Old Calendars and Others Not So Old: A Need to Order Our Lives

Time is, as colloquially said, a whole subject. Here is a glimpse of it, through spaces in which we can think about it: that of the Mesoamericans and the Europeans, the cyclical and the linear, the daily, the one marked by the different calendars, one of each one of us.

Old Calendars and Others Not So Old: A Need to Order Our Lives
Egyptian calendar. Photo: Ancient History Hit

One of the terms that cross the various moments of our daily life is the calendar, a recurrent object in all latitudes of the world to organize activities and social, cultural, religious, economic events, in the course of periodic, precise, and previously defined periods. It is structured in the units we know as days, weeks, months, and years.

The calendar is a calculation and definition of events of different nature from which peoples and cultures decide to master time, their time, and their tasks, looking for milestones and social events, as well as natural phenomena that provide regular, periodic points of reference, about which man can also foresee and anticipate various events in the personal and social sphere.

Calendars constitute one of the most complex and richest registers of cultural meanings that, faced with the time that endlessly dilutes between the hands, men of different times and different environments imagined as a way of retaining it, controlling it in their way.

The concern is ancient, very ancient, and as such has crystallized in a multiplicity of calendars rooted in the cultural platforms that originate them: there are Babylonians, Chinese, Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and of course Mexicans, each one of them with different solutions and diverse symbologies that place us in the center of the deepest explanations of the world and the life of each people, as well as of what each social group assumes as tasks.

The calendar as such, from the Latin term calendarium, arose with a very practical intention without a doubt, since it designated the book in which the lender controlled his accounts, whose monthly interest had to be paid on the first day of the month, that is to say, on the calendas according to the ancient Romans.

In principle, calendars are born from the observation of the organic rhythms of the cosmos, revealed first by the succession of day and night. Then by the Moon, a changing and movable image, whose full presence and subsequent disappearance followed by its reappearance, recorded in the phases of the Moon, gives rise to lunar calendars - such as the Muslim calendar.

Likewise, the Sun, a stable and permanent image that accounts for the displacement of the Earth through the climatological seasons, is inscribed in solar calendars, such as the Aztec and Mayan calendars, which in some way recognize the tropical year, made up of 365 solar days and more.

The periodicity that is based on these milestones marks vital, organic parables, linked to the cyclical recurrence of life and death, of successive regenerations that are transformed again into life, cycles directly linked to the events of agricultural societies that unfold immersed in a web of rituals and religious meanings.

Mexican Calendar, Veytia No. 7.
Mexican Calendar, Veytia No. 7. Photos: INAH

The calendars of the ancient Mexicans

In the case of Mexico, the ancient calendars -in the versions of the Aztecs, Mayas, Olmecs, Zapotecs, Tarascans, Matlaltzincas, and others- constitute one of the richest legacies of the Mesoamerican cultures, a port in which the observation of the course of the stars, the rigorous astronomical calculation and the sacred order of the cosmos converge, some of them recognized for their accuracy that surpasses the calendar in force today in the western world.

The richness of their signs and symbols unfolds around them a vast horizon of meaning from which emerges the cosmos of the ancient Mexicans, harmonious and orderly. Approaching the Aztec calendars, as an example, we can see before our eyes circles of life in movement, suns, and moons complementary to each other, quadrangular forms that support the architecture of the cosmic cities and earthly cities that from the center unfold towards the cardinal points the four fundamental elements: house - earth, rabbit - air, reed - water, flint - fire.

They are signs that headed the solar calendar and whose sets of numerical combinations, running from one to thirteen, gave name to each of the 52 years that made up the Aztec century. In the calendars, the ancient Mexicans, people of the sun, weave a careful warp around the star, creator of life and movement; in the game of its life and death, they delimit the eras, the passing of the seasons, and the days, they establish the order of the sacred that permeates human events.

To have the possibility of looking carefully at the ancient Mexican calendars is to give course to the imagination to enter into the time-man relationship that is experienced in them: the need to grasp and sacralize the time that passes, that flows, that deteriorates, that fatally wears out, sun after sun until reaching the fifth sun, that of the current era.

Then the calendars acquire another meaning because in themselves they contain the possibility of restoring and regenerating that time of the present in a cyclical conception, in an eternal return whose model is nature itself and the cosmos, where the circular movement, life - death - life, makes it possible to return to the original fullness, that of the primordial time. And the cycles are repeated through the centuries, the years, the months, the weeks, the days, as units from which societies register time.

Mexican Calendar, Veytia No. 7: Variant No. 7 shows the four cardinal points and 20 sections with images from 1701 to 1720.
Mexican Calendar, Veytia No. 7: Variant No. 7 shows the four cardinal points and 20 sections with images from 1701 to 1720, which include glosses in Nahuatl and Spanish, with the Sun and the Moon with human faces accompanied by stars in the center of the circle.

Now, if the calendars of the ancient Mexicans have always been a source of awe and admiration, the gaze directed towards them is filtered by the observer in question. Thus, in the early 15th century, the eyes with which the evangelizers and scholars of the first centuries of the Colony saw them, whose optics were mediated by the Christian worldview that, messianic and eschatological, did not miss the opportunity to explain some facts of the ancient Mexicans under the light of the universal flood and the Tower of Babel, and sometimes even condemned them as heretical.

There were also those who, in the transition from astrology to astronomy, offered important keys to their interpretation. However, we must also recognize the amazed expression with which the Spaniards of that time perceived them and the controversies they held to validate the accuracy of the information offered by this new computation for them.

Later on, the distancing of the Catholic worldview provided by the Enlightenment made it possible to make the ancient Mexican calendars an object of study. Lorenzo Boturini, Mariano Veytia, and Antonio de León y Gama -without denying the contributions of the religious Francisco Javier Clavijero and Pedro José Márquez-, were giving an account of the cultural logic of the distribution of time contained in them, so familiar today, which we have just briefly mentioned.

The calendrical wheels are included in the History of the Origin of the People Who Populated Northern America.
The calendrical wheels are included in the History of the Origin of the People Who Populated Northern America by Mariano Fernández de Echeverría y Veytia. This manuscript possibly belonged to Francisco del Paso y Troncoso.

A calendar to meet every need

Only the ancient Mexican calendars, during the three centuries of Spanish rule, were superimposed with the time records of Catholicism -although there are also Masonic, Mormon, and Evangelical Lutheran calendars-, oriented by the saints' days, festivities, and commemorations of the liturgy, which give shape to the ecclesiastical calendar: Matividad, Semana Mayor, Easter and others, superimpositions that are still preserved in liberal Mexico.

An example of this symbiosis is the very old Mexican Calendar of the oldest Galván, published in the first quarter of the 19th century -1826 to be precise- and which, as a good almanac for popular consumption, a few years ago was still circulating, spreading dates and appropriate advice for the sowing of different products, as well as saints' days, ceremonies and liturgical prescriptions proper to Catholicism, curiously intertwined with some civic anniversaries.

Although the Gregorian calendar is still in force in Western Christianity, calendars are no longer limited to recording events read with the eyes of the sacred time of ancient and not so ancient societies, but always from a religious perspective, but rather they rhythmically mark profane time, proper to the secularized gaze of modern societies.

Thus, calendars are invented and reinvented for each of the uses, customs, concerns, beliefs, and social programs, which give rise to positivist calendars such as the one proposed by A. Comte, and republican calendars such as the one that marked the beginning of year one in 1792, with the establishment of the Republic after the French Revolution. And whose twelve months referred to the climatological changes of the four seasons as well as many other calendars that invade our daily life and, curiously, coexist in each social group.

Calendar Wheel, Veytia No. 5.
Calendar Wheel, Veytia No. 5.

In addition to the religious calendars, we have those that come from the management of public instances, such as calendars to elaborate budgets of the different institutions, the electoral calendars that prepare and regulate the partisan controversy even in the most remote corners of the country, the fiscal calendars with the dreaded tax declarations, payments of tenure and property taxes, and others.

Labor calendars - in which the guidelines of the Federal Labor Law converge with the specifications that are specified in the collective labor contract, civic calendars - in which we search for some commemorative celebration in our national history that, by the way, leads us to enjoy a day off, public health calendars that mark the days of vaccination campaigns, and school calendars that account for the multiplicity of tasks to be performed during a school term.

We also make use of the calendars of artistic activities that give us the programming of concert seasons, opera, theater, and others. The calendars of popular festivals that sometimes combine religious and patriotic festivities, presided over by dance, music, pyrotechnic, mechanical, and other games, as well as the waste of food, expressions in which ancient pre-Hispanic and colonial traditions are sedimented.

And finally, we could even refer to one of the practices in vogue, that of the astrological calendars of widespread use among those who strive to find out the astral conjunctions that mark their destiny, turning to the calendarist of office on duty.

By María Esther Aguirre Lora