Ancient Egypt, The Egyptian calendar


Robert Guisepi, 1984

The Valley of the Nile


The ancient Egyptians originally employed a calendar based upon the Moon, and, like many peoples throughout the world, they regulated their lunar calendar by means of the guidance of a sidereal calendar. They used the seasonal appearance of the star Sirius (Sothis); this corresponded closely to the true solar year, being only 12 minutes shorter. Certain difficulties arose, however, because of the inherent incompatibility of lunar and solar years. To solve this problem the Egyptians invented a schematized civil year of 365 days divided into three seasons, each of which consisted of four months of 30 days each. To complete the year, five intercalary days were added at its end, so that the 12 months were equal to 360 days plus five extra days. This civil calendar was derived from the lunar calendar (using months) and the agricultural, or Nile, fluctuations (using seasons); it was, however, no longer directly connected to either and thus was not controlled by them. The civil calendar served government and administration, while the lunar calendar continued to regulate religious affairs and everyday life.

In time, the discrepancy between the civil calendar and the older lunar structure became obvious. Because the lunar calendar was controlled by the rising of Sirius, its months would correspond to the same season each year, while the civil calendar would move through the seasons because the civil year was about one-fourth day shorter than the solar year. Hence, every four years it would fall behind the solar year by one day, and after 1,460 years it would again agree with the lunisolar calendar. Such a period of time is called a Sothic cycle.

Because of the discrepancy between these two calendars, the Egyptians established a second lunar calendar based upon the civil year and not, as the older one had been, upon the sighting of Sirius. It was schematic and artificial, and its purpose was to determine religious celebrations and duties. In order to keep it in general agreement with the civil year, a month was intercalated every time the first day of the lunar year came before the first day of the civil year; later, a 25-year cycle of intercalation was introduced. The original lunar calendar, however, was not abandoned but was retained primarily for agriculture because of its agreement with the seasons. Thus, the ancient Egyptians operated with three calendars, each for a different purpose.

The only unit of time that was larger than a year was the reign of a king. The usual custom of dating by reign was: "year 1, 2, 3 . . . , etc., of King So-and-So," and with each new king the counting reverted back to year One. King lists recorded consecutive rulers and the total years of their respective reigns.

The civil year was divided into three seasons, commonly translated: Inundation, when the Nile overflowed the agricultural land; Going Forth, the time of planting when the Nile returned to its bed; and Deficiency, the time of low water and harvest.

The months of the civil calendar were numbered according to their respective seasons and were not listed by any particular name--e.g., third month of Inundation--but for religious purposes the months had names. How early these names were employed in the later lunar calendar is obscure.

The days in the civil calendar were also indicated by number and listed according to their respective months. Thus a full civil date would be: "Regnal year 1, fourth month of Inundation, day 5, under the majesty of King So-and-So." In the lunar calendar, however, each day had a specific name, and from some of these names it can be seen that the four quarters or chief phases of the Moon were recognized, although the Egyptians did not use these quarters to divide the month into smaller segments, such as weeks. Unlike most people who used a lunar calendar, the Egyptians began their day with sunrise instead of sunset because they began their month, and consequently their day, by the disappearance of the old Moon just before dawn.

As was customary in early civilizations, the hours were unequal, daylight being divided into 12 parts, and the night likewise; the duration of these parts varied with the seasons. Both water clocks and sundials were constructed with notations to indicate the hours for the different months and seasons of the year. The standard hour of constant length was never employed in ancient Egypt.

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