Keeping track of time – calendars in the collections (New Year’s special)

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Uncategorized, World

After a long month of December with candles, presents, carols and plenty of traditional food, we have passed Christmas and New Year’s Eve. In many places around the world, New Year’s Eve marks the end of one year and the beginning of a new and is thus an important marker of the passage of time. Keeping track of time for one purpose or another is something which have concerned humans for centuries, and one way of doing this is through the use of calendars.

As this is the first blog entry of 2020, it will be dedicated to some of the calendars figured in the collections at Moesgård Museum. They tell about what keeping track of time looks like around the world and what cultural aspects are embedded in such practices.

EA289-0001, sun stone (replica), Mexico

The use of calendars can be tracked back in time several thousand years and some of the first calendars were based on the measurement of the position of the sun and the moon. The sun is also prominent in the first calendar object, the Aztec sun stone or the Aztec calendar stone, as it is also called. The stone was carved during the reign of the ruler Moctezuma in the middle of the 16th century in what is today Mexico City.

Many aspects regarding the stone are still under debate, such as its original location, whether it was positioned horizontally or vertically and the interpretation of the central figure. What researcher do agree on is that the stone depicts the current and former eras of the Aztec. The main glyph is the current era, called ‘movement,’ and it is surrounded by the four previous eras: ‘jaguar,’ ‘wind,’ ‘rain,’ and ‘water.’ Each era ended with the destruction of the world which was then subsequently recreated in the next era. In that way, the stone is not a calendar in the sense we use the word today, but concerned with the relation between earthly and cosmological time and order.

At this point you might wonder why you have never seen this object on display in the museum, but there is a natural explanation for that. The sun stone at Moesgård Museum is not the original. It is a replica that was given as a present from the president of Mexico to the Danish Prime Minister in 1976. The Prime Minister decided to donate the replica to Moesgård Museum. Today, the sun stone can be seen in one of the lecture halls of Aarhus University, campus Moesgård.

EA909-0129, bark calendar, Sumatra

The next calendar is from the Batak people on Sumatra. It comprises of a piece of bark with a calendar system painted around it. Its name is porhalaan, which means ‘scorpion thing.’ Scorpions had a significant position in Batak cosmology. Here, a large scorpion was believed to live in the underworld and its movements affected the human world.

Around the sides of the calendar is a grit which encompasses days and months. Each day has a square, which is either left blank or has a marking. Such signs can be scorpions, geckos or geometrical figures. These markings showed whether a particular day would be appropriate or not for particular rituals or celebrations. The days with scorpion markings were particularly auspicious.

The porhalaan was read only by literate and ritual specialists, called datu. They used the calendar to determine which days would be appropriate – and which not – for particular rituals and activities. Furthermore, the datu followed the lunar cycles and adjusted the porhalaan according to the moon’s movements.

Despite being a unique way of time tracking to the Batak people, there can be found similarities with aspects of the porhalaan in Hindu, Chinese and Southeast Asian calendar systems.

EA308-0024, calendar, India

These colourful calendars from India feature, most of them, different Hindu deities. However, the calendars can do more than just look pretty on the wall. They can also help planning one’s wedding. Besides featuring the days of the year, these calendars present a list of particularly auspicious days for getting married.

For many Hindu weddings to be prosperous, it is not enough to set any date and invite the guests; the date itself must be carefully chosen. For this purpose, astrologers can be consulted to look at the zodiac signs of the couple or the couple can look into calendars to choose the right day. However, it is not just a matter of choosing any auspicious day. All the days will bring different positive aspects into the wedding. Thus, the couple will have to choose if they want to go for a more satisfactory marriage, a marriage based on dedication and responsibility or for money-orientated benefits and lavishness.

The use of auspicious days is not only used in relation to weddings, but can also be used for people to plan their business or deciding when to move into a new house. The use of such calendars is therefore not only about keeping track of time, but also about securing that future actions on carefully selected days will contribute to a good life.

EA631-0035, wall calendar, Gabon

As we have seen by now, calendars can be used for navigating through time, personal events and cosmological order, but as this next example from Gabon will show, calendars can also be used for sending important messages.

From the year of 1998, this calendar is advertising for the company SEEG, The Energy and Water Company of Gabon. The company had monopoly on the distribution of water and electricity in the country.

The text at the bottom on the calendar says “Electricity and water are precious goods, don’t waste them.” This is an almost pedagogical instruction to the Gabonese population regarding the way they treat or ideally should treat these goods. The written message is underlined by the images on the poster. Here for instance, a woman spends time and energy on fetching water, but can now instead use a tap – which however, must be closed after use, as the cross indicates. Both tap water and electric light is provided by a traditional-looking mask – the logo of SEEG.

Whether the calendar is meant to be a sort of New Year’s Resolution or a kind reminder is not easy to say. Nonetheless, SEEG appears to take advantage of the calendar to spread their message. In this case, it is not the days and months as such that are important: Because people keep calendars in their homes anyway, the calendar as a medium is apt to transmit other important messages about society and to influence people’s behaviour.

Whether you keep one type of calendar or the other – on paper, bark or on your mobile phone – we wish you a prosperous new year, and we on Ethnographica Blog are looking forward to bringing more fascinating stories and new perspectives on the things that frame and shape people’s lives.

//Astrid Kieffer-Døssing

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