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The Lunar Calendars at Cuma
– The Good News is that We Have Only One Moon
This is neither a treatise on astronomy nor a history of calendars, but if you don't know what a lunar calendar is, you should probably read the first few paragraphs. On the other hand, if you already know the difference between a synodic month and a sidereal month, you already know more than is good for you!
First, all calendars are systems of reckoning time over extended periods. They are all based on the movement of the moon or the perceived motion of the sun (or possibly both), and they let cultures organize political, social and religious affairs, and life in general. The common western calendar in use today is the Gregorian solar calendar, which measures the passage of the earth around the sun to give us a year of a bit more than 365 days (with the addition of a "leap" day added every so often) divided into 12 months. A lunar year, on the other hand, is a year of 12 synodic months (that is, from the appearance of either the dark “new moon” or else the light of the first crescent (often mistakenly called the "new moon") to the next new moon or first crescent), a time of approximately 29 and one-half days, giving us a synodic lunar year of about 354 and one-third days. Notice the uses of "a bit more," “approximately” and “about”. The complexity of calendars stems from the fact that the natural periods of day, month and year are not commensurate with one another: that is, the month is not a simple fraction of the year and the day is not a simple fraction of the month or the year. Thus, to keep calendars from “slipping”, they all have to, at some point, fudge a little bit and put in “leap” days or even months. Our western solar calendar has had two major revisions when it got unbearably out of sync: the Julian (at time of Julius Caesar) and the Gregorian (for Pope Gregory XIII in 1582). Thus we have months with 30 or 31 days and one month with 28 or 29 (in a leap year), with increasingly accurate astronomy reminding us that it will have to put in a leap second every once in while, but we shouldn't worry about it. Good. I don't.
The most common lunar calendar in use in the world is the Islamic (or Hijri Qamari) calendar. The Muslim lunar year is 11 days shorter than the western solar year and always has 12 months of either 29 or 30 days. Calendar events such as New Year's or various religious festivals always occur on the same day of the same lunar month and thus “cycle back” through the seasons, making a complete cycle every 33 years. It is used mainly for religious purposes, but in Saudi Arabia it is the official calendar. Other lunar calendars, such as the Jewish calendar and the Chinese one include extra months added occasionally to synchronize it with the solar calendar. These calendars are called lunisolar.
Lunar calendars and other calender-type markings incised or painted on cave walls are extremely old and are a feature of so-called "cave art" extending back even tens of thousands of years into the Upper Paleolithic. So, at a certain point, our species passed from just worrying about today (call it a “sun”) and passed over to trying to figure out how many of these sun-things go into one moon-thing. When we moved from being hunter-gatherers to farmers (almost 10,000 years ago) we had to worry about planting and harvest “seasons” and how many moons go into one “year”.
Thus, ancient societies such as the Babylonians and Egyptians, though they still kept track of months (because they are short and convenient) used years, as well, and many of them started reckoning their existence from a certain beginning, or epoch. That is, the Christian epoch is the birth of Christ; the Muslim epoch is the flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, known as the Hijra, which corresponds to July 16, 622 AD. Some Roman historians used AUC (ab urbe condita), meaning “from the foundation of the city” (traditionally, 753 BC), although it was more common in ancient Rome to identify years by using the names of the two consuls who held office that year. That type of “local” identification causes problems when dealing with Greek calendars and in the case of Cuma, calendars of Magna Grecia. In the period of classical Greece (the 5th and 4th centuries BC) every Greek city state used its own calendar with different month names, beginnings of the year, and use of “leap” intercalations (though they all used lunisolar calendars with years of 12 or 13 months) and the years were named after the holders of certain offices. (That system still exists ceremonially in modern Japan. I have an entrance stamp from Japan in my passport from the "Year 1" because it was during the first year of the reign of emperor Akihito.)
It is plausible that the settlers of Magna Grecia brought with them to Italy their calendars from their parent colonies and, thus, the Cuman solar calendar was not related to the one in Paestum, for example. They were no doubt lunisolar—that is, they attempted to relate the solar year to the two kinds of lunar years—the synodic (from first crescent to first crescent) year of 12 months and the sidereal—measuring the time it takes for the moon to return to the same place in the heavens in relation to a background reference point such as a fixed star (fixed at least for practical human purposes). That takes 27.3 days (approximately!) less than the synodic month, producing a year of 13 months. Thus, you have two ways of measuring the movements of the moon and two kinds of “lunar year”—one of 12 months and one of 13 months, neither of which correspond to the solar year. As I said, we're lucky to have only one moon! (Pity the poor Martians.)
The markings found since 1972 at Cuma show the attempts of the inhabitants to keep track of the months. Here is the information from the display board at Cuma:
The outside west wall of the Grotto of the Sibyl displays two groups of vertical marks cut into the stone with a sharp instrument. They were discovered in 1972 by the Unione Astrofili Napoletani - Sezione di Archeoastronomia. Calendar 1 consists of 20 vertical, parallel marks, arrayed horizontally, followed by nine other marks arrayed in a row below that. The top row runs from right to left, the bottom one runs inversely in boustrophedon fashion [ed. note: boustrophedon, literally, in the fashion of an ox plowing the field; that is, back and forth, finishing one row, dropping down and coming back. Ancient Greek writing did this.] A few meters to the right, further down, there is a second group of 13 marks, Calendar B, of which 8 are arrayed in an arc, followed by others, of which 5 are discernible, arrayed in a descending line. On the north wall of lateral arm M of the west wall of the dromos [ed. note: dromos=grotto of the sibyl.], there is a second series of 13 marks, discovered in 1995. They are similar to the other markings and are located at about eye level in respect to the original floor of the walkway. To the right of the markings there is a large spindle-shaped design cut into the rock [pictured, right]. Taken together, these two elements make up Calendar C. These archaeo-astronomical markings may be studied and compared with many other similar ones found in the Mediterranean in prehistoric and ancient times; they are examples of lunar calendars. At Cuma in Calendar A, the 29 marks represent the 29 days of the synodic lunar month [also called a 'lunation']; i.e. the interval of 29.53+ days, on average, between two successive new moons) connected to the corresponding year (29 days x 12 months = 348 days), and to the 13 months of the sidereal lunar year (Calendars B and C) The spindle-shaped design (uterus or vulva), is connected to fertility rites—at Cuma, these were rites to Hera or Isis. This has been documented in a shrine in a seaside villa from the Roman era discovered in 1992. Chronologically these calendars may be dated to between the last third of the 4th century BC and the end of the age of Rome, since they are connected to the cult of Artemis, identified with the Crescent Moon, which from here was visible only in the west, before they started to use the dromos in the High Middle Ages as a quarry, outside of the castrum [settlement] of Cuma.
Note the attention given to the relation of one month to a woman's menstrual cycle, thus to fertility, thus to the aspect of the female as life-bearing goddess and to the moon as a female entity. This interpretation is not novel. Many cave paintings show realistic or stylized depictions of both male and female genitalia (Leroi-Gourhan 1968). It has even been suggested that some ancient cave incisings long thought to be calendar marks may, in fact, have been actual records of menstrual periods, put there by female artists (Fischer 1979). All of that is generally viewed as at least plausible in the cases of lunar calendars here and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, where such designs may be present. It is, however, not universal; that is to say, not all calendar markings are accompanied by representations of female genitalia. That might mean nothing, or it might have to do, in a very broad sense, with the shift in European mythology from female to male; this is, from the "earth mother" concept (described here) to the decidedly male version of the universe we find in today's large monotheistic religions. That might have influenced gender in language (although there is more speculation than research on this topic!) Though most European Mediterranean languages that mark nouns by gender have the “moon” as feminine (la luna in Italian, for example) other languages may not. In German (and parent Germanic languages), the moon is der Mond (masculine). And in English, though "the moon" is not marked grammatically, such expressions as "the man in the moon" are telling. Historically, among Indo-European languages (a very large family), the gender of the moon can, and does, vary. But at least in Cuma and ancient Greece, the moon was a woman—indeed, a goddess. In the Homeric Hymn to Selene, the Greek goddess of the moon, we read:
[Also see the general entries on Cuma.]To Selene
photo credits: the 3 photos of the walls at Cuma, courtesy of Napoli Underground (NUg).
- Anonymous. 1914. "To Selene" in Homeric Hymns and Homerica. English trans. by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Cambridge, MA., HUP; London, William Heinemann.
- Facts on File Dictionary of Astronomy, 4th ed. (ed. Illingsworth & Clark), New York: Market House Books.
- Fisher, E. 1979. Woman's Creation, New York: McGraw Hill (cited in Wenke, 1984).
- Leroi-Gouhan, A. 1968. The Art of Prehistoric Man in Western Europe. London:Thames and Hudson (cited in Wenke, 1984).
- Lunde, P. 2014. "Patterns of Moon, Patterns of Sun" in Saudi Aramco World. Nov-Dec. 2014. Houston.
- Marshak, A. 1976. "Some Impications of the Paleolithic Symbolic Evidence for the Origins of Language." Current Anthropology 17: 274-8 (cited in Wenke, 1984).
- Ruggiero, F. 2003. "Evidenze archeoastronomiche a Cuma". Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane. Naples.
- Wenke, J.W. 1984. Patterns of Pre-History-Humankind's First Three Million Years. New York, Oxford: OUP.
add: Sept. 30, 2015
Other Cave Markings