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From The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Volume XII. No. 12, June 10, 1915; pp. 309-317.

The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods

Volume XII. No. 12, June 10, 1915.




WE have seen, in our general survey, how the reckoning of time reflects everywhere the outlook and habits of society, as these in turn reflect the environment and conditions of life of early peoples. In no other country is this more evident than in ancient Egypt. There it was almost inevitable that the solar year should triumph, for the land itself forced along the adjustment. Nowhere else does nature provide such a chronometer as in the valley of the Nile. The long, rock-bound river basin, like a vast but narrow-throated water-glass, holds and slowly passes along the periodic floods. There was no such instrument as this at hand for the farmers of Bœotia or Italy to measure by. For four out of twelve months the water-glass fills and empties, leaving an interval of only eight months which it requires no great ingenuity to divide into two seasons of four months each, the first being that of the growth of the crops and the second rounding out the easy symmetry of the year.1 For the flood returns at such regular periods that it is possible for even fairly simple people to calculate against the time of its coming, — especially since the interval is not too long. Moreover, by a strange coincidence, priestly observers, watching the heavens at the critical time when the flood was due, could see the bright dog-star, Sirius, just rising then at dawn. This “heliacal rising” of the star, so strangely fitting in with the coming of the flood, furnished, therefore, a genuine date for a New Year, — and the river itself swelling out before one’s eyes, announced the fact to the whole country. The coming and going of moons — while still a matter of some importance — was bound to be subordinated to such a system, where the major gods of a religion, the constant stars and the demands of business all fitted into a common 310 scheme. Moons would do for reckoning time in Babylonia, where the floods of the Euphrates were less exact, and less important. But in Egypt, where the whole country was a clock, how could one miss the time?

Yet that is just what the Egyptians did! They never reckoned the time correctly. Three hundred and sixty-five days do not make a solar year, but only a rough guess at one; they are over six hours short. However, the Egyptians let it go at that and held to their venerable error through all the long centuries of their history. It was not until the year 238 B.C. that the simple device of a leap-year of 366 days once every four years was decreed, in order to keep the civil year in correspondence with the stars.2 But even this was not obeyed nor followed up, and it was left for Augustus to end the age-long blunder by imposing upon Egypt that revised calendar of 365¼ days which Julius had himself received from an Egyptian astronomer.3

Although Egyptologists are all agreed that the Egyptian year was thus inaccurate, they are by no means united upon what was done by the Egyptians to make such an inadequate calendar work. It is claimed by one group of Egyptologists that nothing was done to check the error, that the short calendar year went on for centuries, gaining days and years over the solar year without any one ever bothering over it. This is as flatly denied by other scholars, basing their argument upon both inscriptions and probabilities. It is a controversy in which only the trained Egyptologists have the right to speak; although even they have hardly the right to speak with dogmatic assurance. For the mere existence of such divergent views shows upon how slight grounds some of them must rest.

The foremost exponents of the former view are Eduard Meyer in Germany and J. H. Breasted in America, both illustrious names in the science of Egyptology. According to them the calendar year, running ahead a little over one day in four years, had gained a whole year in 1460 (4 X 365) years, without priests or pharaohs intervening to stop the process. The gain was very slow, almost imperceptible, only a week in a generation, or about a month in a lifetime, — too little to bother about. Any reform would disturb business and religion even more than the retention of the old misleading cycle. 311 Hence, they claim, the Egyptian year revolved through the solar once in every 1,460-year period. A text in Censorinus, the astronomical writer of the days of the Antonines,4 states that the opening of the calendar year coincided with the heliacal rising of Sirius in the year 139 A.D.; i.e., that in that year the star rose at sunrise on the old first day of the Egyptian year, our 19th of July. With this as a starting point our historians reckon back “Sothic cycles”5 of 1,460 years to 1321, 2781 and 4241 B.C., on which years the star Sirius rose at dawn on the 19th of July. This leads to the statement that in the year 4241 B.C. the calendar year of 365 days was inaugurated, since 1,460 years before that date would be too early and 1,460 later would be too late.6 If this theory could be accepted, then, we have an exact date, and one of the oldest in the world, for the beginning of an astronomical measure of time. Unfortunately, there seems to be little to support it. There is no mention of the “Sothic cycle” until late in the Roman period. The ancient monuments are silent upon it. So the first obvious conclusion seems to be that it was a creation of the late astronomers, calculating backwards in the way just indicated, and that it never existed as a matter of history at all. In fact, when it is used for chronology its critics claim that it leads to some impossible dates and direct contradictions with some of the monuments.7 These facts, combined with the silence of Herodotus, seem to the critics of the Meyer hypothesis sufficient ground for consigning the “Sothic cycle” to the realm of historical myth. And yet when the critics come to offer the alternative hypothesis, i. e., that the year was lengthened from time to time to bring the festivals’ stars together, the data in the texts are just as lacking. Moreover, the Decree of Canopus assures us that in 239 B.C. the calendar year was 10 months out, and as the reform of that decree was not carried out we see how the short year was apparently allowed to go on completing its cycle then.

It is unnecessary here to follow further the details of a controversy which still divides Egyptologists and can only be settled by the discovery of new data. But it is important for us to realize how either hypothesis detracts from the achievement of the ancient Egyptians, as set forth in some enthusiastic histories. Either they rested content with a revolving year which corresponded with nothing in nature, 312 except once in almost 1,500 years or they intercalated days at odd intervals, without the regularity necessary for accurate records of time. The year of 360 days with 5 extra ones thrown in was apparently in use in Egypt long before the fifth millennium; but the science of Egypt never, until the close of its history, and then under foreign auspices, broke loose from the bonds of its own forging. It left the field of astronomy and accurate chronology for the Greeks in Alexandria to discover in a later era.8


From Egypt we turn to Babylon — known almost from the dawn of history as the mother of astronomy. But again we find that what has passed the careless scrutiny of most historians for scientific achievement is a poor and disappointing thing. Contrary to common belief, ancient Babylon and Assyria contributed almost nothing to any real science of astronomy until almost the close of Assyrian history. This fact, which is now established by ample evidence from the inscriptions, is one of the most important in the intellectual history of mankind. It shows again with clear and crushing force what lasting barriers superstition can erect on the road toward science.

The earliest chapter of Babylonian — or, more correctly, Sumerian — history reveals the common outlook of any semi-savage people, sunk in that crude animism which fills the world with supernatural powers. Every living or moving thing had its zi, or spirit, every uncanny spot was haunted by the ghost-demon, lil, and fetish cults and magic rites extended the imagery of fear. Over and above this low grade superstition there was a worship of local and tribal divinities and of those mysterious forces of nature which are to be found in every pantheon of advancing cultures.

We can not attempt here to disentangle the complicated mythology, 313 in which these divinities interfuse and interwork. How, for instance, Ea, the god of Eridu, the city on the gulf, was as well the god of water, or Enlil, of Nippur, the god of the underworld and the life-giving earth remained a sort of second personality for Marduk,9 the great god of fertile Babylon, and how these two formed with the sky god, Anu, of the city Erech, the Sumerian triad, to be invoked together for so many centuries. A new situation was created, however, when — still long before the great days of Babylon — the Semites swept in upon Sumeria, bringing with them, so it seems, that devotion to the supreme moon-god, Sin, and developing that accompanying worship of the sun, Shamash, and of Venus (Ishtar) of which the records now yield increasing evidence.10 At first this triad differs in no way from the other. It was undoubtedly just part and parcel of the great pre-religion of luck, muddled in with the luxuriant beliefs of animism, an extension, if anything, of primitive superstitions. Nevertheless it contained — as we see it now — the possibilities of a new intellectual outlook. The haphazard, unaccountable world, where spirits and demons and all the fantastic embodiments of the uncanny might cut athwart the natural movement of cause and effect, could in future be organized into a pattern of vast and regular form, — could, that is, if the priests would merely watch the movements of their deities. In the normal run of things it would seem that, when religion fastened the hopes and fears of men to the stars, a science of astronomy would inevitably follow, that the attention bestowed upon Powers at once supreme and visible, would result in definite and careful observation and a body of knowledge of lasting value. But such was not the case. The pattern of the universe was not accurately mapped out, the motion of the stars was not correctly calculated until thousands of years after the moon-god began his reign in Babylon. Fetishism, magic, incantation, rites of sacrifice and augury maintained their hold. If religion directed attention to the clock of the universe, it also drew across its face the veil of mystery and diverted the observer by its fantastic myths, so that even astrology made little progress until the closing period of Assyrian-Babylonian history. Egypt reveals the benumbing influence of custom and habit; Babylon the blight of credulity. Social convention in the one and religion 314 the other barred for many centuries the path of scientific inquiry.

Yet the work of the priests of Babylonia was destined, in a strange and tortuous way, to furnish the basis for the scientific advance. For untold ages they applied themselves to the futile task of mastering the data of luck, by observing portents and recording omens. Libraries were filled with tablets preserving the directions for charms in magic and the rules for taking the auspices. In the same way they noted the stars that “presided” over crises in life and interpreted their coincidences in terms of that universal law of similarity which, as we have seen, so largely explains the world to the primitive. The blood-red planet Mars (Ninib) would somehow coincide with something in the story of war; Ishtar (Venus) would somehow be connected with the story of love. The connection might seem, to any chance doubter, had there been one, often far-fetched and distorted, but the codification of all this mass of conflicting material fell to the hands of men highly gifted in the art of codifying. The code of Hammurabi, that oldest systematic and comprehensive body of law in the world’s history, the discovery and publication of which thrilled with surprise even the blasé dawn of our twentieth century, was but one of many such compilations in Babylonia. The task of codification was forced upon the inhabitants of a country of shifting races and empires, of continual intercourse through commerce with the outside world, if the heritage of the past were to be made to fit with the contributions of the present; and the priests of Mesopotamia met the task nobly, in the spirit of scholarship. The libraries of the Assyrians bear witness to an activity such as that which codified the Roman law or harmonized the theology of the Middle Ages.11 Had 315 a science of luck been possible, the long and careful labors of the Babylonians surely would have discovered it. As it was, the study of the conditions in the universe under which things happened, in order to learn the forces of luck involved in them, would seem at least to have held the promise of eventual discovery of the conditions in and for themselves, and so instead of a science of luck there would have been a science of nature. It was a promise, however, which the Babylonians themselves never really fulfilled. They furnished the basis for the scientific advance, but were never able to win sufficient emancipation from the primitive superstitions to make the advance themselves. They did succeed, finally, in the seventh, sixth, and fifth centuries B.C. in supplanting the crude old myths by a mathematical statement of the movements of the stars.12 But astrology, the last phase of Babylonian priestly lore, was still rather a religion than a science. Its calculations and observations were, as in the earlier cults, for the purpose of discovering the properties of the stars, and the very numbers in which the astral movements were reckoned were the mystical embodiments of fate. It was reserved for another and more gifted people to transform astrology into astronomy, and even the Greeks were not quite emancipated from the age-long curse of the religion of luck.

The main reason why this mass of priestly lore was not more useful for science, was, as has just been hinted, the weakness of its mathematics. And this was due in turn — apart from the eternal stumbling block of the mystery and sacredness of numbers, of the luck embodied in the sixes, sevens, and their multiples, and all the persistent jumble of accompanying superstitions, — to the lack of an accurate base of reckoning. The first essential for the study of recurring 316 phenomena of the heavens is a reliable measurement of the intervals at which they recur, and this, in turn, is impossible so long as time is measured by the moon.

We have seen how the moon-god gained ascendency [This is how it is spelled in the text but spell check has ascendancy] in Babylon in the days of the first Semitic kingdom. Dominating the religion, it dominated the cosmology. In the earliest Semitic records, Sin, the moon-god is so lofty a deity that the sun-god, Shamash, is referred to as his “sevitor.”13 The “victorious sun” won his supreme place in Mesopotamia only in later ages, and not until the Semite had yielded before the Aryan Prussians was his triumph assured. So long as the Semites ruled, the moon blocked both his path and that of a rational cosmology. Why this was so — that Babylon should cling so persistently to the moon, when Egypt so many centuries earlier turned to the sun as the center of its cosmology — is not a fact to be explained away on any easygoing materialistic basis. But, on the other hand, the materialist data need not be neglected, and a little consideration shows us that although nature was perhaps more kindly to Babylonia than to Egypt in the fertility of farms, it was, by this very fact, less propitious in the arrangement of the seasons. Pliny tells us how wheat grew there twice a year,14 which would disorganize any farmer’s calendar that was trying to follow the sun. Under such circumstances, we can see how the invading Semites, coming from the desert where they had imbibed so deeply the nomad feeling for the moon, would not be obliged, when settling on the soil, to lay aside that deep-seated, primitive sense of its dominating luck over the nights and days, for another calendar run by the sun. Whatever the reason,15 the moon ruled in Babylon, and the calendar bore the marks of it.

We shall leave aside the question of the exact way in which the Babylonian calendar grew up.16 It is a matter concerning which Assyriologists are still not agreed, and new inscriptions may at any 317 day recast the story in a different setting. But, whatever primitive measures of time they started with — different in different cities — the priests of Babylonia had their lunar calendar in operation as long ago as 2500 B.C. The month, which began with the first appearance of the new moon in the evening sky, was reckoned with fair exactness as 29½ days,17 but as this was an impossible measure, two lengths of months were employed, 29 days for a “hollow” month and 30 days for a “full” month. In the early calendars it was, therefore, customary and necessary to indicate along with the name of a month what number of days it contained. Twelve of these months made a year of 354 days. As this was over eleven days short of the solar year, the next calendar year would be quite out of reckoning with the sun, the seasons, and such festivals as they involved. As this kept getting worse instead of better, an additional month had to be intercalated — making the year 384 days — at the command of the priests, whenever they decided that the festivals needed readjustment. The priests seem to have worked out no unchanging system of intercalation until the close of Babylonian history, when in the Persian period regularity was definitely assured.18 The query comes to even the superficial student whether the “victorious sun” of the Persian heavens was not in some way responsible for this rectification.

So far, the survey of the ancient Babylonian history has been disappointing. But a new era began in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., in which the age-long groping of the priests, their uncertain dating and ineffective observations were changed into accurate and scientific calculations. This was one of the most important events in all the world’s history, one of the major epochs in the history of intellectual emancipation, perhaps hardly less decisive than the age of Copernicus and of Newton. For to it we can trace the first accurate orientations of mankind in time and of the world in space. To it go back all lines of scientific advance in chronology and astronomy. The story of this achievement, however, carries us from the consideration of calendars to that of chronology, from the reckoning of time by days to that of years and then of non-recurring periods. In the chapters which follow we have, therefore, the setting for the dawn of history.

(To be continued.)*



 *  [This series was never completed because Shotwell was heavily involved in the peace negotiations after World War I. — Elf.Ed.]


 1  For details on the three seasons, Cf. Ginzcl, I., page 159. On the artificial character of the four-month season of harvest, see Foucart in Hastings’s Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, article “Calendar.” The Egyptian fanner’s calendar was, from the peculiar conditions of the Nile life, a complete variation from that indicated above as the basis of European farming calendars.

 2  The Decree of Canopus, under Ptolemy III., Euergetes, dated its reform from the 7th of March, 238 B.C. The inscription was found in 1866. German translation in Ginzel, “Handbuch,” Vol. I, page 197.

 3  The exact date of the introduction of the Julian year in Egypt — known as the Alexandrine era — is a matter of dispute. For discussion see Ginzel, ”Handbuch,” Vol. I, pages 224-228, who inclined to the view that the first leap-year was 26 B.C., but that the epoch was carried back to 30 B.C. E. Meyer, “Geschichte des Altertums,” Vol. I., page 29, dates it from the twenty-ninth of August, 25 B.C.

 4  De die natali, c. 18; written 239 A.D.

 5  Sothic from Sothis the Hellenized form of Sopdu, the Egyptian name for Sirius.

 6  Cf. Ed. Meyer, “Aegyptische Chronologie” in Abhandlungen der Berliner Akademie der Wiesenschaften, 1904, 1907, and his “Geschichte des Altertums,” Vol. I., page 30. Breasted, “Ancient Records,” Vol. I., pages 25, et seq.

 7  Cf. summary by Q. Foucart, in article “Calendar” (Egyptian) in Hastings’s Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, page 95.

 8  Ginzel, Vol. I., page 152, points out the relatively slight progress made in astronomy by the ancient Egyptians. They knew the Zodiak, the most important constellations; they had distinguished planets from the fixed stars, had observed the heliacal rising of Sirius, etc.; and yet the results of their observations were very crude. The monuments do not show whether they knew the relations between the movements of the planets or not. The development of astrology in Egypt came in its later period. There is nothing in the sources on the observation of eclipses, — the very thing which furnished the Babylonians with the means for determining the movements of sun and moon. Ptolemy, the great astronomer, had to turn to Babylonian and Greek forerunners, apparently, in view of the lack of Egyptian material. In any case, in the material found so far, there is absolutely no trace of that systematic activity in the taking of observations, without which no certain progress can be made in astronomical science.

 9  Marduk absorbed the powers of Enlil just as later the Hebrews attributed to their Jahve powers which the Babylonians had attributed to Marduk. Cf. R. W. Rogers, “Religion of Babylonia and Assyria,” page 134.

10  Sin had been as well the local deity of the city of Ur, and Shamash of Larsa and Sippar, but the gods share the fortunes of their worshippers, and apparently it was the Semite conquest which was responsible for the dominance of the moon over the affairs of Babylonia.

11  Codification involves a historical operation in its discriminating analysis and careful synthesis, whenever it deals with data of social evolution. There is a sense in which the code of the Roman law would fit very well with the conception of history in antiquity, particularly that expounded by Polybius. In it the experience of the past is teaching the inexperienced present; it is a preservation of those elements of the past which can apply to the complications of other times. The rest may be discarded; what is kept is the useful, the real fruit of all past activity. But the more historical the codifler is, the less his work is likely to be of value. For when the sense of the past is strong—as is surely to be the case in all religious compilations, owing to the sacredness of origins — the result is a failure to meet the changed conditions of the present. The result is stagnation. Boldness in the intellectual quest is sacrificed in order to secure results which harmonize with those already attained, and no matter what wealth and variety of phenomena the present offers, what chances of intellectual and social advance it opens up, the mind or the society which is bound to the wheel of antique premises or authority revolves, but does not progress. It is from this angle that one comes upon that antagonism between antiquarian scholarship and radicalism which has been so marked in the last two centuries.

12  The achievements of the ancient Babylonians in astronomy have been much over-stated by a group of scholars, of whom the chief is Hugo Winckler — the pan-Babylonians — whose main tendency has been to trace everything back to the early age of Babylon. The recent works of Strassmaier and Kugler, based upon the deciphering of Assyrian astrological tables, have quite disproved this proud claim of extreme antiquity for Babylonian astral science. Edward Meyer (“Geschichte des Altertums,” page 458) points out the striking fact that Orion seems to have been unknown to the ancient Babylonians, while it appears in the oldest periods of Egyptian history, along with Sirius, and plays a great rô1e in the hieroglyphs. It was also known very early to the Greeks (cf. in text Hesiod as above). The same is true of the Great Bear. From dim antiquity the Babylonians had known the movements of Venus — the brilliant star which rose on winter mornings and set on summer evenings, and already in the twentieth century B.C. they had measured its heliacal cycle of 21 years (from 1977-1957 B.C. See Kugler on Table 63). They also easily distinguished the four other planets of that group which, as we have seen, gave us the names for the days of the week; Ninib (Mars), Nibo (Mercury), Marduk (Jupiter), and Nergal (Saturn). Eclipses were also kept track of, but not with sufficient accuracy to yield any scientific results until in the late Babylonian period.

13  Cf. M. Jastrow, “Babylonian and Assyrian Religion,” pages 68 ff. It is interesting to note that the name, “Sin,” occurs in “Sinai,” showing some definite south-Arabian affiliations. The early custom of reckoning the day from the evening is of interest in this connection. Later, the Assyrians began it at daybreak. Compare the North American Indian’s reckoning by so many “nights” or “sleeps.”

14  “Natural History,” Vol. XVIII., page 17.

15  The greater ease of observing the moon with the naked eye as compared with the sun is also a factor.

16  The exact origins of the Babylonian calendar are as obscure as those of the Egyptian. The hypothesis of an original year of 360 days with 5¼ added, which was advanced by H. Winckler and those of the “old Babylonian school,” has, apparently, no data in its favor. Every city seems to have had a different calendar at first, and the unification to have come only very slowly, after the first dynasty of Babylon. Cf. Ed. Meyer, “Geschichte d. Altertums,” pages 365 ff.

17  The length of the astronomical month, it may be recalled, was 29.530589 days.

18  Cf. Ginzel’s “Handbuch,” Vol. I, pages 132 ff., for lists of the years of intercalation.

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