5 Cultures Whose Calendars Would Break Your Concept of Time
At the top of the list of the world's most crucial yet underappreciated inventions has to be the humble calendar. As annoying as the modern Gregorian calendar can be ("Why are the months different lengths? Why do we need a freaking leap year?"), it is worlds better than the others people have come up with over the centuries.
So let's sit back and appreciate the fact that we don't have to experience the utter chaos that is ...
The Balinese Calendar of Mathematical Madness
The basic idea of a calendar is pretty simple: days follow the Earth's rotation, months follow the moon's cycle, and years follow the Earth's path around the sun. It all lines up in a nice, uncomplicated progression: Thor's Day leads to Freya's Day leads to Saturn's Day leads to Sun's Day, just the way Cthulhu intended. What more could you ask for?
Decades based on fingers, months matching your menses? Got that, too!
Well, if you live in Bali or Java in Indonesia, apparently you can ask for a lot, and receive even more than you can handle. Their calendar is what chaos theorists masturbate to. Here's what a single calendar day looks like:
Is that math up in the corner?
Each and every day in the traditional Balinese Pawukon calendar is the result of a ridiculously convoluted mathematical process. Instead of a simple week cycle of seven days, the Pawukon runs 10 different week cycles, all at the same time. The length of these weeks can be anywhere from one to 10 days, and they constantly overlap each other, because fuck your concept of time. The closest thing Pawukon has to a year is a period that lasts for 420 days, which is divided into two Pawukon cycles.
To recap: Every 420-day year consists of two 210-day Pawukon cycles with 10 different week systems running at the same time, and each day has up to 10 different names. Oh, and every day is also a week all by itself, except when it's not. This is, of course, defined by complex math equations.
Clearly, days in a year weren't the only 420 involved in the design of this thing.
Because things apparently can't be complicated enough for the Balinese, the Pawukon calendar also ventures far beyond mere day counting: It provides both detailed, Farmer's Almanac-style advice and a set of seemingly random prohibitions for each week. These temporary taboos range from cutting bamboo plants to fishing, and unless you can check them from a pre-printed calendar ... well, we're assuming somebody out there offers a six-year post-grad program in Understanding Balinese Calendars.
All right, so what happens when somebody goes the opposite direction and tries to make normal calendars nice and simple? Then you get ...
The French's Ridiculous Metric System Calendar
During the most guillotine-happy era of the French Revolution, the revolutionary leaders decided to fix the "overly religious" and "outdated" Gregorian calendar by converting weeks, hours, minutes, and seconds to the glorious and orderly metric system. Who cares if it's not what the rest of the world uses? They'd just flat out convert every single time unit into decimals and throw the new system at the public, because whatever could go wrong? After all, it's not like the country had a huge civil upheaval to cope with or anything.
Spoiler: They sentenced the system's inventor to death. By guillotine, of course.
So, in 1793, this new French Republican calendar was introduced to the unassuming public. Just like that, French weeks were 10 days long instead of seven. Each day consisted of 10 hours, each of which had 100 minutes, each of which had 100 seconds. Oh, and the clocks now looked like this:
"I said more hands, dammit!"
But merely replacing the very concept of days and hours with new, arbitrary units of time wasn't enough for this revolutionary system: They also took away all the common names of the days and months, assigning them Roman numerals instead. When this move was met with nearly universal hate, a poet named Fabre d'Eglantine was hired to give the revolutionary months brand new, inspiring names. Unfortunately, d'Eglantine's poetic skills were on par with the organizational talent of the people who came up with the idea of the new calendar in the first place. The months soon sported wonderful, imaginative names such as "Snowy," "Rainy," "Windy," "Hot," and "Fruit."
D'Eglantine also named every single day of the year individually, with his trademark "pull a random word out of your ass and claim it's poetry" style. As a result, the poor citizens had to memorize 365 different weekdays, with names like "Pitchfork," "Goose," "Barrel," "Donkey," "Cricket," "Charcoal," "Copper," "Dung" (yep, seriously), "Maple Syrup," and goddamn "Plague." We're assuming that last one was the birthday of his ex-wife.
Christmas was "Tuna."
Shockingly, not even d'Eglantine's laureate-level poetry could save the hopelessly clunky new calendar, which was already undermined by the little fact that the standard workweek was suddenly three workdays longer. The system was widely criticized for being sheer lunacy, and eventually banished after only, uh, 14 years of use.
Hey, speaking of ruining the workweek ...
The Soviet No-Weekend Rotating Calendar
In 1929, the Soviet Union was desperate to boost its industrial productivity. After noticing that machines don't need to take breaks the way humans do, they devised a brilliant plan to keep factories running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, never stopping until the collective power of the organized proletariat would crush its rivals under its massive, mechanized boot. It was a fine plan, but there was one tiny problem: In order to make these never-stopping, never-failing factories run, the human beings manning the factories also had to function like cold, tireless machines. How would they solve this issue?
No, not with literal workerbots. There was a steel shortage.
Why, with a shiny new calendar, comrade!
Thus the Soviet governing body introduced a thoroughly communist calendar system that ran a continuously rotating five-day work schedule. The days were numbered or color-coded; the workers were issued a number, and the day of the week that matched was their mandatory day off. This regular rotation of four work days and one rest day meant that 80 percent of the able population was working on any day of the week.
Monday, Tuesday, Red Day, Blue Day ...
The cycle overlapped the standard Gregorian calendar on printed materials, but no one ever bothered giving it a solid week or month structure of its own. This made it easy for workers to lose track of time, as everyone's workweeks immediately spun crazily out of sync. This was further complicated by the fact that workers were issued their codes entirely at random, so families and friends were torn apart, as nobody had days off at the same time and there was no longer any such thing as a "weekend."
To say the system was problematic is to waste a perfect opportunity to use the word "clusterfuck." Industrial equipment couldn't handle a nonstop schedule. Worker efficiency and enthusiasm waned.
They invented TV but abandoned it when program lineups proved too confusing.
Yet somehow, the five-day week limped on until 1932, which is when the Soviet leaders came to their senses and brought back the calendar everyone was used to.
Ha, just kidding! They totally adopted an even crazier system: a standardized six-days-working, one-day-off scheme that was also ridiculously broken. Months consisted of five six-day weeks that still overlapped with the Gregorian calendar, but only worked with the months that were exactly 30 days. The other eight months required a set of special rules to deal with the odd days. This resulted in over 50 different patch schedules, which were unsurprisingly less than successful in fixing the problem.
By this point, workers were already so fed up that they'd just passive-aggressively take fake sick days whenever Sunday rolled around, regardless of what their indecipherable job schedules said. After a few years of this complete and utter chaos, even the Soviet leaders eventually understood that the system would never work. The calendar was abandoned in 1940, and nothing bad happened in Soviet Russia ever again.
The Islamic Watch-and-See Calendar
Calendars evolve over time, just like everything else, and as we've demonstrated, the defective ones have a tendency to go extinct. However, sometimes a calendar functions just well enough to survive to the present day regardless of its flaws, kind of like those electric hand dryers in public restrooms. For instance, there's the traditional Hijri calendar used by Muslims around the world. An example of how convoluted it is: In August of 2013, the Saudi Arabian Supreme Court had to be brought in to figure out when a month begins.
They ruled that the month had stolen a day and had to be cut short.
Why? Well, the Islamic calendar operates on the principle of moon sighting, a method of starting the new calendar month on the first night of a new crescent moon. This may not sound like such a big deal -- casual astronomers have been able to forecast the lunar cycle for thousands of years, after all. However, tradition mandates that the first crescent must be officially sighted in the night sky by human eyes. Is it too cloudy? Well, too bad! Heavy smog? Sorry, your payday will have to wait until it clears up.
Bad weather is just the beginning of the problem. Different locations on Earth see the moon at a different angle, and in some places obstacles such as mountains may obstruct the view something fierce. Since Muslim nations have so far been unwilling to set a standard moon sighting rule that people around the world can use, even the timing of important celebrations such as the fasting month of Ramadan can easily become controversial and confusing.
Moon gazers often end Ramadan the day the Sheikh happens to crave noontime shawarma.
But at least they're all trying to adhere to the same calendar, which we certainly couldn't say about ...
The Freestyle Calendars of Ancient Greece
We like to think of the ancient Greeks as a wise, intellectual people advancing daily the world's understanding of philosophy and art. Yet the best and brightest minds of ancient Greece failed at the subject of timekeeping so hard that they could barely even use their own calendars.
The problem was the very thing that we all take for granted about the modern calendar -- which is that everyone is using it (because over time Christianity has browbeaten pretty much everyone into accepting its holidays and month divisions). The dozens of city-states of ancient Greece had a much more free-wheeling, Hades-may-care attitude toward their calendars, and as a result, pretty much every city had its own way of keeping time, and they all refused to accept anyone else's.
It's basically one calendar per god. That's why atheists always forget your birthday.
You can imagine how this worked (or, rather, didn't): months had different names in different cities, leap years worked on different schedules, and so on -- basically, striding a few blocks away from where you lived meant you were suddenly in a completely different week, month, or year. Now imagine trying to maintain records between cities, and you can see how every bureaucratic transaction would turn into a ridiculous "Who's on first?" routine. If somebody had invented time travel back then, it would have been impossible to tell.
Even staying within the borders of just one city didn't make things any easier -- Athens alone kept three separate calendars, each of which was entirely different from the others and adorably screwed in its own unique way. Whenever things got so out of sync that the sun couldn't keep up anymore, the city archon would just throw in a few randomly assigned leap days.
Babies born those days were killed, for they could never be warriors.
With all this chaos, Greek historians eventually said "screw it" and started using the Olympic Games (the one constant event everyone more or less kept track of) as a rough frame of time reference. As such, Greek historians' texts tend to read in the vein of "Romulus, the first ruler of the city, began his reign in the first year of the seventh Olympiad." It's kind of like trying to remember your significant other's birthday using the Super Bowl as your only frame of reference. So be grateful that you merely have to recite some rhyme you learned in kindergarten in order to remember whether this month has 30 or 31 days.
Mr. Yee writes the Internet's awesomest daily fortune cookie. His original T-shirts are also appropriate for every day of the year.
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Related Reading: Speaking of calendars, did you know Daylight Savings Time is killing people? And while that Soviet calendar was a productivity bust, people can accomplish a LOT in one day. Like planting six million trees. Curious about why the 21st century is making you miserable? We've got the answer.