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A Month of Sundays

By Allan Eastman

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Marking Time

Stonehenge, UK

Stonehenge is apparently a machine for measuring the Sun’s movements over the year.

©iStockphoto.com/LPETTET

As Human history progresses and new, more powerful civilizations begin to emerge, the observations of the Priests became more complex and the definitions of the Gods and their actions more codified. Early mathematics is devoted almost exclusively to trying to define the motions of the heavenly bodies.

We are now moving into the era of recorded History – the early civilizations of Mesopotamia like the Chaldeans, whose Oracles laid the groundwork for much of what followed and the Sumerians who basically invented bureaucracy, and so had to come up with a method of keeping records - including Time keeping. These methods and records later passed into that awesome land along the River Nile, Ancient Egypt with its own multitude of Gods. We still only know a miniscule amount about the totality of these cultures’ beliefs and practises but at least there begins to be some records, in stone or papyrus.

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All of this accumulated knowledge passed into the Classical Greek civilization and through them, into Rome, from where our best records derive. There seems to have been much more contact between civilizations in the ancient world than was once believed. The great Greek-Roman trade centre, the city of Ephesus on the Anatolian coast in modern Turkey, had extensive contacts with both India and China as well as the Mediterranean World and ideas and cosmologies and methods cross fertilized each other there.

Key to our story about the measurement of Time is the Priest-Astrologers’ dividing of the Sky into the 12 signs of the Zodiac. These were believed to be celestial regions ruled by various Gods. The measurement of the constellations’ movements across the Empyrium of the night sky was thought to be key to understanding the Gods’ intentions and how they controlled Human life and also as a tool for defining the seasons.

So 12 becomes another key number in our Time story. Twelve came to be considered a magic number for many reasons. To the ancient observer, there appeared to be 12 moon cycles to a Year, 12 waxing and wanings that brought the observer back to the same apparent point in any season. Multiply the 12 by number of days in the lunar cycle, 30 and you get 360, that other important number – the number of apparent days in the year. The Ancients thought they had unravelled the ultimate formulae of all the Gods’ mysterious behaviors.

Well, it turns out that these figures are close  but not dead accurate. The time between the complete cycle of the phases of the Moon – a Moonth, as it were – is scientifically measured at 29.53 days while an actual Month, the time it takes the Moon to make a complete orbit around Earth averages around 27.32 days. These discrepancies dogged accurate Time measurement for centuries and resulted in some notable Calendar slippages throughout History but we’ll get into that later.

However, the amazing 360 number has passed down into History as the number of degrees in a circle because the Ancients used the circle for their measurements of the sky – Stonehenge, for example, is apparently a machine for measuring the Sun’s movements over the year – and for the circle of the Heavens itself. It remains the key measurement definition for determining direction in our modern societies. Every compass is calibrated to 360 degrees.

So, having navigated our way through all this setup, let’s try to go through how these Ancient Priests and Observers  actually came to measure Time in a system that is still with us today, some 1000s of years later.

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