“Times came into being along with the heavens [...] in order that time might come into being, Sun, moon and the five stars which are called wanderers were generated to define and protect the numbers of time”
Plato (Timaeus, -360)
Trees are blossoming, birds chirping, the air is fresh and filled with pollen, and days are getting longer and warmer… There is no doubt about it: Spring has arrived in the Northern Hemisphere, and with it, what feels like new beginnings. The passage of seasons is a universal Earthly experience (even at the poles). It probably is nowadays the experience that allows us, technology-dependent folk, to feel the passage of time. With our digital calendar, wristwatches, cellphones, and synchronized atomic clocks, timekeeping now is as easy as it feels natural. Our life is regulated by the hours of the day, the weekly routine, holidays and celebrations, and by the flow of the seasons. But, keeping track of the passing of time used to be a struggle.
The relative unification and almost absolute precision of timekeeping is rather recent. There were once a plethora of timing systems coexisting, and this continues today if you take a closer look. For example, the Vernal Equinox marks the beginning of the spring, and celebrates the beginning of a new year in the Persian Calendar; in the Muslim Calendar, we are currently living in the year 1443, which is the Water Tiger year of the 79th cycle of the Chinese Calendar. The way people relate to time is a matter of culture. According to Edward T. Hall, the relationship one has with time is dependent on the place one grew up in (Hall, 1984). Thus, the jokes and comedy trope on how slow or fast-paced people are in this or that country. The widespread representation of time as a linear progressive continuum itself is the product of an intellectual construction influenced by Christianity (Montgomery, 1975).
The common notion of time results from daily experiences and it bears different representations from one era to another, from one culture to the next, and so the way we organize ourselves in relation to temporality matters. (Paty, 2013). Giving meaning to the passing of time relies on observation; the periodic movement of certain elements of the earth has inspired humans to record the change in the hope of predicting the environment around them (Parisot, Suagher, 1996). Therefore, people were able to anticipate and adapt to the season’s occurrences, especially the arrival of the colder months to ensure sufficient preparation. And whether it is through seasons, sea-level changes, the sun with its equinox, solstices, and eclipses, or the moon cycles, natural rhythm is the canvas of this curious human invention: the calendar.
The calendar is a highly organized ensemble - its structure is a mixture of ancient traditions and astronomy, all of which are arranged around careful arithmetical calculations. It is estimated that humanity has produced more than a hundred calendar systems (Parisot, Suagher, 1996).
Before the clock, the sand watch, the sundial, or even the clepsydra, we observed the hours of the day from a stick fixed in the ground. The sky - with its sun, stars, and moon - was our first clock. The moon, with its easily observable twenty-nine and a half days cycle, was probably at the origin of most calendars. The very word “month” derives from the word “moon” - in English and German “Monat'' & “Mond.” Knowing this, it is more than likely that the length of our months are the legacy of the moon’s presence in our nights (Bourgouing, 2000). Still, basing a calendar system on the moon proved to be difficult, since it does not coordinate with a solar year (a revolution around the sun). Errors and gaps inevitably come around when predicting equinoxes and solstices. These events are important in the organization of social, religious, and economic activities; so, after thorough observation of the sun and the stars, solar-based calendars emerged.
The first calendar made for social purposes dates back to ancient Sumer, about 5000 years ago, in Mesopotamia. The priest-astronomer-astrologists studied the night skies on top of the ziggurats (Pyramid-shaped towers used as temples and observatories by Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians). Measuring the coming and going of stars and planets, they managed to establish the first sky maps and used the periodic return of stars to codify the firsts calendars (Hart-Davis, 2011).
Ancient Egypt's society and culture were centered around the power of the Nile, and of the sun. Crops were relying on the yearly flooding of the river while the whole social structure of the Kingdom revolved around the sun. Astronomers observed that a water surge happened following the days of a curious astronomical event: the heliacal rising of Sirius (Canis Majoris); or, the day when that star appears before the sun rises. This omen was designated as the date for the new year. Having a set point, Egyptian scholars were able to calculate the duration of a year as 365.25 days. However, their calendar, consecrated as sacred by priests, was limited to 365 days, which caused a continuous offset. The Egyptian calendar lasted for 4000 years until the Roman imposed their own. The Roman timekeeping system would, in time, become the standard we globally use today, the Gregorian Calendar. This norm that we rarely question, came to be after some reforms initiated by Julius Cesar himself, and later by the Catholic Church, both of which were obsessed with mathematical accuracy for the celebration of Easter. Implemented by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, based on the works of two astronomers, Aloysius Lilus and Christopher Clavius, the new rhythm included a radical leap of 10 days in the calendar.
There are many alternatives to the Gregorian calendar, and some of them coexisted or preceded the Egyptians. For example, the Chinese and Jewish calendars are a hybrid of solar and lunar-based timekeeping. Also, the French Revolutionary Calendar, which was used for a mere 13 years between 1793 and 1806 is a precious little curiosity as well - it was an attempt to reform timekeeping by excluding religious influence and tradition from it.
In the end, whatever timekeeping system people find themselves using, it is worth pondering on the fact that they all were made by mankind, and thus, can be susceptible to change. The current relationship societies have with time can be altered. And, to some extent, it already has changed: time is now measured with absolute fidelity. It also has been subjected to acceleration as we, in a global, fast producing, and consuming society, are relying on efficient time management to keep the system in place. However, the clock doesn’t have to dictate a fast pace, efficient and productive rhythm. German philosopher Henri Bergson wrote that "Time is invention or it is nothing at all" (Bergson, 1907), implying the way we relate to time is a construct, if nothing else, which means it can be altered. Slowing time down, and restoring its mystery could offer us a good opportunity to rethink our relationship with the living world around us.
Bergson, H. (1907). Creative Evolution (1922 ed.) MacMillan. p. 374. https://archive.org/details/creativeevolutio00berguoft/page/n373/mode/2up
Bourgoing, J. D. (2000). Le Calendrier : Maître du temps? Gallimard.
Hall, E. T. (1984). The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time (Reissue éd.). Anchor.
Hart-Davis, A. (2011). The Book of Time: Everything You Need to Know About the Biggest Idea in the Universe. Adam Hart-Davis. Ed. Mitchell Beazley.
List of calendars | Calendar Wiki | Fandom. (2012). Calendar Wiki. Consulted in March 2022. https://calendars.fandom.com/wiki/List_of_calendars
Montgomery, J. W. (1975). The shape of the past. Bethany Fellowship. p.42.
Parisot, J.-P., & Suagher, F. (1996). Calendriers et chronologie. Masson.
Paty, M. “Sur l’Histoire du Problème du Temps”, in Spiro, M., & Klein, É. (2013). Le Temps et sa flèche. Flammarion. p22.
Plato (-360). Timaeus. Translated by Horan, D. (2021). From 38B to 38D. URL: https://cdn.platonicfoundation.org/2021/04/platos-timaeus-english-translation-by-david-horan.pdf
Figure 1: Unknown Author. (n.d.). Modern visualization of the Mayan Calendar at the National Museum of the American Indian [Photograph] KCUR. https://www.kcur.org/community/2012-01-09/origins-of-the-mayan-calendar-myth
Figure 2: Cresques, A. & J. (1375) Catalan Atlas [Book]. Wikimedia Commons.
Figure 3: U.S Patent Office. (1893). A. J. Reams. Electric Program Clock [Book]. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/uspatentscoverin01unit/page/n639/mode/1up?view=theater
Figure 4: U.S Patents Office. (1893). B. Franklin. Electric Alarm Clock [Book] Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/uspatentscoverin01unit/page/n95/mode/1up?view=theater