It’s been rather cool here in the Motherload recently. And refreshing! Clear skies, leaves just starting to turn. Autumn began last week, on Tuesday at 2:19PM PST. The Celts considered the months of Autumn to be August, September, and October. That really makes sense to me. Every year, at the beginning of August (which as we’ve mentioned here before was known to the Celts as lughnasadh, or “first harvest”), I notice a feeling of the end of summer. The cicadas start singing, seeming to push the days quickly forward — it’s almost as if they are the cosmic alarm clock sounding the impending end of the warm and comfortable summer months, the soon to come harvests, and the stolid winter to follow. They say to us, “Get yourselves together for the hard winter months to come. Now is the time!” Also, during that time, you can feel a shift in air currents and temperatures. There is a tangible change.
At any rate, 2:19PM last week was not an obvious watershed moment for most of us! Due in part to “thermal latency,” it’s difficult to notice a sudden change. This phenomanon is such that heat is cached in the soil and the atmosphere so that, while astronomically Autumn is upon us, it takes time for the climate to actually shift. This is undoubtedly what lead the Celts to consider October as part of Autumn.
The Old English word for October was Winterfylleth (OE winterfylleþ).
“October was known as Winterfylleth, which is a term that is said to mean Winter-full-moon. Winterfylleth signalled the end of summer and the start of winter. As the name of the month means Winter-full-moon, it’s likely that winter was judged to start on the sighting of the first full moon of that month.” [link] Copyright © 2000-2005 by Stuart Alan. According to Mr. Alan, “…this information comes from De Temporum Ratione, which was written by the Venerable Bede in eighth century England.”
In the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 5, by James Hastings, it is stated that, “Bede says [in de Temporum Ratione, ch. 5] that in former times the Angli calculated their months according to the course of the moon.” It goes on to say that the word month is from an old Anglo Saxon word monath, stemming from their word for moon. In Yule and Christmas, Their Place in the Germanic Year, by Alexander Tille, the author, analyzing Bede and other sources, states the following on page 143.
“[this] month is said to bear the ingenious name of Winter-fylleth, or winter full moon, which is not a month-name at all but merely the name of a date from which the beginning of winter is supposed to be reckoned.”
Thus “winter-full-moon” was the first full moon in what we call October, and the occurrence of that moon indicated to the original inhabitants of England that winter was emerging. Mr. Tille seems to think that the demarcations for what we now call “months” (a Roman construct) do not correspond well to the divisions of time the Anglo Saxons employed, for celebrations, harvest, and to know where they were on the earth’s annual trek. You can read all about this in pages 142 through 147. The basic point is the Anglo Saxons divided time up into lunar cycles, primarily, but also grouped some of these cycles into “three-score-day tides” and other periods of time. Also, the start and stop dates of these cycles don’t mesh well with the Roman months. In fact, the period the Anglo Saxons called Giuli, was what we now call November (25) through January (24) — that is, before and after solstice.
Dividing annual time up into lunar cycles makes a lot of pragmatic sense because the moon itself is the most persistent and widely visible indication of the passage of time (beyond the day to day solar cycle). As Mohammad Ilyas says (R.A.S. CANADA. JOURNAL V. 80, NO. 6/DEC, P. 328, 1986),
“Almost all early civilizations started with the lunar calendar (e.g. Babylonians, Greeks, Jews and Eyptians in the Middle East; Aztecs and Incas in the West; Chinese and Hindus in the East)… Several major communities (e.g. Jews, Chinese, Hindus and Muslims) still employ the lunar systems in either a pure or mixed (luni-solar) form, and to varying degrees, in the daily life and main festivals of their respective communities. Despite its long history and the fact that the lunar calendar still governs the lives of almost 3 out of 4 people on this planet… the lunar calendar has remained a local system. In modern times of fast travel and instant communications, it has become essential to have a systematically interrelated time-measurement and calendar.”
Lunar cycles are reflected in the cycles of biological organisms, in the tides, and in crops. They tend to be an intimate and personal correlation between the individual and the world, and not so much a universal one since we relate to crops, to our bodies, to animals and the sky directly and personally. As Mr. Ilyas implies, the modern world has required a less personal and more universal system of time measurement, one that is abstract and can be referred to without regard to individual circumstances. That system takes us farther from the soil and the plants which feed us and closer to the seemingly relentless permanence of organized mental constructs.
It’s good to get back to the more visceral and personal through the correlation between what goes on in our own bodies and in the natural world with the orbits and phases of the moon. I think we grow wine here in the Sierra Foothills no so much by the clock, as in accord with the seasons and the unique qualities of this year’s weather. The moon seems to constantly return us to the immediacy of one’s surrounding environment. The moon is the inspiration for a good vintage, and not the International Date Line.
Going back to the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Part 5, by James Hastings, we read that on the European continent, after Charlemagne encoded Germanic names for the 12 months, the name for October was Windumemanoth, meaning, “grape-gathering-month.” There’s a wonderful painting by Currier and Ives which illustrates this tangible aspect of Autumn’s October month.
We did have some grapes this year in our orchard, white and red. Both were eaten by birds while we were spending a week relaxing on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, in Tahoe Vista. When we returned, the grapes, which were nearly ripe when we left, were completely gone and only spiked, bare stems remained! Consequently, we gathered no grapes this October. But it looks like we still have winter pears, and eventually (perhaps in early December, Giuli in Anglo Saxon, possibly meaning “feast,” and probably originating from Old Norse Jol, the source of Yule and jolly), we’ll have Persimmons. And that would be a jolly thing, and something with which to celebrate into the long nights.
You might wonder why anyone would spend time looking at old calendar constructs. All people organize time according to their unique perceptions and experiences. The older peoples from which we all originate were necessarily closer to nature and its cycles. Their “systems” for organizing their culture, their experience, and their daily work, help us re-connect with the natural world and, therefore, with the tendencies of our bodies, and those of the flora and fauna around us, and with the movements of stars and planets. Ultimately, it can help us regain some of our understanding of this physical and spiritual world in which we live, and reconnect to deeper purpose and fulfillment. At least, that’s how it has been for me. I know others can relate. And I’m certain there is more whole and useful understanding that we can all enjoy when we become aware and appreciative of the workings of the natural world.
Some useful links: