Time and Again, ad infinitum - Is This The New Millennium Or What? by William P. Benz
We must not allow the clock and the calendar to blind us to the fact that each moment of life is a miracle and mystery. —H. G. Wells
Did you ever wake up worrying that the New Millennium might turn out to be nothing more than the recurrence of a worn out déjà vu? Could you endure such a temporal loop, particularly if that cycle was only vaguely remembered, but not well enough to know how it ends? Well, for anxious eschatologists, that’s all in a day’s work. I imagine it happens for the existentialist variety, as well as for the Buddhist rendition, and even, God forbid, for the Fundamentalist version who never stop praying for a Fiery Final Judgment. Luckily, it hasn’t happened to me in a long time. Especially, since I’ve stopped seasoning my tempeh with so much cayenne.
In any event, we’ve got a New Millennium coming down the pike. With the appearance of this article on December 21st, the Winter Solstice (at least, the Winter Solstice for us living in the Northern Hemisphere), there will be only 376 days before the Dawning of the 21st Century. The First Century of the Next 1000 Years. Wait a minute. In the interest of journalistic accuracy, maybe I should qualify those statements. All things being relative. Especially in matters where time is concerned. And in methods for constructing calendars, all things become relative very quickly.
For instance, even though there’s going to be one hell of a party on December 31st, 1999, some people say the celebration will be a year too early. That’s right. According to a bunch of authorities (a dubious title in the business of calendrics) the New Millennium actually begins on January 1st, 2001. Why? Because the creators of the Gregorian Calendar (the one that’s presently considered the international standard) did their best work before they had a good working knowledge of the Zero. Back in those days, people used numbers to count things. “I, II, III, IV, V . . . .” Keeping track of chunks of temporal duration is a bit trickier. Especially when you try tracking events on either side of the date chosen as your starting point.
From a Christian point of view a great starting date would be Jesus’ birth. So, in the sixth century, the scholar Dionysius Exiguus figured out when Jesus was born. Problem was, he got it wrong. Some say by four years, others, seven. But this laid the foundation for another, more serious type of error. For later, this date became known as Year 1 A.D. (anno domini: ‘Year of our Lord’). We had an A.D. Year and a B.C. Year, but no Zero Year in between. The effect is like saying a baby is one year old on the day of birth.
I find it amusing to know that the basis for all this controversy is literally a Nothing. Just don’t try and tell that to the thousands of people who maintain observatories, WEB sites, and who make their living insisting today’s date is what they say it is. I assure you, there’s a lot of people out there who take their calendars very seriously.
For the sake of both scientific accuracy and comic relief (something I find goes hand and hand more often than not), let’s take a stroll through some of the more obvious and interesting issues.
The Weird Science of Calendrics I began writing this article the morning of Friday the 13th, November, 1998. I know, Friday the 13th. I‘ve always had a knack for picking auspicious times to start new endeavors. It was Friday the 13th, but only if you keep track of your days with the Gregorian Calendar. It’s a safe bet you do.
Almost everyone in our world uses the Gregorian Calendar to plan their daily lives. At least, in respect to civic affairs. It hangs on walls, is coded inside watches, and is most likely embedded in countless silicon chips that help process the prose, light the lights, cook the dinner, ring the telephones, keep bank balances, calculate taxes, tell the children when to go to school and the elders when to retire. Of course, the Y2K bug may be munching away on this embedded intelligence and decide to join us shortly after we begin our premature celebration. We’ll see. Won’t we? But that is a calendric issue of a different sort.
In the Jewish calendar, my Friday the 13th is called the 24th of Cheshvan in the year 5759. The Islamic Calendar shows the same date as the 23rd of Rajab-Sha‘ban, 1419. The date in the Chinese Calendar falls on the Day of the Rat, Month of the Sheep, Year of the Earth-Tiger, 4696. My neighborhood astronomer assures me it’s Julian Day number: 2451131. Don’t confuse this date with the old Julian Calendar established by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C., which was the one the Gregorian Calendar replaced in 1582. It just so happens that Joseph Justus Scaliger, who invented the “Julian Day” in 1583, had a dad named Julius.
Yep. As you can see, the Field of Calendics is an exacting science and getting weirder by the moment. No doubt, in the coming year, we’ll be flooded with trivia about the oddities of Calendars and their convoluted history. Who knows? Maybe, we’ll get a reprieve from media’s preoccupation with the President’s amorous predilections.
Calendar reforms, ad infinitum. Reform is a way of life for Calendrics. The stated reason for most reforms is a need for increased accuracy. Or more precisely, a need for the type of accuracy considered popular at the time. While calendars are usually tied to the exact movements of the Sun, the Moon, or both, they must satisfy other obligations, as well.
The Gregorian Calendar is tied to the length of the Earth’s solar year. Thanks to the Romans. They calculated it took the Earth 365 1/4 days to go around the Sun. Actually, they didn’t do the calculation themselves. They appropriated it from the Egyptians who were using it for thousands of years. Some think the Pharaohs appropriated it from somewhere else. Calendars go way back. Thus, the year was declared to be 365 days long and in order to make up for the missing 1/4 day the Romans added a day every fourth year. Leap Year.
This seemed to work great, but there was a tiny problem. The year isn’t exactly 365.25 days long. It’s shorter. Which made their calendar off by 11 minutes per year. The error was so small it didn’t create a problem for about 1500 years. But then the Catholic Church noticed that Easter was beginning to occur earlier and earlier in March. By the time the 16th century rolled in, Easter was falling on March 11th. Since the Church had prescribed Springtime as Easter’s rightful position, Pope Gregory XIII felt compelled to replace the Julian Calendar to stop Easter’s slipping further into Winter.
In order to correct the accumulated error, the Pope declared that 10 days would be dropped. Thursday, October 4, 1582 would be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. This didn’t sit right with everyone. Some Protestant countries took years, even centuries before they accepted it. Even in a few Catholic countries there was rioting in the streets because some people thought he had just shortened their lives by ten days. But he created a very accurate calendar by subtracting these 10 days and adding an additional rule that only centennial years that were multiples of 400 would be leap years. Only 6 days off in 10,000 years! Under this rule 1900 was not a leap year. But the year 2000 is.
Hidden agendas beneath the numbers Numbers may be fascinating, but if we play the game of calendrics only by the numbers, we run the risk of missing a very important function of calendars. Much of the energy to develop and refine calendars comes from a desire to influence how the Universe is perceived. There can be a definite advantage for those giving names to times of significant astronomical events. Events that mark the change of Seasons are pivotal moments in human culture. Even getting others to accept your right as name-giver confers advantage in directing how others perceive time.
For example, Pope Gregory XIII’s aspiration to keep Easter from slipping into Winter was motivated by more than a simple desire for accuracy. Easter was prescribed by ecclesiastical law to happen shortly after the Vernal Equinox. We might suppose this date was just innocently selected to celebrate the Resurrection since Spring is naturally associated with renewal. Upon closer examination we find that Spring was a significant time for other religions as well. It was the time the Jewish people celebrated the Passover commemorating release from Egyptian bondage. But in the new scriptures of the Christians, Jesus is seen as the new Lamb of God, and in his Resurrection, the new Passover. Thus, one religious holiday was substituted for other.
Some historians believe there was another unspoken motive. The pesky Pagans also held the Vernal Equinox in reverence. For them it was also a season of great celebration. Celebrations occur-ring at the same time appear in competi-tion. So, if you can use a calendar and plan your religious holidays to fall on those of your competition, you appear to gain an advantage. From then on, efforts promoting your calendar serve also to promote your religion. And vice versa.
In trying to satisfy these hidden agendas our calendar became a hodgepodge of precise astronomical calculations combined with arbitrary fudge factors that establish religious holidays on dates as prescribed by ecclesiastical authority. Tied to religious agendas, a calendar must keep step with astronomical cycles without stepping on the religious toes of its creators. Today we have extremely accurate methods of keeping time by counting oscillations within atomic structures. A second is defined as the duration of 9,192,631,770 cycles of a particular hyperfine structure transition in the ground state of Cesium-133. The use of such precision strikes as much fear in my heart today as the threat of ex-communication did in the 16th century. Probably, the intent is identical. We have reached a time where the splitting of temporal hairs is done in a realm of diminishing returns. With accuracy becoming more a matter of definition than available technology, I strongly advocate that we seize the opportunity to address an entirely different set of issues.
Calendars galore There are many calendars in use around the world, maybe as many as three dozen. Some are only known to small, isolated communities. Others have long histories and keep track of the religious holidays and important celebrations for populations spanning national boundaries. The Chinese have one that goes back millennia, but repeats in cycles of 60 years. Living by a cyclical pattern that approximates a single life span can bestow a subtle appreciation for the need of sustainability. The message: Relax. This isn’t the end all. We’ve seen this before. We’ll see it again.
In the Moslem calendar we have an example that is purely lunar. The year is made of lunar months. The beginning of each month is determined by the appearance of the crescent moon. Simple. Elegant. And because the lunar year is 11 days shorter than the solar year, a Muslim holiday flows through the seasons as the years pass by. For example, Ramadan, their celebration of Allah’s gift of the Holy Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad, can appear in any season.
Such a simple migration of dates has far reaching implications. How different would our culture be if Christmas was celebrated at different times, in different seasons? If we celebrated it in July, could that put an end to the Macy’s Day Parade? What would happen if all the Santa Clauses died of heat stroke?
The ancient calendar of the Mayans continues in active use by indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. As descendants of the Lords of Teotihuacan, they use a calendar that takes the long view. What the Mayans call the “Great Cycle” of the “Long Count” equals 5125.36 years. It’s fascinating they chose such a long period of time. But even more fascinating is that the present Great Cycle ends on December 21st, 2012 A.D. That’s a Winter Solstice. It’s not fully understood how the Mayans were able to do such intricate calculations necessary to predict a Solstice 2000 years in the future. This mystery, and many others, has attracted much attention from archeologists, astronomers, and small groups of people searching for archaic wisdom to help navigate uncertain times.
Versions of the Mayan calendar, in slightly modified and embellished forms, are now being used by groups of non-Mayan. They see it as a potential tool for transcending negative qualities they associate with Western Industrial Civilization. Sensing a need for radical change, and knowing how calendars exert powerful influences over perceptions of the Universe, they feel a need to disassociate themselves completely from the Gregorian mindset, a mindset they feel perverts the experience of true time. To do this, they seek to create an alternative community using their version of the Mayan calendar exclusively. I wish them well.
For me there remains a question: “How large can they allow that community to become?” Does our faith, or lack of it, limit us to forming small enclaves, holing up in the hills, and arming ourselves to the teeth? Can we attain a lasting transformation by substituting one system of ordering the Universe with another? Maybe we need to think beyond “systems” of ordering the Universe altogether. We have models to do this. They are products of our own culture or the sloughing-off of it. They are not taught in our schools. We are just beginning to ask, “Why not?”
My favorite calendar (which after all is just a method of telling the time of the year) is used by the tribal culture inhabiting the Emerald Islands of Andaman. On this string of islands off the Eastern coast of India, in the Bay of Bengal, inhabitants use the aromas of different flowering shrubs and trees to identify the changing of the seasons. While our technically sophisticated culture would define this approach as primitive and simplistic, theirs remains totally immune to worrying about or waiting for the New Millennium.
There are many ways to know this world. The abstract, rational intellect is only one of them. In spite of its seeming effectiveness, its seeming precision, it may be the crudest of our available faculties. When Marco Polo briefly visited these islands in the 13th century, he declared the people nothing more than savage “head hunters.” Apparently, in searching for routes to new profit, he was too busy to stop and smell the roses. As our year slips into the Next Millennium, or not, may we avoid that same mistake.
Time beyond dogma The whole concept that a single day’s dawning can usher in a New Millennium is an interesting supposition. As with any supposition, there exist distinct possibilities for its use. We can use it to spawn new and liberating perspectives. Or we can create a vehicle that lashes out at the integrity of other beliefs. How do we choose one path over the other? Why on Earth does it matter? And who decides who decides?
I think it will be far more fruitful to spend our time finding mutually benefi-cial solutions than arguing about whose calendar is best. The history of calendrics is already complicated enough without us adding our own hidden agendas and stupid proclamations. Calendars should be simple tools for keeping track of dates, not used to enforce credence of a particular belief system.
The New Millennium I’m waiting for is simply a clean slate. A new beginning. It begins when we stop believing that a final solution is had by substituting one belief system for another. There are models for being in this world that don’t create new territories to protect. We need to find them again. Test them out. Hopefully, while retaining a sense of humor (what a novel idea). The next rung on the Temporal Ladder requires New Ways of Thinking. New Ways of Being. As Albert Einstein once said, “Serious problems cannot be dealt with at the level of thinking that created them.”
In future articles I will explore some of these New Ways. Surprisingly, they were spawned in the juices of our own Western Culture. One was the fin de siècle perspective which surfaced briefly at the end of the last century. It flour-ished until the rising militarism of this century snuffed it out. But it didn’t die before laying a firm foundation for a new level of “thinking.” Or more specifically, a new way of “being” in the World. In the New Millennium, thinking as we know it may become a thing of the past.
This is the first article of a series that will appear in Alternatives as we run-up to the Millenium. Look for Part II in the spring Equinox issue of Alternatives Magazine.
William P. Benz is an Artist, Writer,and Poet living in North Portland. He Specializes in Design of Information Filters, the Surfacing of Mental Models, and the Creative Reintegration of Defective WorldViews. He also counts himself a Member, in Good Standing, of that Select Group of 157,484 West Coast WEB Designers. Visit his WEB Space at http://www.aracnet.com/~wpbenz. Or send email.