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A Calendar for the Celts?

Why might the Celts want to keep track of the days?

It seems to be well-established that the Celts held festivals at certain fixed times of the year as well as marking the equinox (when there are equal hours of day/night) and solstice (longest and shortest daylight). The year could be marked/divided as follows (note there is considerable variation in the names given to each):

  • Imbolc - End of January, celebrating the start of spring.
  • Ostara - Spring Equinox around 20th March start of day being longer than night (sun rises due east and sets due west).
  • Beltane - End of April, celebrating the start of summer.
  • Litha - Summer Solstice around June 21st, longest day, shortest night.
  • Lugnasa - End of July, celebrating the summer harvesting.
  • Mabon - Autumn Equinox around 22nd September start of day being shorter than night (sun rises due east and sets due west).
  • Samhain - End of October, celebrating the end of the old year and the start of the new.
  • Yule - Winter Solstice around December 21st, longest night, shortest day.

How did the Celts know what day it was?

If you have no automated time pieces or written records to keep track of the hours and days you have to rely on such things as the sunrise and sunset and/or the various phases of the moon. Unluckily the moon phases do not match the number of days in a year. For example, if in 498BC the Scevinge celebrated Imbolc on the 2nd fulll-moon after the winter solstice, in the following years that would vary as follows:

YearDate of 2nd full-moon after Dec 21st
498BC
Jan 25
497BC
Feb 12
496BC
Feb 2
495BC
Jan 21
494BC
Feb 9
Data from Nasa Eclipse website
So the moon phases cannot be relied upon (in the book it just so happens that I could use the full moon to mark most of the festivals - but that was just luck).

Another method might be to mark the lengths of shadows cast by poles or tall stones. Providing the poles or stones are permanently fixed in the ground this can be a much more reliable/accurate means of describing a year. A circle of tall stones would do the job nicely!

The Twelve Apostles stone circle above Ilkley Moor

Who decided what day it was?

This is perhaps the most interesting question. In an age where everyone (at least within a given country) adheres to the same timekeeping regime, its not obvious what are the advantages of a uniform time system as we just take it for granted.

Perhaps an obvious answer might be the Druids. They were supposed to be revered by everyone nationally and they could be in a position to provide consistent information about the timing of festivals. They might have needed to control access to stone circles to keep a monopoly on this knowledge and also meet up between themselves to decide on which particular days festivals should take place. It might look odd if they did not synchronise the events and undermine their position if adjacent settlements celebrated these events on different days.

The Druids might also have dictated when it was a good time to sow particular crops or forage for nuts, fungi, etc. As long as their prediction were right most of the time, they might have got away with it.

The problem I have with the Druids being in control of these things and dictating the right days/times for major events nationally is that many settlements were remote from each other and communications were often poor, especially in winter. It's much more likely that these things were decided by the local 'great and good', perhaps with more or less involvement with the local Druids depending on circumstances. It would have made for interesting discussions I would have thought. A chapter in Year of the Celt: Beltane deals with just this issue.

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