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Ancient Timekeeping

In ancient times before the first clocks were invented, people used natural events and rhythms to keep track of time.   The changing of the seasons, the cycles of the sun and moon and the movement of the stars were all used.

The Moon & Stars

The use of the lunar cycle as a time standard is well known. In the mythology of some societies the moon was regarded as having been placed in the sky specifically to enable man to keep time. The cycle of the moon’s phases provides a convenient means of counting days, and in some countries you can find systems of naming the days after the phases of the moon.   This method was still used up until the 19th century by the Yakut people of Siberia.   The Jewish and Muslim religions’ months are also linked to the Synodic month (the period of time between one new moon and the next) and the first day of each of their months normally coincides with the appearance of a new crescent moon.   It is for this reason that the dates of their religious festivals change from year to year.

Lunar months are used for counting the seasons of the year. However, as the lunar cycles do not fit exactly into the solar year, after three years there is a discrepancy of more than a month. Therefore the lunar calendar soon becomes out of step with the seasons and extra days need to be added at intervals to prevent this from occurring. Since a reliable calendar was essential for predicting the correct time to commence economic activities – such as hunting or planting, the role of the calendar-keepers – usually shamans or priests, was a powerful one, exercising great control over the rest of the society, who depended upon their accurate predictions.

The correct time of the year was checked by astronomical observations of the position of the sun, in reference to certain fixed points, or by the rising and setting of certain bright stars like Sirius, or constellations like the Pleiades.

The Sun

By day people could use the direction of the sun, or the shadows it cast to calculate the passage of time.  Each direction marked by the position of the sun, or its shadow was defined as an “hour” of the day and the Saxons named these “tides”. However, these hours were not evenly spaced. They varied not only through the year but also at busy times of the day, such as early morning, which had more “hours” or “directions” than quieter times.   As you travelled further north the variation also increased.  

Each “direction” or “hour” was named and we still use some of the traditional names as well as numbers.   The names used for our own days of the week survive from the names of the Roman gods for each hour of the day.    Many of these names were later altered by the Saxons to reflect their own Gods.  However, the name Saturday is derived from the Roman God of Time – Saturn.

Tent pitched in a forestThis Evenk shaman’s tent (in the Evenk Zone near Bratsk) has a symbolic layout with the entrance facing towards the morning sun.  Photograph copyright Heather Hobden – (all rights reserved)

The concept of the significant directions of time and space is found in many cultures in which directions are also associated with qualities for example the winds, elements, colours, people and animals.   The orientation of ritual sites, tombs and dwellings in many societies relates to the concept of the directions and their associated qualities.  For example homes usually have the front door to the east, south-east or south as this is the direction of the rising sun – associated with light, life, and good things. West and North, were associated with death and bad things. For more info, contact us here!