A Day came to have 24 hours because it is 12 times 2 – the 12 signs of the Zodiac for both Day and Night. This number 12 has come to be so important to Human cultures – the 12 Disciples, the 12 Knights of the Round Table, 12 members of a Jury and so on.
A week is made up of 7 days to honor the most potent of the Old Gods, the objects seen in the Heavens. Saturday (Saturn’s Day), Sunday (Duh) and Monday (Moonday) are obvious to English speakers but the names of the rest may not be. Well, in English, we have simply adapted the old Norse names for their Gods’ Days which they pasted onto the existing Roman system – Tuesday (Tyr’s Day, for a God of War), Wednesday (Wotan, or Odin’s Day), Thursday (Thor’s Day) and Friday (Freya’s Day).
The older planetary Roman names are made clear in languages deriving from Latin, French say; Lundi – Lune/Moon Day (Monday), Mardi – Mar’s Day (Tuesday), Mercredi - Mercury’s Day (Wednesday), Jeudi – Jupiter’s Day (Thursday) and Vendredi - Venus’ Day (Friday).
A Month has a lot of complications to it and it is the period of measurement where the greatest astronomical inaccuracies occur. There are 4 weeks to the Month because it reflects the cycle of the 4 phases of the Moon – New Moon, Waxing Half Moon, Full Moon, Waning Half Moon. But this period of 28 days doesn’t line up with the actual Lunar phases of 29.53 days so significant slippages occur over the course of years and decades. That’s why there is a progression to the lunar changes, they don’t remain regular to the same day each month.
Many societies have used lunar based calendars that have left them over time, wildly out of sync with the seasons. Even today, some Muslim countries still use a lunar calendar so Islamic Scholars are constantly at work keeping on top of the actual dates each year of their religious festivals, like Ramadan, which change dates from year to year.
Julius Caesar did a major calendar reform with the help of the Egyptian Astronomer, Ptolemy to try to get the months aligned with the seasons properly. Also at this time, January 1 replaced March 1 as the traditional beginning of the New Year. For his efforts, Caesar rewarded himself by naming a month after himself, July, and by adding one more day to it to make it special, stealing it from February. A few decades later his great Nephew, Octavian Caesar Augustus did the same, giving us August and losing yet another day from February.
But Caesar’s conception, the Julian Calendar, became the standard that was used for many centuries in the West. But it too had minor mistakes of calculation in it, especially an inaccurate leap year formula.
By the 16th Century, Caesar’s Calendar was itself about 10 days out of sync with the actual seasons, especially the crucial Christian holy day of Easter. Under a reform initiated by Pope Gregory XIII, a Grand Council of Mathematicians, Theologians and Philosophers redesigned the Calendar to catch up. The main part of the solution was to chop the mistaken number of days right out of being, so Thursday, 4 October 1582 was followed by Friday, 15 October 1582. This “loss” of 10 days caused outrage against the Vatican in many of the early Protestant States and so some countries like England didn’t institute the reform for well over a century.
The habit of numbering each year from the (incorrect) year of Jesus Christ’s birth which had become common in Middle Age Europe was also formally instituted, so 1582 Anno Domini. It took several decades for the BC concept to become widely used. All these reforms became known as the Gregorian Calendar, which is still our basic standard today.
Modern astronomical measurements have confirmed the accuracy of the ancient Astrologers’ eventual calculations of a Year at more or less 365 and ¼ days, the time for a complete orbit of Planet Earth around the Sun. The Mayans and the Incas in Pre Columbian America had tremendously accurate calendars carved into stone which precisely measured that.
While researching this segment of All the Time in the World, the hardest calculation to get an accurate answer for was why an Hour was divided into 60 Minutes and a Minute into 60 Seconds. It seems to be such odd numbers given the importance of the 360s and the 12s and the 7s in the other areas of Time measurement. I am indebted to my Master Astrologer friend, Deanna Giesbrecht, who pointed me at many key points in the ancient mysteries. When I first asked her about it, she came up with the very plausible notion that perhaps it was based on the 12 Zodiacal signs multiplied by the magic number 5, the number of the Pentagram related to the Planet Venus and the sign of its Goddess, Isis. 12 x 5 = 60.
But then later, she fired back an email which reported that the Sumerians, great Astrologers and the inventors of bureaucracy, after all, some 3500 years ago used a Sexagesimal numbering system (based on 60 in the same way that the decimal system is based on 100). To them, 60 was a “round number” - the lowest one divisible by 1,2,3,4,5,6 and 10. So from their passion for quantifying for bureaucratic purposes, we get our 60 minute hour and 60 second minute.
All these measurements and concepts came up from the ancient civilizations in the Middle East and the Classical West and became common usage over the centuries there. The Age of Imperialism spread them to all the far corners of the World and the rise of international communication and commerce have made them almost universally used by the entire Human race.
But it is quite amazing to think, isn’t it, that our Blackberries, our airplane schedules, our school hours, our TV shows at 9 all follow a system that is one of the most ancient things to come down to us through history? All our most secular scientific enterprises operate with measurements that were conceptualized to try to explain the motivations of a pantheon of now mostly forgotten Gods. Today, we time our lives in some ways exactly the same way that our ancestors did 30 centuries ago and more.
It is another measure of our ongoing Human fascination and fixation with Time that these concepts were developed in the first place and that they are still such a huge part of our lives today.
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