Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Ancient & Modern

Article excerpt

AS WE break in our Spectator diaries for the new year, it is worth reflecting on what a devilishly tricky thing the 'year' is.

The ancients measured time by the month. The average lunar month lasts 29.53 days, and 12 of those add up to 354 days. But it is the annual circuit of the sun that controls the seasons, and that lasts 365.25 days. So what? The seriousness of the problem arises from the nature of ancient ritual. Crops are seasonal, and to ensure their success seasonal rituals in honour of the gods were required. But rituals must always take place at the same place and time. If farmers measured the year by the lunar month, they would be 11 days short a year. After three years they would be a month short, and after nine years three months short. They would then be celebrating spring festivals in mid-winter.

So the ancients started intercalating (i.e. adding) months every now and again to keep ritual calendars and seasons in kilter. We hear of Babylonians (modern Iraq) doing this as early as 2400 BC. …

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