Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/April 1883/Origin of the Calendar and Astrology

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THE significance of the astronomical portion of the calendar is materially different at present from what it was in the earlier stages of its development. That this may be clearly understood, and the modern problem with which astronomy has to deal in the yearly construction of the calendar justly appreciated, let us examine the history of its origin.

The word "calendar" is derived from calendium, denoting the commencements of months, which, in the language of ancient Rome, were called dies calendæ, or simply calendæ; i. e., clays on which "calling out" should occur, from "calo" I call. This "calling out" took place upon the reappearance of the small crescent after new moon, and at the present day remains the custom among those people who, as for instance the Turks, reckon time wholly from the recurring phases of the moon. This was loudly proclaimed from the roofs of public buildings by appointed priests or seers, who were required to seek for the moon's crescent in the evening sky either two days after new moon, or four or five days after the last appearance of its light in the morning sky; this, then, was established as the beginning of the month, the single days being reckoned by counting backward or forward from the night, or from the intermediate day of full moon. This method of reckoning time from the revolutions and phases of light of the moon has been long practiced in those countries in which the constant clearness of the heavens enables people to determine with considerable accuracy the first appearance of the moonlight, the so-called "new light," and, again, among those whose limited intercourse with other nations afforded no comparison of fixed standards. In countries, however, where continued clearness of the sky was not afforded, or where the necessity was urgently felt for a regular determination of future dates, the seers at length desired that they be permitted to calculate, upon the basis of the past determinations of the duration of the regular months, the recurrence of the phases of the moon for a certain time in advance, and therewith the regular succession of the months, and to publicly record the number and the method of counting the days of the single months. Thus, in place of the public proclamation from the house-tops of the observed appearances, the calendar now came into use, containing calculations of the "calling days."

Gradually, however, when after a length of time the new light of the moon failed to appear at the specified date, in consequence of the imperfection of the calendar's determination, the proclaiming was entirely abandoned, and the moon in the calendar became more the standard for reckoning time than the moon in the heavens. It was repeatedly sought to compensate for these variations by revision of the calendar; but the more accurate methods for computing time, which gradually came into general use, soon supplanted the lunar chronology, and the months retained in their duration simply an approximate relation to the lunar month of twenty-nine and a half days, and were finally apportioned as twelve nearly equal divisions of the year.

The solar year, as a great heat-period, naturally attracted the observation of men at an early time, and the knowledge of the recurrence of the same degree of warmth was early recognized as of great importance to the interests and progress of agriculture and navigation. As a period, however, for the reckoning of the days the year was too long, and it was only with the advance of science that it gradually attained to chronological significance, namely, as a large and suitable unit of time for the division into months and days. The recurrence of similar phases of the year and evolution of heat were next associated each time with the appearance of certain celestial phenomena, in like manner as the commencement of the month with the resuming of the moon, and these observations were intrusted to individuals, who either proclaimed or published them. A common yearly calendar was thus prepared in advance, upon the basis of long and careful observations of the times of the recurrence of these phenomena, giving the days of certain months of each year on which they were to be seen, the changes of weather which would then take place, and these days were to form the reckoning points of time.

These phenomena in the heavens from which the data were derived were those positions of the sun in the sky, at certain intervals, relative to some fixed star or constellation, which could be most readily recognized with the naked eye; and, since the light of the sun far supersedes that of the brightest fixed star, these observations could be made only in the morning or at evening twilight, when it was noticed what bright star was visible near the horizon immediately before sunrise or after sunset. The apparent movement of the sun in the sky made itself manifest from the fact that the stars which were discernible in the western horizon shortly after sunset ceased to be visible after some days, the sun seeming to approach them, and that those observable in the eastern horizon shortly before sunrise gradually remained longer visible in the dawn, the sun appearing to recede from them.

In Egypt, for example, it was noticed that the overflowing of the Nile—which is the result of certain tolerably regular changes in the weather, caused by the position of the sun—always occurred on those days on which the bright light of Sirius was again visible in the morning twilight. In Greece it was likewise observed that those risings and settings of the Pleiades, of Orion, Arcturus, and others, which occurred in the morning or evening twilight, were related to certain yearly variations of heat, and to the directions of great atmospheric currents, and were, therefore, convenient guides in agriculture and navigation.

As the calendar advanced, however, in the predetermination of days and phenomena on which periods of human labor were dependent, the attention of the majority of men was diverted more and more from the direct observation of the moon, the sun, and stars, resting contented with what was stated in the calendar, so that even in the civilization of the present day an evening is accepted as clear if moonshine is set down in the almanac. The sun, moon, and stars, together with those other wandering bodies in the heavens, the planets, won a new significance through the origin of astrology, which advances in the following manner with the progress in calendar calculations:

The publication of arranged calendar matter and the constant improvement in the same were owing chiefly to the efforts of wise men, in early Greece, for instance, to the zealous labors of the priesthood at Delphi, who justly esteemed an established calendar a potent element of national unity and order, and as a means of security against the power and influence of those fostering secret teaching. Among other people, as the Romans, the selfish and ignorant priesthood deemed it for their interests to allow such determinations to remain in obscurity, or, on the ground of real or fictitious observations, to regulate the calendar as they desired. In fact, the influence of the seers and priests upon the people would be greatly lessened if the knowledge, which they had acquired of the times of revolution of heavenly bodies and the chronological periods dependent thereon, were to become the property of all; and this loss would be still more augmented, when the unavoidable inaccuracies of these public observations became after a time recognizable, rendering repeated changes in the calendar necessary, or when, in consequence of this, several systems of reckoning time strove for preference.

The difficulty lay chiefly in the fact that the light phases of the moon and the positions of the sun in the heavens do not recur in a full number of days, and that a solar year does not contain a full number of months; the various phases of the moon requiring a little more than 291/2 days, and the positions of the sun somewhat less than 3651/4 days; thus making the solar year contain about 12 months and 11 days.

To illustrate: if months of 29 and 30 days be alternated, if 365 days be allotted to each solar year, and after 99 such months (equivalent to eight years), the counting of the months be made from the same date of the year, a tolerable agreement with celestial signs could, indeed, be attained, but after a number of years the date of the month would differ from that indicated by the moon, and with a greater lapse of time the accepted solar year would show a decided variation from the annual position of the sun and moon, and, in fact, from the yearly heating effects of the sun. An improvement could, indeed, be made if, in the alternation of months of 29 and 30 days, two months of 30 days each be allowed to succeed each other at intervals of 33 months; also, if each fourth solar year were to contain 3651/4 days instead of 365, and if, finally, once in nineteen years, the so-called golden cycle, the reckoning of the lunar months began with the same date of the sun; but a uniform and perfect coincidence of these cycles of days, months, and years would also, in this manner, be unattainable. In short, the problem was purely an arithmetical one, especially difficult so long as it was sought to make the minor divisions of the year agree with the appearances of the moon, and it is, accordingly, no matter of wonder that many fruitless attempts at improvement were made before a judicious and adequate method was discovered. The founder of Islam clearly recognized the danger which the unsuccessful attempts to construct a calendar for future time engendered for the authority of the leaders in that religion, and hence arose the fear that the unavoidable conflict of different calendars would promote the formation of religious sects. Mohammed forbade, therefore, the establishment of any connection of the lunar month with the solar year, and ordered all calculations to be made from the observation and proclamations of the new light of the moon. While the peculiar difficulties of the chronological problems had afforded, on the one hand, advance in the observation and understanding of the movements of the heavenly bodies, and, on the other, had brought calculations of time into discredit, these astronomical inquiries produced still other important results at an early date, as in Babylon, many centuries before the conquest of Alexander the Great. These results, extending beyond the limits of chronology, secured to astronomers a mighty influence over the minds of the people, notwithstanding the repeated inaccuracies occurring in the calendar. This was attained through the teachings of astrology.

The systematic and long-continued recording of the celestial phenomena had made known, among other things, the cycle of eighteen years, eleven days, in which the lunar eclipses repeat themselves in the same order, and in which there occurs also the possibility of the solar eclipses succeeding each other in nearly the same order. The prediction of eclipses, based upon a knowledge of these periods, and of phenomena which had no such regularity of occurrence as the fundamental chronological ones, and which seemed as frightful disturbances among the heavenly bodies, naturally produced a deep impression, which, in many cases, has been pictured to us, and therefore rendered the knowledge of the stars a peculiarly prophetic wisdom in the eyes of the people. Hence it followed that the development of the solar calendar and its connection with the position of the sun, relative to certain fixed stars and constellations, necessarily produced the conception of a particular influence of the stars upon the destinies of men.

The first appearance of a star in the morning twilight was considered as an indication of important earthly events, of wind and weather, of moisture and dryness, growth and harvest, and its simple position was held, in the popular belief, to be capable of exerting a great variety of influences.

Moreover, the advance made in the knowledge of the stars had also led to more careful investigation of the movements of those five bright stars which, like the sun and moon, changed their position in the heavens, two of them seeming, like companions, to connect themselves with the sun; so that these five planets which, on account of their movements among the stars, seemed nearer the earth than the stellar world, soon came to receive a share of the deification of the sun and moon.

They formed with the latter the sacred number of the seven heavenly powers. This number "seven" is supposed to have led to the division of the interval between two successive changes of the moon, forming the week of seven days. It was hence perfectly natural that the mythical names which the planets soon came to bear, and their positions in the heavens relative to one another and to important fixed stars specified in the calendar, should be regarded as pregnant with meaning, and especially so when the peculiar character of the planet itself, as illustrated in Mars by its striking red light, rendered its deification of increased significance.

Thus, the prediction of eclipses and of other celestial phenomena, as the only means of forecasting future events which had then been attained, the explanation in the calendar of the rising and setting of the stars and the mythical characterization of the planets, were all the fruit of the strong desire in men to lift the veil of the future and of a deep earnest reverence for the lights of heaven, which pursue their eternal and unchanging courses above all earthly mutability.

Another cause of the power which this mighty system of astrology continued to exert over the minds of people during so many centuries, and whose traces are still observable in greater or less degree, not only in the minds of the masses, but also in men of acute understanding, is suggested in the pithy remark of Kepler: "The failures of astrological predictions are soon forgotten, because they are of little consequence; their fulfillments are retained with the greatest tenacity; hence, the astrologer remains in veneration."

In fact, such teachings did not receive, at first, unhesitating acceptance; and it was not until individual chance successes were attained, that the belief in the positions of the stars as affecting human destiny found so deep root in inclined minds as to render the prophecies themselves instrumental in bringing to pass predicted events, so that for centuries no doubt to the contrary found popular recognition. When the first teachings of astrology thus founded by the priesthood, and more or less designed to promote its interests, became the possession of philosophers, as of the Greek astronomers of the Alexandrian school, they then gradually assumed a certain scientific character. The force which the moon exerts upon the waters of the earth, in causing the ebb and flow of the tides, was regarded by Ptolemy as chief scientific proof that other heavenly bodies besides the sun exercise a direct influence upon terrestrial life.

Moreover, it was held that the moon exerted a disturbing influence upon sleep, its monthly recurrence affecting the nervous system. On the basis, therefore, of these general predictions, it was then sought to determine the influence upon life and destiny which the various positions of the moon and planets among the constellations of the zodiac exerted, and to discover, partly by astronomical calculation, partly by tradition, what positions the planets had assumed at the time of the birth, as well of striking events in the lives, of distinguished men; or, in general, during the time of a series of important events.

A seeming uniformity in the casual coincidence of celestial phenomena with certain fortunate and unfortunate events was thus derived from this knowledge of the past, and formed the foundation of the methods for forecasting the future.

Naturally, this teaching had to embody a certain number of apparently verified prophecies, which were not derived from conclusions concerning the past, but were purely conceived, or which were associated with the mythical character of individual heavenly divinities.

Thus the planet Saturn, or Cronos, was universally regarded as destroying and harmful, as the powerful, all-consuming god of time whose name he bore; the planet Jupiter, on the contrary, indicated universal fortune, majesty, and beauty.

The planet Mars represented by its omens the dangerous and violent; Venus the mild and pleasant; Mercury the ambiguous and deceptive. Each of the planets had, however, somewhat varying forebodings, according to the position which it assumed by day or by night in the zodiac or horizon. The twelve signs were assigned to the sun, moon, and planets, as follows: Leo to the sun; Cancer to the moon; and two to each of the five planets—the influence of each of these heavenly bodies being regarded as augmented when it stood in that sign belonging to it, or at points in the other signs which were esteemed peculiarly critical for it.

Thus, the significance of the combined situation of all these bodies received its decisive character from the striking actions of one or more propitious or unpropitious planets, which stood in those positions of increased influence. The so-called horoscope, however, with its derived prognostications concerning the entire future life of the individual, was deduced from that point of the zodiac which appeared in view at the hour of birth. Not only was the planet to whose sign this point in the zodiac belonged the prescribed ruler for life, but also the individual portions of the zodiac, by means of their relations to the single planets, furnished special significations for the horoscope.

The influence of the ruling planet was again essentially modified by the relative positions of the other planets who were entitled to a respectful hearing in the prediction. Indeed, a perfect system finally evolved itself for thus foretelling, from the various situations and aspects at the time of birth, the important events in each year of the life of the newly-born.

In its beginning it possessed much profound thought, since from the positions of the planets at the time of birth, with the aid of their times of revolution, and later, by a theory of all their movements, it could be calculated in advance how they must stand in each year of the individual's life; but the whole soon degenerated into an arbitrary, invented play upon numerical relations. During the lapse of centuries, in which astrology was perfecting and establishing itself in the minds of men, the pre-calculations for the positions of the moon among the planets had been zealously pursued, particularly by the Arabians, and, from the beginning of the fifteenth century, by the people of the Orient. From this period on, these calculations received, aside from their chronological and astrological interest, an augmented importance, on account of the increased demands in naval undertakings and voyages of discovery. The calculations in calendars and ephemerides (in which literature Nuremberg took the lead) were continually amplified, the calendar becoming now concerned with many subjects which grew out of and were nourished by astrological ideas, so that, even at the close of the past century and the commencement of the present, it contained a wonderful mixture of superstitious hints and precepts. These related chiefly to rules of the weather, health, and life; as, for instance, the times favorable for cupping, bleeding, etc. In fact, in many calendars now circulated, there are detailed statements concerning the indications of the planets, etc., and amusing descriptions as to how children will thrive who are born under such and such signs in the heavens.

Moreover, numerous customs and prejudices still reveal the remains of a belief in the stars; such expressions as "unlucky days" and "numbers," "our stars," "saturnine," "jovial," and the like being firmly implanted in nearly every language.

To the superficial view, the whole system of astrology will appear as a vexatious error of mankind; to the deeper observation, however, there is discernible not only the fund of astronomical knowledge acquired, but also a purer sentiment lying at the basis of all, acknowledging man's dependence upon higher powers.

Indeed, soberly considered, the notion that the heavenly bodies controlled the laws of health, etc., possessed one noteworthy attribute, in that it aided in establishing a belief.

The acceptance of particularly mysterious agencies often rendered efficacious such prescriptions, in consequence of the compulsion which they opposed against human convenience and caprice in requiring fulfillment, thereby effecting a salutary influence which in themselves they did not possess.

We have yet to consider another phase of the calendar's being which has a certain connection with the astrological predictions—namely, the "weather prophecies." Among the most cultured of the ancients the weather was not an object of daily interest and regard to the extent which it has become at the present day. In the regions of Asia, Southern Europe, and Northern Africa, where the weather was at first the most zealously studied, the daily as well as yearly changes of temperature, direction of wind, cloudiness, and precipitation, have a far greater regularity than in our climate.

As Nature there also yields her fruits in greater plenitude, the dependence of universal welfare on the weather phenomena is far less painful and disturbing than in our latitudes. Egypt, only, formed an exception, her harvests being largely dependent upon the overflowings of the Nile; but these would be endangered for only a comparatively short portion of the year.

We have already considered how the first calendars took note of the great yearly changes in the weather from their connection with the rising and setting of bright stars in the morning and evening twilight. As culture, however, slowly penetrated the more northerly regions, which are the chief field of the unremitting conflict between the warm equatorial air-currents and the cold polar currents, and which sections are thereby subjected to incomparably greater changes and uncertainties of weather, it was proved no longer wise to associate such variations with the slow changes in the positions of the sun among the stars. Hence the natural inclination to regard earthly as controlled by celestial influences developed itself into a system of manifold predictions concerning weather phenomena, and accordingly the most rapidly moving body in the heavens, the moon, was regarded as the most potential ruler of sudden changes.

It was thus always the problem of the calendar-maker, during the middle ages, to prophesy on the basis of observations of celestial influences, and in a lesser degree also upon the weather itself, certain changes in the weather, and the task was nowhere an ungrateful one; for a successful prediction was a foothold for enthusiastic belief in the prophets, and scarcely ever was a failure regarded with much attention.

The belief in the moon's influence upon the weather is still fostered with a tenacity and universality that seem to lend an especial value to specifications in the almanac regarding the so-called "moon's changes." Many have no concern as to the manner in which the "moon's changes" can affect the weather, but follow simply unconsciously the old astrological inclination in ascribing what is doubtful to heavenly influences; others, on the contrary, accept, indeed, without question, the fact of such influence, but construct for themselves a kind of scientific explanation for it.

The moonlight, they say, dissipates the vapors; and, since the moon determines the ebb and flow of the tides, so it causes also an ebb and flow in atmospheric currents, thus affecting the weather. That sounds quite scientific, yet proves nothing. That such an influence is no longer not incontestable, but placed entirely in doubt, careful records are more clearly proving every year.

The Greenwich Observatory, which is especially engaged with observations upon the moon, has recently fully demonstrated, in its observation register of the moon and weather extending over many years, the complete insignificance of the positions and phases of the moon as affecting the condition of the atmosphere; that all so-called "experiences" to the contrary must be regarded as possessing not the slightest value. In fact, such "experience" is a matter peculiar in itself. The human memory of past events is often a very capricious thing, as we have already illustrated in the words of Kepler, and the remembrance of any one who has not learned to systematically collect pure and conclusive "experiences," free from bias and superstition, upon which to base a rational and conscientious judgment, possesses, as a rule, little value. Scientifically arranged facts are also not proof against erroneous conclusions, and it has too often happened that overhasty conclusions in science, which were opposed to the clear views of practical men, have been subsequently destroyed by further scientific inquiry; but in the case now considered the aspect is entirely different. Here the so-called practical men are the visionists, and that pitiful remnant of an ancient false belief now no longer cope with the intrinsic worth, the clear and simple results of coincident measurements and calculations. Let us, therefore, throw into the ruins of astrology all still existing presumption to forecast for any extended time the character and changes of the weather, and aid, rather, by careful and honest tabulation of meteorological phenomena, in advancing a science whose foundations have already been laid by men of genius, and which in conjunction with the telegraph is furnishing its timely aid to agriculture and navigation. By means of advanced, systematic research into the laws governing the movements of storms, wind, and air-currents, it enables voyages to be made under increased security and rapidity—furnishing information of incalculable value to the navigator.

From the above review of the astrological belief in destiny and weather, let us again revert to our original question: What significance, then, do the present astronomical rules in the calendar possess, and what is the problem therewith associated in popular astronomical instruction? The reckoning of time has almost wholly emancipated itself from astronomical observations. If we simply continue to reckon the days according to our present arrangement of the year, calling each fourth year a leap-year of 366 days, and assign to each hundredth year 365 days—although it ought to be a leap-year, according to the four-year cycle—and again to each four hundredth year 366 days, we shall be certain to remain for thousands of years in such agreement with the sun that we do not need to concern ourselves in the least in the times of his revolution and positions in the heavens. In fact, the calendar is so perfectly arranged and independent in itself that it requires no special assistance from astronomers. The statements regarding the position of the moon in the zodiac and the situations of the planets, and even the exact times of the moon's changes (if we except the significance of these latter respecting the ebb and flow of the tide), no longer possess any value in daily life if we are free from astrological superstition.

Still, there is a persistent clinging to these ideas, and when, some years ago, the Berlin "Astronomical Year-Book" pointed out the insignificance of the moon's influence on the weather, many protests were received from almanac publishers, especially in Poland and Hungary.

Although, as above stated, the popular calendar has become less and less dependent upon astronomy, yet there is evinced an increased interest among people in the yearly astronomical communications. The dependence of ideas and arrangements on the heavenly phenomena is less, but the desire for an understanding and observation of them is much greater. The prediction of eclipses in the almanac might also be omitted but for the probable danger which would arise from sudden frightening of the people; they can not, however, be well omitted, since every one is desirous of observing at the appointed time the more or less remarkable effects of the phenomena, and of bearing a share in testing the accuracy of the times of prediction.

Moreover, life is constantly demanding greater precision, especially in the measurement of time. The time is not far distant when instruments will be devised for ascertaining in the simplest manner and with the utmost accuracy the time of day from the sun and stars. In general, astronomy will find occasion each year, in ever-increasing measure, to communicate for universal use its advanced determinations and measurements.

The study of astronomy is especially fascinating and helpful to the understanding, in that the mind, translated so far away from the sphere of earth, catches glimpses of the grand and universal outlines of celestial phenomena, and is enabled to emancipate itself from the astrological superstition which we have endeavored to illustrate in the foregoing pages.

  1. "Popularische astronomische Mittheilungen." Berlin: Horrwitz & Gossmann. Translated by L. M. Muzzey, B.S.