New Worlds: The Cultural Weight of Time

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Calendars were one of the first topics discussed in this Patreon — but at the time, we only addressed the question of how the year might be measured, e.g. with lunar, solar, or lunisolar calendars, leap modifications, and so forth.

There’s another dimension, though, which is vital in its own way: the significance we attach to our construction of time.

Probably the best-known example of this is the zodiac. Astronomically speaking, the zodiac is the region of sky through which the Moon and the planets we can see with the naked eye move; astrologically speaking, this has been divided into twelve zones dominated by a particular constellation. Its origins lie in Babylonian culture, but it ultimately spread both west to Greece, Rome, and Europe as a whole, and east to India. This contrasts with the Chinese zodiac, which — although likewise divided into twelve signs — has a different astronomical basis and devotes a full year to each sign, rather than roughly a month.

Still, the two systems share in common the idea that the sign in play influences the world below and the people in it. From this you might derive anything from marriages (your horoscopes should harmoniously match), to the notion of certain days being lucky or unlucky for certain activities, to the directional taboos of Japanese onmyōdō in the Heian Period, which proscribed travel in certain directions on certain days. Adhering to that kind of thing was an elite pastime, of course; you needed someone educated enough to calculate the auspices for a given day, and farmers couldn’t afford to neglect their fields just because heading southeast was temporarily a bad idea. (On the other hand, in fiction you can spin out interesting scenarios from this: a society where the government takes responsibility for disseminating this vital information to the populace, and villages have arrangements where they tend each other’s fields to accommodate the directional taboos.)

In Central America there’s a system both like and unlike this. The Mesoamerican calendar commonly referred to by the Mayan name of tzolk’in in no way corresponds to the astronomical year; its cycle is 260 days long. Furthermore, it has no actual beginning or endpoint. It consists of twenty day names and thirteen day numbers, continually cycling like two intermeshed gears. If you begin, arbitrarily, with the day 1 Dog, you’ll count up through the day names to 13 Wind; the next day will be 1 Darkness. Soon after that you come around to 8 Dog, and the next time the numbers flip over will be from 13 Eagle to 1 Wax. You could just as easily start your count at 1 Wind, or 1 Eagle, or anywhere you like.

What this has in common with the zodiac is the sense that the Day Lords — the minor deities whose English translations I used above — influence the time they govern. A low number is a gentler influence; a high number is more violent. What day and number a person is born on affects their personality and their spiritual potential, much like one’s astrological sign, while certain days will be good or bad for certain activities, and the day that falls on the beginning of the solar year is its Year-Bearer. Like the zodiac, the tzolk’in requires trained specialists, able to keep track of the endless cycle and remember the associations of each Day Lord. This calendar is still in use in Guatemala today, with daykeepers serving their local communities; its origins go back to pre-colonial times, though the uses to which it was put back then are unclear.

In looking up details for this essay, I was surprised to find that another system of assigning meaning to time was far more recent and artificial than I thought. I had swallowed, hook, line, and sinker the idea that named moons — such as the harvest moon and the hunter’s moon — were of venerable antiquity. In fact those two names aren’t attested until the eighteenth century, and the rest of the cycle started showing up in the twentieth century.

These names are customarily attributed to “Native Americans” (occasionally with a specific tribe attached, but usually without evidence for that origin), and supposedly they reflect the environmental conditions or food sources of the season. Examples found in farmers’ almanacs include Wolf Moon (January), Snow Moon (February), Milk Moon (May), Corn Moon (August), and so forth. The American Boy’s Book of Signs, Signals and Symbols, published by Daniel Carter Beard in 1918, omits the “moon” part and instead calls them by names like Goose-Eggs, Root-Food, Hot Sun, and Red Plum.

But even if the moon names are modern folklore, the idea behind them isn’t entirely false. The Chinese system of solar terms, which spread throughout East Asia, divides the year into twenty-four periods of fifteen or sixteen days, with names like Spring Commences, Rain water, Insects Awaken, Grain on Ear, White Dew, and so forth. Each solar term can be further subdivided into three pentads of five or sometimes six days, each of which again has its own name: when this essay goes live, we’ll have just started the first pentad of Great Heat, glossed by a Japanese app on my phone as “the first paulownia fruits ripen.”

It’s entirely plausible to have a calendar whose names and timing reflect the natural or agricultural cycle. It doesn’t even have to be ancient; the French Republican calendar, used from 1793 to 1805, based its month names on the words for natural conditions and events like “frost,” “germination,” and “harvest.” Its designers sought to purge old influences from their conception of time; our month of July was named by the Roman Senate to honor Julius Caesar, who was born in that month, while August is named for the Roman Emperor Augustus. At least the renaming fixed a different problem, which is that the addition of January and February to the start of the year meant that Quintilis (July) and Sextilis (August) were no longer the fifth and sixth months . . . though we’re still stuck with September through December being the ninth through twelfth months, instead of seventh through tenth.

So while the reckoning of time is, at is base, a process of measurement and calculation, it is no more free of politics, religion, and cultural significance than anything else in human society. And that makes it a ripe target for story!

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3 thoughts on “New Worlds: The Cultural Weight of Time”

  1. New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are often fraught with significance, being liminal times. Even if they are otherwise unremarkable.

  2. This is extremely helpful right now, Marie, because I need to develop a non-monthly calendrical system right away for worldbuilding. Now I have ideas about how to do that!

    1. Marie Brennan

      I’m glad it helps! I think actually keeping time by a non-monthly setup a la the tzolk’in would be difficult, but if the lowest common multiple of the two cycles matches the length of the year (or comes close enough for the purpose), I could see it working.

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