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Lunar Calendars
A Short History

Calendar History
A calendar is a method to organize extended periods of time to recognize seasonal changes. The problem with calendars is that there are many ways for ancient cultures to organize their time. Some calendars create their passing of time based on astronomical observations, some are careful to enumerate units of time and some calendars are ambiguous. Ancient calendars were established by one of 2 methods, through oral traditions or through codified written laws.
Parowan Gap Lunar CalendarIn ancient times, calendars served as a link between the Divine universe and humankind. Thus calendars were often held as sacred tools or sources of information. These early calendars provided instructions for when to plant, hunt or migrate between cold and warm climates. They were used for divination and prognostication, as well as, for tracking religious cycles to honor the Gods or worship the Divine universe.
Possibly the oldest known lunar calendar is the Ishango bone dated at 6500 b.c. The bone was found along the side Lake Edward between the Zaire (Congo) and Uganda. The cycles recorded in this bone regulated the tides and marine activity. Something quite necessary for a fishing village that existed along side a large body of water.
The Mayan Calendar is also a well known lunar calendar system based on agriculture requirements. Their cycles had to predict the cycles of life in the rain-forest. And their calendar is based on mapping humanity to the cycles of the universe, which to them functions in a logical, cyclical and predictable way. If a person could align them self with these cycles, they could take advantage of their time in the universe. Because of this, time, order and how to correctly align oneself to the cycles of time became an obsession with their culture. The Mayans developed a number of calendar systems, but at the center of these was the sacred tzolkin calendar. It consisted of 260 days and worked in 2 cycles. A cycle of 13 numbered days and cycle of 20 named days. These two cycles would repeat every 260 days. They also had a ceremonial calendar called a tun which consisted of 360 days, plus 5 unlucky days. These calendars and others they designed made the Mayans the most accurate timekeepers. As one scholar put it: It is not unfair to say that Mayan life was one long continuous cycle of religious ceremonies.
Lunar calendars are often measured by the cycles of the moon. A new month occurs on each full moon or new moon phase. Lending a 12 month 28 day calendar year. The problem with lunar calendars is they often exist in a cycle that has no regard to the tropical (solar) year. Thus they fall out of cycle ever so often and a major shift must be accounted for in some fashion. Lunar calenders lose 45 days every four years, making it very difficult to create a long term yearly cycle. In order to keep these calendars in sequence additional days or months are interjected. This is called intercalation. Our own "Leap Year" is a perfect example of intercalation.
Some calendar systems utilize the lunar and solar cycles to make up for this. These calendars are often referred to as lunisolar calendars. The Hebrew and Chinese calendars are examples of this type of system. These systems have a sequence of months based on the lunar phase cycles, but every few years an entire month is inserted to bring the calendar back into phase with the tropical year.
Many lunar calendars follow the same type of mathematical approach seen in the Chinese calendar. The cycle of the moon is about 29.5 days. A lunar month therefore is either 29 or 30 days long. And there are often 13 months in a lunar calendar year. The Chinese calendar starts it's year between late January and early February.
The Hebrew calendar utilizes a 12 month system with a 13 month leap year. Like many pagan lunar calendars, the 'days' begin at sunset. And every month begins approximately on the day of a new moon. A leap year occurs every 4 years. Thus there's 3 years of 12 months, and then 1 year of 13 months.
The Islamic calendar has it's starting point when Mohammed escaped from Mecca to Medina. The most widely accepted date for this is July 16, 622 AD. The Islamic calendar is also a lunar system of 12 months. Alternating 29 or 30 days, except for the 12 month which includes additional days on leap year cycle to keep it in synch.
The oldest Babylonian calendar as a lunar system of 12 months, that alternated 29 to 30 days. It was eventually replaced by the Egyptian Calendar. The Egyptian calendar system was based on 12 months and 30 days. Adding 5 days to their calendar each year to bring it back into the tropical cycle over time. This 265 calendar was in effect for more than 3000 years during Pharaonic times, lasting until 238 BC.
The Roman Calendar started with the vernal equinox and consisted of 10 months totaling 304 days. The months: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quntilis, Sextilis, September, October, November and December are the basis of our modern calendar system. The Roman Numa Pompilius (715-673 BC) introduced two additional months, January and February to increase the length of the year to 354 or 355 days. The Roman Calendar was eventually replaced by the Julian calendar in 46 BC.
In 46 B.C. Romans used a 365 day year, but that ended when Julius Caesar took his armies into Egypt. There he learned about the Alexandrian calendar with its leap year cycle, which was more accurate than the current Roman calendar of 365 days. Caesar brought several astronomers to advise a calendar reform, which became the Julian calendar. This system was so accurate that only one day was in error in about every hundred years.
In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII established his own commission to advise on calendar reform. By this time the calendar trailed the seasons by 11 days. His commission established the 4 year leap year calendar. As well as, changing New Years Day from March 25th to January 1st. The Gregorian calendar we utilize today was born. It took nearly 200 years for the change to be implemented around the world as it was seen as a ploy enacted by the Catholic Church. But in 1752 Great Britain and her colonies made the change and September 2nd was followed by September 14th. The change was not without protest and widespread riots occurred, with protests demanding "Give us the eleven days back!"
Today there is an estimated 40 different calendars in use throughout the world. Although there is a vast array of references about calendars, there are very few complete authoritative references. The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics published in 1910, offers some basic information on historical calendars that are still relevant today. But resources are provided based on how the calendar system is being studied. For instance, if you're interested in the mathematical perspective vs. the cultural or regional perspective. Since this article is being written to discuss the recognition of modern pagan celebrations, we'll look at calendars based on a religious perspective.
Pagan Lunar Calendars
Today's pagan calendars are typically associated with early European pagan calendar systems. And of course there are many of those as well. And as stated up front on this article, calendar systems were either mathematical or oral in nature.
The earliest physical example of a Celtic Calendar we have comes from the Coligny tablet. The tablet was found in a field north of Coligny Ain, France. The tablet was inscribed with Roman letters and numbers, but was written in an early language of the Guals. It's thought to have been fabricated in or about 50 A.D. or about 100-years after the Roman invasion.
The tablet provides us with some details about the structure their calendar system. A Celtic month started during the full moon, rather than a new moon. Each month alternated 29 to 30 days, making a 354 day calendar year. The calendar took into consideration the tropical cycle as well. Which means it was a lunisolar calendar. The calendar contained 3 years of 12 months and 1 year of 13 months. The extra month was called Mid Samonios.
A month was divided into 2 parts; the light half and the dark half. Each half was approximately 2 weeks long. Some scholars believe this confirms the importance of the new moon to Celtic calendar for religious significance. The stone also marks the festivals of Bealtaine and Lughnasadh with small sigils. The festival of Oimelc is also identified and occurs during mid winter. And Samhain marks the Celtic New Year.
Month Period Meaning
Samonious Oct/Nov Seed-fall
Dumannios Nov / Dec The Darkest Depths
Riuros  Dec / Jan Cold time
Anagantios Jan / Feb Stay home time
Ogronios Feb / Mar Time of Ice
Cutios Mar / Apr Time of Winds
Giamonios Apr / May Shoots show
Simivisionios May / Jun Time of Brightness
Equos  Jun / Jul Horse Time
Elembiuos Jul / Aug Claim time
Edrinios Aug / Sep Arbitration time
Cantios Sep / Oct Song time

Oral traditions bring us 2 additional Celtic calendar systems. The Celtic Tree Calendar and the Celtic Shamans Calendar. Both of these are spoken of in ancient lore that pre-date the Coligny stone. But once again, because they are oral lore, it's hard to establish evidence to their accuracy or be reliably sure these calendars were utilized by early pagans at all.
I'll refer further reading to the Celtic Tree Calendar article. The Celtic Shamans Calendar doesn't really have a name or reference. Some call it the Shamans calendar simply because it has reference for use outside the Druidic order or before the Druids aligned the varying regions of Celtic belief under one roof.
The Celtic Shamans Calendar is based on the balance of time. It contains 13 months of 28 days, making a 364 day calendar year. Like the Coligny calendar, the year begins on Samhain and divided each month into 2 halves. But the months began on each New Moon and was know as the dark half. The light have ended the month after the full moon. The days began at sunset and were also divided between dark and light. The festivals were marked on time periods coinciding with an equinox, or solstice to divide the year into fertility or planting and harvest or hunting times.
Modern Pagan Calendar Celebrations
Today's pagans may recognize the phases of moon for practices and rituals, but the lunar cycles for sabbat celebrations have been left in the past. Not because of a lack of reverence or dedication, but because as a modern culture we rely on modern concepts and advancements. In other words, we have evolved in knowledge and understanding of our universe and how it works. We can define the exact time of a new moon, or the exact time of day that the vernal equinox will occur. Something our ancient ancestors couldn't do.
But with modernization comes accommodating schedules and providing convenience. Today sabbats are recognized on specific days to correspond to an equinox, solstice or yearly cycle. But sometimes celebrations are conducted on weekends to allow for people to take time from work, or arrange their schedules so they can attend festivities.
This doesn't diminish the reverence a person has for their faith. Typically a practicing pagan may honor the actual day of a festival on that day alone in their own home. And then again on the weekend as part of a coven celebration. What ever calendar you follow to honor your beliefs, try to keep it consistent from year to year and acknowledge that others may follow a different calendar system than you do.
Grand Mother Moon:
Additional reading:
 Moon Phase Calendar 
 Workings With The Moon   
 The Monthly Full Moon / Moon Names
 Lunar Calendars - A Short History

Source: 1, c13, c32, c33, c34, c35, c36, o43, o44, o45, o46, o47, o48, o49, o50, o51, o52,
2008 Farmers Almanac,
US Navel Observatory: Moon Phases & Earth Events,
NASA Eclipse Website,
Created:  07.21.2007             Updated: 01.10.2009