sided wooden stick with the days of the year marked out two months at a time. Used until the end of the 19th century, they may have very early origins going back to around 40,000 years ago possibly. Although wooden artifacts rarely survive, bone marked out with notches or drilled holes indicating they could have been tallies or calendars, have been found dating back at least 25,000 years.

    Copyright Heather Hobden. Originally published in Clocks Magazine in the 1980s, and updated and added to.

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