The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Does anybody really know what day it is?

June 21st, 2004 · No Comments · culture, intentional communities, media

I was at Ruta Maya on Sunday with and our families (they’ve got a kid’s show every Sunday morning — very entertaining!) when he finds there and shares with me a booklet with a 13-month, lunar calendar with a brochure proclaiming they were “solving the evolutionary crisis”. Being previously unaware of an “evolutionary crisis”, I took a quick look around to learn more about the Foundation for the Law of Time and their “Thirteen Moon Calendar”.

The brochure was kinda lame, but the booklet had a heaping helping of novel charts and mysterious symbols, which (of course) attracted both of us. But it didn’t take me long to look through this mishmash of Mayan, Hindu, Taoist, and New Age elements all cleverly woven together by one or more graphic artists. As a new-age gimmick, I’m sure they’re making more than a few bucks; as a calendar, it’s pretty lame. There is precisely zero chance that this calendar would find wide-spread use for the simple fact that it’s not any better than the one we’ve got.

There’s an attempt at the beginning of the booklet to point out the “regularity” of this 13-month calendar compared to the modern, Gregorian calendar. Every month has 28 days in this new calendar, when you need a rhyme or a chart to keep up with which month has how many days in the predominant calendar. Their system is described as “precise” and “perpetual”, and they link it to the female menstrual cycle, the lunar cycle, and a few elements of the Mayan calendar. What’s ironic is just how accurate the (full) Mayan calendar is compared to our modern calendar, and then to note just how inaccurate this 13 month calendar is.

All calendars are inaccurate. Just as it is difficult to project a round globe to paper without some inaccuracy or loss of information, it is difficult to chart time in a convenient, reusable way. One makes choices based on one’s purposes, so you choose to allow inaccuracies in areas that don’t effect you, while you seek accuracy where it’s important. Our calendar favors the annual solar cycle over the monthly lunar cycles, which is why the seasons don’t shift days in our calendar but the full moons drift every month.

Other than keeping up with it for its mystical value or to better inculcate yourself with the rest of the cult, there’s no external reason to keep up with this 13-month calendar. It doesn’t accurately express a solar cycle — thus the seasonal cycle, or even a lunar cycle. It has weeks and months and an extra day at the end of the year for a “holiday” — similar to Jewish and Islamic calendars that wander all around the Gregorian calendars.

But this calendar is so wildly inaccurate that it’s even beat by the Julian calendar — which had some serious problems by the time it was eventually replaced. It’s supposed to be a “Lunar” calendar, but as the booklet so patiently explains, the lengths of both the synodic cycle from new moon to new moon, and the sidereal cycle through the Zodiac are inconvenient real numbers, so they’re using an “average”, conveniently whole, integer. Thus this calendar is not accurate for any sort of Lunar observation. Since the day count in a year is 13 months of 28 days, plus an extra day — only 365 days — this calendar would very quickly be useless for keeping track of the day of the year, except for their little secret.

There’s an extra, extra day hidden within their calendar, as they combine leap day, whenever it happens in the Gregorian calendar, into the day before it on the calendar. An un-accounted for day within their system, they just lump it in wherever it falls. Imagine if the day after Monday was… Monday. Ugh. It’s an inelegant hijacking of the Gregorian system without any internal indication that such a double day would be necessary or even present. The booklet describes how easy it is to calculate date spans when all the months have the same number of days, but if you have this weird, unaccounted for, double day, it would seem to throw off your calculations a bit.

This “13 Moon” calendar is far more complicated than necessary, for every month, week, day of the week have new, special names. Every day of the month has an Arabic numeral from 1 to 28 to designate it, plus it has one of 20 Mayan glyphs called a “seal”, and a Mayan number from 1 to 13 called a “tone”. Each day of the week has a name, a color, and a symbol. Even each month has a name and a totem animal. If the equivalent Gregorian calendrical date were not stamped on each day, this would be a completely useless calendar. And while I agree that the modern Gregorian calendar has some problems, I hardly think that replacing an ancient and widely-used calendar with an arbitrarily more complicated calendar makes any sense.

Culturally, it’s important to know what day it is so you can plan things out and commemorate events with gatherings. The change of the seasons and the turning of the year mark important delimiters in life by which we measure our lives and set our goals. The need for accuracy is paramount for agriculture and navigation. For political purposes, a useful calendar must be easily maintained by a variety of people over a wide area, all in agreement about when and how the calendar changes. You can imagine how difficult it might be to get the kind of widespread agreement today about anything, much less a calendar. But we can thank the Catholic church for granting to the Western world the Gregorian calendar — warts and all.

Given how poorly competing calendars (some easier to use and more accurate) have fared historically, I have no doubt that you’ll never need to wonder which day is Seli, Electric yellow Seed, the 23rd day of the Crystal Rabbit moon of the year of the White Spectral Wizard.