Once in a blue moon

Once in a blue moon

Have you ever heard the phrase – once in a blue moon. I should think so. So I delved a little deeper to find out what it really means and where it comes from. There are actually 2 varying versions of what we mean by a ‘Blue Moon’.

 

1. Four full moons in a season 

The first definition refers to a fourth full moon in a season. The year has four seasons: spring, summer, autumn, and winter.  Normally each season has 3 full moons. So that brings the yearly total to 12 full moons. The same reason why the year has 12  calendar months.

The Ancient Roman year had 12 moon cycles and then a period of rest (roughly what we now call January and February).
The new year started again in March.  This coincided with the start of the new military marching season, ruled by Mars, the God of war).   To keep the year in sync with the seasons occasionally another moon cycle was added, which then brought the total number of full moons to 13. This meant that one season had  4 full moons instead of 3 and the 4th full moon was called  ”a blue moon’. When Julius Caesar adopted the solar calendar model, he created 12 calendar months per year. (calendar comes from the Latin word for register) and abolished the13th month.

Although the sun calendar replaced the former lunar model for official duties and taxes,  many pagan rituals were still celebrated in accordance with the moon cycle. When Emperor Constantin adopted Christianity as the ‘official Roman religion’ anything pagan got a bad press. The Catholic church rallied against the ancient pagan practices and the number 13 became the ‘number of witches’. It was hailed the unlucky number, especially if the combination fell on a Friday (the day of worship for Friga, the pagan fertility goddess). This lore is still alive in fairy stories. Do you remember the 12 good fairy godmothers in Sleeping Beauty and the 13th came to dinner and spoilt it all!

To give you an idea of how often this happens –  The last ‘Blue Moon’ according to this definition occurred on 22nd August 2021. So on average, a Blue Moon happens every 2-3 years, hence the saying ‘ once in a blue moon’, meaning an event that is very rare.

2. Two full moons in a calendar month

Another way of describing a ‘blue moon’ came later. Normally a calendar month has one New Moon and one Full Moon, but occasionally 2 of each can occur in the same month. From the 19th century onwards it became popular to call the second Full Moon in a given calendar month ‘a blue moon’. Although still rare, this event occurs more randomly than the first definition. This month on August 31st a Blue Moon will be visible to us. According to old tradition make a wish and watch it come true!

 

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The history of the calendar

The history of the calendar

Our ancestors used the sun, the moon, and the stars to measure time and form the very first calendars (meaning register). The earth orbiting the sun marks the annual year. The moon cycle was the blueprint for the month and the weeks (28 days divided by the 4 quarter of the moon cycle – 7 day week).

The Ancient Greek word for moon ‘mene’ is the root for minute, month, and even menstruation. Very early on the correlation between the timescale of the moon cycle and the female fertility cycle was well understood.  Moon gods/goddesses were called upon for all kinds of fertility problems. These could be a lack of conceiving, problems with menopause, or failed harvests and food production.

The lunar month was the first properly understood time-measuring tool. It enabled hunter-gatherer societies during the Stone Age to forecast seasonal changes, schedule events/celebrations, and stock up on food reserves for the winter months.

Animal bones found in the Dordogne region of France are believed to be the first moon calendars known to man. These archaeological finds date back to around 28,000 B.C. and show different patterns of notches that define the passing of time between the New Moon to the Full Moon. Find out more about the history of the lunar calendar. 

The Ancient Lunar year consisted of 12 moon cycles, determined by the four cornerstones of the year, the winter solstice (21st December = the shortest day of the year), the summer solstice (21st June = the longest day of the year), and the spring and autumn equinoxes (21st March and 23 September = when the length of the day equals night).

However since 12 moon cycles fall a few days short per year (354 days), a solution had to be found. So every other year a leap year with the 13th moon cycle was introduced to bring the seasons back in sync with the Ancient Lunar year. The Ancient Greek, Roman, and Chinese calendars all operated this system.

When Julius Ceasar arrived in 48 B.C. in Egypt, he not only fell in love with Cleopatra, but he also immersed himself in Egyptian science. He was particularly intrigued by the way the Egyptian calendar system worked. At the time the Egyptian calendar was the only purely solar calendar of its time.  It counted 365 and 1/4 days per year. An astonishing achievement, considering it was first put in place around 4200 B.C.

Upon his return to Rome Caesar ordered a massive Roman calendar reform and the Julian calendar was born. The newly formed Roman year had only 12 months and the starting date (previously March, named after the War God Mars and the start date of the Roman marching season) was moved to the 1st of January.  Ceasar named his birth month after himself, now July. His successor Augustus did the same and modestly named August after himself.

But for all the yearly time-keeping improvement that the Egyptian calendar brought, Cesar wisely kept all the lunar festivals and names of the previous months intact.  Otherwise, his reform would have been too radical and confusing. Can you imagine –  September (previously the seventh month) would theoretically now be the 9th and should really be called November and so on?

Had it not been for Ceasar’s enthusiasm for Egyptian culture, he would have probably chosen the most efficient calendar system of its time The Lunisolar Calendar.  It was already used by the Sumerians and later refined by the Babylonians and combined the solar and lunar cycle.

Caesar almost got it right, but there was a slight miscalculation in the Egyptian calendar when it came to leap years.  The solar year counts precisely 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds. That difference would finally add up to 10 days!
In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII finally corrected this mishap and introduced another calendar reform which we still use to this day – the Gregorian Calendar.

But there was another error creeping in. The years (meaning the rotation of the earth around the sun) are slowing down – appropriately 1/2 a second per century. So in 1972, the answer was found by employing the ‘atomic clock’ and that is what all our computers, phones, and alarm clocks use today for accurately measuring time. It is no longer connected to the stars, the moon, and the heavens. We have disconnected ourselves from all these movements and now we follow the oscillations of atoms. This tool is called UTC – the Co-ordinated Universal Time.

I am happy to follow the UTC clock to time my Zoom calls and alarm clock. But when it comes to structuring my own life, I happily revert to the Lunisolar calendar (the calendar model the LWTM lifestyle calendar is modeled on). This calendar does not only measure time,  but it also gives an insight into the ‘quality of time’. Above all it is a fantastic tool to structure my life and activities. 

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 The history of the moon calendar

What happens during a Summer Solstice?

What happens during a Summer Solstice?

In the Northern Hemisphere, the night of the 20th to 21st of June marks the longest day of the year. Nowadays, in a time with an all-round electricity supply, this may not seem significant. But picture a day a few hundred years ago. There were no street lights, TVs, or other artificial sources of light. In the home candles and fireplaces were the only tools to illuminate the darkness. Outside however the only light sources in the night sky were the moon and the stars.

Stonehenge, UK

Having longer access to daylight was so significant that our ancestors worshipped the longest day of the year. It meant that the growing season was at its peak and the countdown to the shortest day of the year (21st December) would begin. This is of course only true when you live in the Northern Hemisphere. “Down under” the opposite happens and the December Solstice is the longest day in the year.

 

Monuments to worship the Solstice included The Karnak temple (Luxor, Egypt), Stonehenge (UK), Angokr Wat (Cambodia), and the Serpent Mound (Ohio, US).

Serpent mound in Ohio, US

On Serpent Mound, believed to have been built thousands of years ago, a large serpent and head are carved into the landscape. On the 21st June, the open jaws of the serpent align with the setting sun, as if the dragon is spitting out ‘fire’. This spectacle was even further enhanced by a large crystal (showing the eye of the dragon), which was situated in the serpent’s head. Unfortunately, this large crystal was stolen during the 18th century and the solstice effect is now only half as effective.

What happens during a solstice?

As the earth moves around the sun, its path resembles more of an eclipse than that of a circle.

When the path of the sun is at its most northern point in the Northern Hemisphere (which happens every year on the 20/21st of June) we see a summer solstice – the longest day of the year.

During the night of the 20/21st of December however, the sun lies at its most Southern point, therefore it is the longest day in the Southern Hemisphere and the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere. On the 21st of March and 23rd of September, the sun forms an exact 90-degree angle, therefore days and nights are the same – everywhere.

There are so many traditions that I can’t mention them all. One of my favorites is the ritual of the Baltic sun goddess Saule. Every day this tireless goddess rides her fiery chariot across the sky, from morning to nightfall, when she retires to her castle. Saule is the goddess of fertility and the land, a similar version to Demeter in Greece.

Farmers prayed to her to have a good harvest and around the Summer Solstice, the whole community celebrated by lighting bonfires. Partly to worship her and ward off evil spirits. Young people wore wreaths of flowers, leaped over fires, sang, and danced.

It is interesting that our forefathers paid much more notice to the winter solstice. The longest day had of course much less significance than the shortest day. The celebration concerned the re-awakening of the light. Growing sunlight meant that the climate was getting warmer and after the cold spell, another growing cycle would begin. The festivities around the winter solstice would eventually morphe into Christmas celebrations, showing a baby Jesus with a halo. The ‘growing little light’ was a powerful symbol.  Longer days meant more growing time which eventually turned into the rebirth of the growing cycle and the start of a new year, celebrated by Passover or Easter and marked by the first Full Moon after the spring Equinoxe. 

Today we are still singing and dancing and celebrating these yearly turning points.  After the last two challenging years where people had to watch the last summer solstices online.  But this year we can meet again in person to watch this spectacle in situ. 

Here is a link to this year’s Solar Eclipse at Stonehenge . The first in history that takes place on Facebook instead of in situ. But this means that you can watch it now the comfort of your own home!

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