Celtic Calendar

The concept of a Celtic calendar that divided the year into eight precisely equal parts, marked by festivals on the solstices, equinoxes, and mid-quarter days, has influenced archaeoastronomy for decades and does so still, in that many people continue to perceive monumental alignments upon sunrise or sunset on the equinoxes or mid-quarter days as inherently significant. Certainly pre-Christian calendrical festivals existed, such as Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa, and Samhain (celebrated in modern pagan traditions at the beginning of February, May, August, and November, respectively), and continued to be important, for example, in early medieval Ireland. However, we should not accept uncritically the notions that their precursors were both widespread within Iron Age Europe and precisely determined. The whole concept of Celtic culture is now generally felt to be problematic, with many archaeologists arguing that it has more to do with modern perceptions of ethnicity than with historical or archaeological evidence of any widespread conformity between cultures in the European Iron Age. Given these uncertainties, the idea of a precise and all-pervasive Celtic calendar must be treated with considerable caution.

Nonetheless, there are indications that a precise division of the year into eight parts, based on observations of the sun, might have existed in pre-Roman times. Chief among these is the Coligny calendar, a bronze tablet about 1.5 meters by 0.9 meters (five feet by three feet) in size (though found in fragments, some of which were missing) dating to the second century C.E. It is a public calendar covering five years, with dates and festivals marked, and it is luni-solar in character: a late remnant of an indigenous calendar from the pre-Roman world. Lunar months alternating between twenty-nine and thirty days, and even intercalary months, are marked; but so, too, are dates that recur once every three months or so, each mysteriously marked "PRINI LAG" or something similar. These dates occur at intervals of ninety-one, ninety-three, ninety-one, and ninety-two days—intervals of almost exactly one quarter of the year (which has 367 days in the Coligny calendar). It has been suggested that they actually mark Celtic quarter-day festivals.

Regardless of the "Celticity" of the indigenous calendar in this region of southern Gaul (the calendar was discovered about eighty kilometers [fifty miles] from Lyon), the vital question is whether it provides solid evidence for a pre-Roman calendar in which the main seasonal festivals were timed by counting off exact numbers of days in the solar year. In view of the fact that the indigenous calendar concerned was clearly lunar-based, this seems very unlikely. Perhaps the regular intervals were introduced as part of the process of making the existing calendar conform to the Roman system.

See also:

Christianization of "Pagan" Festivals; Lunar and Luni-Solar Calendars; "Megalithic" Calendar; Equinoxes; Mid-Quarter Days.

Beltany; Boyne Valley Tombs.


References and further reading

Collis, John. The European Iron Age. London: Routledge, 1997.

Cunliffe, Barry. The Ancient Celts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Gibson, Alex, and Derek Simpson, eds. Prehistoric Ritual and Religion: Essays in Honour of Aubrey Burl, 190-202. Stroud: Sutton, 1998.

Hutton, Ron. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, 218-225, 327-331, 360-370. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

James, Simon. The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention? Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.

King, John. The Celtic Druids' Year: Seasonal Cycles of the Ancient Celts. London: Blandford, 1994.

Le Contel, Jean-Michel, and Paul Verdier. Un Calendrier Celtique: Le Calendrier Gaulois de Coligny. Paris: Éditions Errance, 1997. [In French.]

McCluskey, Stephen C. Astronomies and Cultures in Early Medieval Europe, 54-60. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Olmsted, Garrett. The Gaulish Calendar. Bonn: Habelt, 1992.

Ruggles, Clive. Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland, 142, 159. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Ruggles, Clive, and Nicholas Saunders, eds. Astronomies and Cultures, 102-109. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1993.

Ceque System

The capital of the Inca empire, Cusco (or Cuzco), was at the heart of a huge scheme of sacred geography. At the very center was the Temple of the Sun, known as the Coricancha ("golden enclosure"). The entire Inca empire was partitioned into four divisions known as suyus, a division that was so fundamental in Inca thought that the Inca name for their own empire was Tahuantinsuyu ("four parts"). The boundary lines separating the four suyus radiated out from Cusco, indeed from the Coricancha itself. This much is known from the accounts of several different chroniclers; but one of the most thorough and meticulous, Bernabé Cobo, tells us of the existence of no fewer than forty-one (or forty-two) such radial lines, and he records that they were known as ceques (or zeq'e).

The spiritual order of the Inca empire was based around shrines called huacas (or wak'a), sacred places for the worship of gods, prayers, and sacrifices. Huacas were often located at places that were in some way special or exceptional, such as caves, springs, mountain peaks, bends in rivers, or unusual rocks or trees. Cobo recorded well over three hundred huacas in the vicinity of Cusco, documenting each of them individually. Three hundred thirty-two of them were located on one of the ceques, with a number more that were not part of the system; none of the ceques contained fewer than three shrines, and a couple had as many as fifteen. The ceques, however, were more than just lines along which the sacred places lay. They were also linked in various ways to social relations and the division of labor. According to Cobo again, each ceque was given over to one of the three main social classes (those directly related, less directly related, or unrelated to the Inca ruler), and it was the responsibility of representatives of that social group to take care of its huacas and to carry out the appropriate ceremonial activities there. Protocols for assigning representatives of different family groups (ayllus) to communal work activities, such as the maintenance of irrigation canals, were also governed by the ceque system. In these and various other ways, the ceque system made many of the principles of Incaic social and political organization tangible in the landscape.

Cobo's accounts seem to indicate that the ceques were conceived as

The Andean shrine of Kenko Grande, near Cusco in Peru, one of many sacred places or huacas lying on ceque lines. (Wolfgang Kaehler/CORBIS)

straight lines diverging radially from the Coricancha, the symbolic center of the world, and extending out into the cosmos. This way of organizing things spatially—lines radiating out from a center—seems to extend well back into pre-Inca times, evident, for example, in the lines on the desert at Nasca. It is also evident in the quipu—recording devices consisting of knotted strings—which can be laid out in a radial fashion, and has even survived to the present day in the layout of some of the more remote and traditional Andean villages.

It has been suggested that some of the Cusco ceques were astronomically aligned. Cobo's account of various huacas includes hilltops where monuments were placed that marked the sun's arrival at significant dates, such as the times to sow crops. This leaves open the question of where the hilltop huacas were to be viewed from, but archaeoastronomical investigations suggest that in some cases, at least, the answer was "along the ceques." A related claim is that some of the ceques radiating out from the Coricancha hit the visible horizon at astronomically significant points such as the rising and setting of the sun at one of the solstices, something that is not surprising given that various chroniclers describe horizon observations of the sun from Cusco and describe pillars that were erected to mark these spots and to fa cilitate the observations. However, the evidence for the solstitial ceques is far from conclusive.

Anthropologist and historian Tom Zuidema has gone considerably further by suggesting that the ceque system was linked directly to an elaborate ritual calendar based neither upon solar observations nor upon lunar phase-cycle (synodic) months but upon sidereal months. A sidereal month, the time it takes for the moon to complete a circuit through the stars, is two days shorter than a synodic month, lasting 27.3 days. This may seem like a very esoteric concept, but it is a cycle that is particularly noticeable near the equator (where the celestial bodies rise and set almost vertically) by observing what stars the moon (whatever its phase) appears on a level with, for example, as it rises. This is done, for instance, by the Borana in east Africa.

Zuidema's interpretation was triggered by the fact that the number of huacas recorded by Cobo in the vicinity of Cusco, which he took to be 328, is exactly equal to the number of days in twelve sidereal months. Each huaca, then, according to Zuidema, corresponded to a day in the calendar. This might well be dismissed as speculative nonsense, a mere numerical coincidence, except that Cobo tells us that acts of worship (such as sacrifices) took place at the various shrines in a sequential order, proceeding from one to the next, working gradually round the Cusco horizon. What of the remaining thirty-seven days in each seasonal year? These, according to Zuidema, represented the period of time when the fields lay fallow between last harvest and first planting. These were "dead days" when no ceremonies took place at any huaca, and corresponded to the time when the Pleiades were invisible, being too close to the sun. The various strands of evidence in support of Zuidema's ritual calendar at Cusco are highly complex and hotly disputed, but the interpretation remains a highly intriguing one.

It has become evident, however, that we would be unwise to interpret the ceques too literally as a set of dead straight lines radiating out into the landscape from the center of Cusco. During the 1990s, archaeologist Brian Bauer conducted a field project around Cusco aiming to identify the actual locations of as many as possible of the original huacas. His conclusion was that the ceques were not straight at all, but actually zigzagged through the landscape. The huacas, according to Bauer, were defined by the innate power of places themselves, and they were subsequently grouped into ceques. They were certainly not placed on preconceived lines. In other words, the huacas defined the ceques, not the other way round.

It is possible, then, that some earlier work on ceque alignments has been misconceived. On the other hand, the non-straightness of the ceques does not detract from the fact that the whole landscape was evidently full of sacred and special places at which, for example, the sun was observed to rise or set on certain days of the year as seen from others. This is quite clear from the chroniclers' accounts. We might conclude that Incaic perceptions of straightness do not accord with ours. But it may simply be that the ceques, although often straight over relatively small distances that could easily be sighted along, became more sinuous as they stretched out over the wider landscape. The ideal may not have been matched by the reality, but perhaps this was not a critical concern in practice.

In sum, the ceque system was undoubtedly both a basic organizing principle of the Inca empire and a mechanism of political control. The extent to which it was also a manifestation of calendrical principles and practices is likely to be debated for a long time to come.

See also:

Antizenith Passage of the Sun; Cobo, Bernabé (1582-1657); Lunar and Luni-Solar Calendars; Sacred Geographies; Solstitial Directions.

Borana Calendar; Cusco Sun Pillars; Island of the Sun; Misminay; Nasca Lines and Figures; Quipu.

References and further reading

Aveni, Anthony F. Stairways to the Stars: Skywatching in Three Great Ancient Cultures, 147-176. New York: Wiley, 1997.

-. Between the Lines: The Mystery of the Giant Ground Drawings of

Ancient Nasca, Peru, 124-135. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. [Published in the UK as Nasca: The Eighth Wonder of the World. London: British Museum Press, 2000.]

-. Skywatchers, 314-321. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Aveni, Anthony F., and Gary Urton, eds. Ethnoastronomy and Archaeoastronomy in the American Tropics, 203-229. New York: New York Academy of Sciences, 1982.

Bauer, Brian. The Sacred Landscape of the Inca: The Cusco Ceque System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Bauer, Brian, and David Dearborn. Astronomy and Empire in the Ancient Andes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

D'Altroy, Terence. The Incas, 155-169. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

Selin, Helaine, ed. Astronomy across Cultures, 216-219. Dordrecht, Neth.: Kluwer, 2000.

Zuidema, R. Tom. The Ceque System of Cuzco: The Social Organization of the Capital of the Inca. Leiden: Brill, 1964.

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