As the Hours and the Days and the Weeks and the Months and the Years Go By

With this year soon coming to an end, I was thinking about whether there’s any connection between the number of days in a year and degrees in a circle, and apparently there is. Of course, a modern year doesn’t have exactly 360 days, but it’s close, and the ancient Babylonians seem to have sometimes used a year of that length.

From what I’ve seen, the astrologer-priests originally set up a lunar calendar, with each month starting when a crescent moon could be spotted low in the sky. Each lunar cycle could be divided into four weeks of seven days, which they named after the visible planets, including the Sun and Moon, those in turn being associated with specific gods.

A year was divided into twelve months, which was about equal to the time it took for the Earth to revolve around the Sun, although of course they didn’t see it that way back then. But the lunar calendar gradually deviated from the relative position of the Sun, so the solution was to add an extra month every few years.

These extra months were likely assigned somewhat arbitrarily at first, but gradually worked out to seven times in every nineteen years, which the Jewish and Chinese calendars still use today. But there was apparently also another calendar in use by the Babylonians at some point in time with twelve thirty-day months, with the resulting 360-day year being essentially an average between the 355-day lunar year and the 365-day solar one. The sky was hence divided into 360 equal parts, and that’s why we still use 360 degrees for a circle, with the fact that it’s divisible by so many single-digit numbers being an added bonus. Or maybe that was the intention all along. The Babylonians had a number system based on sixty, and that’s probably also related to minutes and seconds. I believe the Egyptians came up with the twenty-four-hour day, starting with twelve divisions in the daytime and adding twelve at night. This presumably meant the length of an hour could vary depending on the time of year, apparently still the case in some timekeeping systems, but they were eventually standardized somewhere along the line. The Egyptians also used a 360-day calendar that later added five more days, outside of any of the thirty-day months, to bring it in line with the solar year. There was a myth to explain the change, in which Thoth gambled with the moon god Khonsu in order to extend the year.

I’ve seen it suggested that Enoch‘s earthly lifespan of 365 years in Genesis might have been linked to the solar year, but no one really knows at this point.

The Jewish calendar borrowed heavily from the Babylonian, including marking months with crescent moons, the leap months, and the names of the months. That isn’t the case with the name of the days of the week, which were just numbered in Hebrew. The concept of the Sabbath might also come from the Babylonian calendar, although that’s not as certain. I suppose even a purely lunar calendar must have some solar influence, because otherwise why twelve months instead of any other number? It probably had to do with the seasons, and hence when you could grow and harvest certain crops. The Chinese calendar has a leap month in seven years of every nineteen, which I think is . The Islamic, or Hijri, calendar deviates somewhat from this, as it lacks the leap months (although it does have a leap day every three years), and the beginnings of some months require an actual sighting of the new moon even if you can accurately calculate when it will be there. As such, while Jewish holidays don’t have a fixed place in the Gregorian calendar, they don’t vary quite as much as Islamic holidays. From what I’ve read, this calendar is pretty much entirely for religious observances, with the Gregorian in use for other purposes in predominantly Muslim countries.

The days of the week being named after planets and gods, which was started by the Babylonians, is pretty common; Romance languages tend to use the Roman names, while English uses the Norse ones…except for Saturday. We also have Easter instead of Paschal, and Yule has become basically synonymous with Christmas. I thought it was an interesting connection that Saturday is the last day of the week, Saturnalia was celebrated near the end of the year, and the image of the old year at New Year’s celebrations is based on Saturn. I suspect this is largely coincidental, partially due to how Saturn was identified with Kronos, who does not seem to have been initially associated with time, but came to be due to the similarity between “Kronos” and “Chronos.” It does fit a god whose role in the myths we have is mostly destructive.

The idea of the year being represented by a person is kind of sad to me, because it means the poor guy only lives that long, unless it’s the same dude being reborn over and over.

I’ve seen Baby New Year tied to an ancient Greek festival where a baby was used to symbolize Dionysus, but the modern concept really comes from editorial cartoons starting in the nineteenth century.

I remember learning that Nostradamus, who was from a Jewish family that converted to Christianity, used the term saturnin to refer to the Jewish people, as the Sabbath is on Saturday and this led astrologers to link the religion to the planet. For a deposed god, Saturn really gets around.

This entry was posted in African, Astronomy, Babylonian, Christmas, Easter, Egyptian, Greek Mythology, History, Holidays, Islam, Judaism, Mathematics, Mesopotamia, Mythology, New Year's Day, Norse, Religion, Roman, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to As the Hours and the Days and the Weeks and the Months and the Years Go By

  1. markrhunter says:

    It seems to me the old guy representing 2021 will be happy to put his year in and get the heck out of here.

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