Mom, exclaims my daughter, there is a new moon tonight! I need to go find it.
I hate to dampen enthusiasm, but so does looking for something you can’t see.
Fascination for the moon is nothing new. Cultures across history and the globe all have stories about the moon. We all have heard about the man on the moon, but there are also cultures who see a rabbit, Jack and Jill (before falling down the hill), or even a silver fox. In some, the moon is female and others male. And what about the story that the moon is made of green cheese? (Really? Green?)
In addition, many societies have used the moon and its predictable phases in practical ways. In fact, our own months originate in lunar (or moon) time. Many other cultures also found the moon’s cycles as obvious ways to break up the year.
Certain moons were, and by some, still are, used to predict when to plant, harvest, fish, as well as other outdoor activities. The harvest moon in the fall, due to its specific arrangement with the sun and Earth, brings a rather convenient long, lighted period at night, perfect for an extended day of bringing in the crops. Think of how important this was before the invention of headlights.
In the early days of timekeeping, priests would notify the powers that be of the beginning of a new month by marking the new moon. Since we have a new moon every 29.5 days, it meant that each month was either 29 or 30 days, depending on observations and weather. If overcast, the priests just automatically determined 30 days for the month.
Even early humans marked time with the moon. In the 15,000-year-old Lascaux caves in France, Cro-Magnon man made markings of 29. This signifies the lunar cycle, some theorize. Even older, notched bones of 20,000 years showing the lunar cycle have been found in Africa and Europe.
After awhile, ancient cultures realized a problem with lunar timekeeping: it didn’t match the solar year. Looking at it in the simplest form, a solar year is 365 days and a lunar year 360 (12 months of 30 days). This discrepancy would eventually creep a lunar date earlier and earlier in the year. Even early societies knew that no matter what the moon said, planting in the snow is just not a good idea. Later cultures “fixed” this timekeeping gap by adding 5 bonus (and usually unlucky) days at the end of their lunar year.
Another culture just had the king decide, presumably whenever he felt it was needed, to adjust the date to match with reality. Of course, that must have made record-keeping interesting as the years wouldn’t be identical and would be more or less arbitrary, based upon the king’s decision. I wonder what happened when they ended up with a 13-month year (every so often, you would have 13 new moons in a year instead of the normal 12).
Keeping just moon time didn’t work well enough for the ancient Egyptians. They needed to predict the Nile flooding and so they turned to the Dog Star, Sirius, to adjust their calendar. When Sirius appeared in the sky in the summer, the Nile would be about to flood. By using a bright star to begin their cycle of months, the Egyptian calendar ended up being only 12 minutes off a solar year.
Of course, as societies grew more complex, lunar time just didn’t work as well. Civic calendars, for official business, grew from this need. While they may have originally been based on lunar or solar cycles, the dates became set, regardless of what the sun or moon was doing.
Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, so named for the pope who instituted it. It’s not too bad. After all, it’s only off by a day every four years (give or take). Although I must admit, I do like the idea of five bonus days at the end of every year. Party, anyone?