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Continental Celtic Calendar
The Gaulish Coligny calendar is possibly the oldest Celtic solar/lunar ritual calendar. It was discovered in Coligny, France, and is now on display in the Palais des Arts Gallo-Roman museum, Lyon. It dates from the 1st century BCE, when the Roman Empire imposed use of the Julian Calendar in Roman Gaul. The calendar is made up of bronze fragments, in a single huge plate. It is inscribed Gaulish with Latin characters and uses roman numerals.
The Coligny Calendar is an attempt to reconcile both the cycles of the moon and sun (as is our modern Gregorian calendar.) However, the Coligny calendar considers the phases of the moon to be important, and each month always begins with the same moon phase. The calendar uses a mathematical arrangement to keep a normal 12 month calendar in sync with the moon and keeps the whole system in sync by adding an extra month every 2 1/2 years. The Coligny calendar registers a five-year cycle of 62 lunar months, divided into a "bright" and a "dark" fortnight (or half a moon cycle) each. The months were possibly taken to begin at full moon, and a 13th intercalary month was added every two and a half years to align the lunations with the solar year.
The astronomical format of the calendar year that the Coligny calendar represents may well be far older, as calendars are usually even more conservative than rites and cults. The date of its inception is unknown, but correspondences of Insular Celtic and Continental Celtic calendars suggest that some early form may date to Proto-Celtic times, roughly 800 BC. The Coligny calendar achieves a complex synchronization of the solar and lunar months. Whether it does this for philosophical or practical reasons, it points to considerable degree of sophistication.
Mediaeval Irish and Welsh calendars
Among the Insular Celts, the year was divided into a light half and a dark half. As the day was seen as beginning at sunset, so the year was seen as beginning with the arrival of the darkness, at Samhain, the first of November. The light half of the year started at Beltane, the first of May. This observance of festivals beginning the evening before the festival day is still seen in the celebrations and folkloric practices among the Gaels, such as the traditions of Oíche Shamhna (Samhain Eve) among the Irish and Oidhche Shamhna among the Scots.
Julius Caesar said in his Gallic Wars: "[the Gaulish Celts] keep birthdays and the beginnings of months and years in such an order that the day follows the night." Although Caesar says "at night" he specifically does not say "sunset" so we do not know how much the Gauls' differed from our own method of counting from midnights. Longer periods were reckoned in nights, as in the surviving term "fortnight."
"Celtic New Year" questioned
Literature over the last century has given birth to the near-universal assumption that Samhain was the "Celtic New Year". Some historians have begun to question this belief. In his study of the folk calendar of the British Isles, Stations of the Sun, historian Ronald Hutton writes that there are no references earlier than the 18th century in either church or civic records which attest to this usage. Although it may be correct to refer to Samhain as "Summer's End", this point of descent into the year's darkness may need better proof for us to cite this "end" as also being a "beginning". Whether or not the ancient Celts saw Samhain as the beginning of the year, or just one turning point among others in the cycle of the seasons, Samhain is still largely regarded as the Celtic New Year in the living Celtic cultures, both in the Six Celtic Nations and the diaspora. For instance, the contemporary calendars produced by the Celtic League begin and end at Samhain.
Pre-Celtic, Neolithic "calendars"
Ancient Neolithic stone monuments aligned to the summer and winter solstices, the equinoxes and lunar phenomena can be found across Europe and the Celtic Nations, with particular concentrations in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The most famous of these is Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain, Maeshowe in Orkney, Passage tombs, like the Knowth site in Ireland, and Newgrange in Ireland's Boyne Valley. While these sites are often connected with the Celts in popular imagination, in actuality all or most of these sites are of pre-Celtic origins.
In some Neopagan religions, a Celtic calendar based on that of Mediaeval Ireland, or other ancient Celtic cultures, is observed for purposes of ritual. Adherents of Reconstructionist traditions may celebrate the four Gaelic festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnassadh, and often devote themselves to language study and the use of Celtic languages in ritual.
Some eclectic Neopagans, such as Wiccans, combine the Gaelic fire festivals with solstices and equinox celebrations derived from non-Celtic cultures to produce the modern, Wiccan Wheel of the Year. Eclectic Neopaganism is not focused on one particular culture or language. Some eclectic Neopagans are also influenced by Robert Graves's fictional "Celtic Tree Calendar", which has no foundation in historical calendars or actual ancient Celtic Astrology.
- Danaher, Kevin (1972) The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs Dublin, Mercier. ISBN 1-85635-093-2 pp.200-229
- McNeill, F. Marian (1961) The Silver Bough, Vol. 3. William MacLellan, Glasgow p.11-42
- Hutton, Ronald (1996) Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford, Oxford University Press ISBN 0192880454
- The Celtic League Calendar
- O'Kelly, Michael J. (1989) Early Ireland: An Introduction to Irish Prehistory. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-521-33687-2
- Bonewits, Isaac (2006) Bonewits's Essential Guide to Druidism. New York, Kensington Publishing Group ISBN 0-8065-2710-2. pp.134
- McColman, Carl (2003) Complete Idiot's Guide to Celtic Wisdom. Alpha Press ISBN 0-02-864417-4. pp.12, 51
- Hutton, Ronald (1991) The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy. Oxford, Blackwell ISBN 0-631-18946-7 p.337
- Hutton (1991) pp.145
- Brennan, Martin, 1994. The Stones of Time: Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions
- Brunaux, Jean-Louis, 1986 Les Gaulois: Sanctuaires et Rites Paris: Editions Errance
- Duval, Paul-Marie, et Pinault, Georges [eds] Recueil des Inscriptions Gauloises (R.I.G.), Vol. 3: The calendars of Coligny (73 fragments) and Villards d'Heria (8 fragments)