The Anglo-Saxon Calendar
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About the Anglo-Saxon Calendar
The Venerable Bede as depecited in the Nuremberg Chronicle.
Everything we know about the Anglo-Saxon Calendar comes from the Venerable Bede’s On the Reckoning of Time, in which he relates the calendars of many ancient cultures. He gives us quite a bit of information. Unfortunately, as we shall soon see, he doesn’t give us quite enough information to reconstruct the calendar in its entirety. A couple of assumptions have to be made.
So what’s the purpose of learning the Anglo-Saxon Calendar? Heathenry generally recognizes four holy tides- a spring festival (in Anglo-Saxon Heathenry, it’s usually called Ēostre or something similar), Midsummer, a festival for the beginning of winter (which happens in the fall as the ancient Heathens only recognized two seasons, winter and summer), and Yule. Names vary for these holidays, but how they determine the dates generally fall into one of two methods- Solar, and Lunisolar. The solar calendars tend to place them on the appropriate equinox or solstice. The Lunisolar calendars tend to place them on the full moon after the first new moon that follows each solstice and equinox. What I’m offering here is a more authentic way of determining our holy tides, one more in line with how our spiritual predecessors would have done it.
As in the Jewish and liturgical Christian traditions, the Anglo-Saxons started their day with the evening. So the day began when the sun went down, instead of an arbitrary hour in the middle of the night like we do here in the USA and modern Europe. As a third shifter, this feels more natural to me anyways, as from the time I go in to work at 9 pm every night, I’m doing the paperwork with the next day’s date.
Bede tells us that their months were lunar. He doesn’t tell us what phase of the moon the months began on in the chapter on the Anglo-Saxon Calendar, but he specifies it in an earlier chapter1. Like the majority of ancient cultures that used lunar months, they began their months on the night that the young moon was sighted, when the first sliver of the new moon was seen after the dark moon. (They called it the new moon, but what we call the new moon today is totally different. Our meaning for the term of the new moon is what they called the dark moon, when it is between the sun and the earth so it cannot be seen from the earth as the light side is facing away from us.) I calculate this day by calculating the moon’s illumination for each day after the dark moon, and when that creeps up above 1%, that day is the beginning of the new month.
Bede tells us that they had twelve lunar months, and gives us the Roman months (which are the same as ours) that they generally coincide with. Since the Anglo-Saxons based their months upon the moon and the Romans didn’t, it doesn’t match up exactly. Bede also tells us that they would occasionally add a thirteenth month to keep the lunar months in line with the solar year (and thus, the seasons).
The Anglo-Saxons only recognized two seasons, winter and summer. Each was six months long, except on leap year, when summer would be seven months long. Winter would begin on the full moon of Wintermōnaþ (October) and summer would begin six months later, presumably on the full moon of Ēosturmōnaþ (April).
The first month, Æfterra Gēola, roughly coincides with our January. It literally means “After Yule”. Bede tells us that Gēola refers to the day that the sun “turns around” and the day begins to increase in length. This is describing the winter solstice. Since it’s the only solar event that Bede specifically mentions, it makes sense for any method of adding in the leap months will need to keep the Yule (the winter solstice) in between the months named “Before Yule” and “After Yule”.
(The letter Æ makes a short a sound as in cat. It is called the ash letter. It’s lowercase form is æ. The G in Gēola is a soft g, pronounced like the y in yellow.)
There are only two methods of determining leap years that I have found that works to accomplish this reliably:
- The Metonic Cycle is a 19 year cycle that adds the extra month on years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 19. (The current cycle began with 2018 as year 1.) This cycle was discovered by both the ancient Greeks and ancient Sumerians independently of each other, and seems to have had a wide prevalence in the ancient world. Artifacts found in Germany dating from around the 9th century BC indicates that the Celtic culture living there at the time knew about this cycle before even the Greeks.
- Counting the new moons (as defined by ancient peoples) between the two winter solstices. Any year that has 13 new moons will be a leap year.
These two methods give the same results, so using either is acceptable. The calculated calendar on this page uses the first method for the years 1700-2199, and uses the second for the years outside this range.
The second month was Sōlmōnaþ. Bede says it means “month of cakes” and that they baked cakes during this month. The Old English word sōl, however, means mud, so some speculate that these cakes had mud like color and/or texture. (Most of the months end in -mōnaþ as this is the Old English word for month/moon. The þ letter is pronounced as the th in thin when not sandwiched between vowels, so you’ll sometimes see these month names anglicised as -monath. When between vowels, it is pronounced as the th in that.)
Next we have Hreðmōnaþ, which corresponds roughly to March. It was in this month, Bede tells us, that the Anglo-Saxons made offerings to the goddess Hrethe. Unfortunately, we do not know anything else about this goddess, though UPG about her abounds.
Next we come to Ēosturmōnaþ which roughly corresponds to April. Bede says that the Anglo-Saxons sacrificed to the goddess Ēostre during this month. Like Hrethe, that’s all the information he gives about her. She is more known in popular culture than Hrethe, and the Christian holiday Easter is named after her. It is ironic that the Neo-Pagan holiday named after her (Ostara, after her Germanic name), actually occurs in the month of Hreþmōnaþ!
Next we have the month of Þrimilcemōnaþ, which roughly coresponds to May. It literally means the month of three milkings. Summer time is here, and the cattle produce more milk, and need to be milked more often. Bede says they were milked three times a day!
Now we come to Ærra Liða, which roughly corresponds to June. (The letter ð makes the th sound, and was used interchaneably with þ in Old English.) Liða in Old English means gentle or mild, and referred to the mild weather of the seas this time of year. Some speculate it also referred to the Summer Solctice, and neopagans call their Sabbat on the Summer Solctice Litha for this reason. I simply refer to it as Midsummer.
Next, in leap years, we have Þriliða. In other years, this month is skipped. It literally means third Liða. We are not sure how the Anglo-Saxons determined when to add it, but it was probably decided on a regional basis (that is, each chieftain or king would decree when it was a leap year for his village, tribe or kingdom). I use the Metonic cycle to determine the leap years, but I formerly added it when there are 13 new moons between the December Solctices of the current and previous years (These two methods actually give the same results). This keeps Yule in its proper month, as explained above.
After this (or after Ærra Liða in common years), is Æfterra Liða. This month roughly corresponds to July, and it literally means after Liða.
Next we have Weodmōnaþ, which corresponds roughly to August. Bede tells us it means month of tares/weeds, “for they are plentiful then.” With summer winding down (remember, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t recognize spring or autumn), the crops would be about ready for harvest, and the harvest would be soon underway, if it wasn’t already!
September corresponds roughly to Haligmōnaþ, which means holy month. We don’t know what holy tides they may have had this month, or what made it holy. (The g in Haligmōnaþ is a soft g, bring pronounced as the y in yellow. Combined with the i in front of it, the -ig- is pronounced like the i in machine.)
Next we have Wintermōnaþ, which corresponds roughly to October. It means winter month, because winter began with the full moon of this month (called Winterfylleþ). Winterfylleþ is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Norse Winter Nights.
Next is Blōtmōnaþ, which means sacrifice month. The herds of cattle were culled during this month, both to get their numbers down to a manageable number that could be fed through the winter and as sacrifices for a mild winter.
The last month of the year was Ærra Gēola, which literally means before Yule. During this month was Modraniht, Mother’s Night. This was the holy tide where the Anglo-Saxons worshipped the Mothers, the female ancestral spirits that continued to watch over their families.
Which brings us back to the first month, Æfterra Gēola.
I know that there was a lot of information to absorb, and I apologise for it. For a more concise summary of the Anglo-Saxon Calendar, you can see the Calendar page on the Larhus Fyrnsida website.
So how do I take all this information and use it to form a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon Calendar? I first get the dates of the December Solstices of the previous year and the current year. I then find all the new moon dates in between, and add 36 hours to each to estimate the young moon. If there’s twelve of them in between the December Solstices, it’s a normal year. If there’s thirteen of them, it’ll be a leap year and we will add the leap month as the seventh month. Then I find the dates for the four holy tides. Midsummer and Yule will be on the date of the winter and summer solstices, and Ēastre and Winterfylleþ will be on the full moons of Ēosturmōnaþ and Wintermōnaþ, respectively.
To quote Bede, Chapter 11 of The Reckoning of Time:
Note well that those who say that the month ought to be defined, or was defined by the ancients, as the length of time in which the Moon traverses the zodiacal circle, make a serious mistake. As more painstaking inspection of nature has taught, the Moon plainly completes the zodiac in 27 days and 8 hours, but its proper course is 29 days and 12 hours,setting aside the calculation of the ‘‘leap of the Moon’’. Therefore it is more accurate to define a lunar month as the circuit and reintegration of the lunar light from new Moon to new Moon.
“Lunar light” from a new moon makes no sense if he meant the dark moon like we do today. The new moon for the ancients was when you could see the first sliver of the moon after the dark moon. ↩