The Twelve Months - Part One
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Oddly enough, September, October, November and December are not the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months of the year as their Latin names imply. How did the Romans get their months all mixed up? Was it some sort of lunacy? We do get the words “lunatic” and “lunacy” from “lunar”, the Latin word for “moon”. The Romans did observe the ides in the middle of each month – corresponding to the full moons – from which we get our words “idiot” and “idiocy”, but really, the ancient Romans were no nuttier than we are today.
So let’s dive right in and look at each of the months in turn. January has a name which seems eminently sensible at first glance. The name comes from Januarius (the suffix “arius” means “pertaining to”) and it pertains to the god Janus. It seems perfectly reasonable to have January first because Janus was the god of doors and beginnings, but the Romans actually used to begin the year with March, in keeping with many other nations. We'll come back to that later.
Janus was represented as having two faces, one looking back and the other looking forward. Few Romans would have known it, but this image anciently represented Noah, the man looking back to the old world destroyed in the Flood and forward into the new one which came up after the waters subsided (Genesis 6-9). According to other traditions, the head with two faces goes back to Adam, torn between the utopian Garden of Eden and the wilderness into which he and Eve were thrust for disobedience (Genesis 2-3).
But the names and attributes of ancient heroes, deified after their deaths in keeping with the old Babylonian mystery religion, became quite garbled as the nations spread out from Babel following the confusion of language (Genesis 11:1-9). The consequences bamboozle us to this day with each turn of the calendar page.
The origins of February has ties to its most celebrated day today: Valentine’s Day
February is perhaps the trickiest of the names of the 12 months and stories associated with it could fill a book. “Februo” was the Latin word for “purification by sacrifice”, said to have come from the earlier Sabine practice. This Roman festival of atonement was held on the 15th day of the month and our words “fever” and “febrile” were taken from the same root as February (the Latin “februa”or French “fevrier”) said to be associated with the purging and sweating of this day of purification.
The practice seems to have joined with the Roman Lupercalia after the Roman merger with the Sabines early in their history. The Lupercalia is generally accepted as being a memorial to Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers who were suckled by a she wolf (“lupa”) according to legend. Fostered to manhood by a shepherd and his wife, the two went on to found two cities, Rome and Remuria, of which the former became dominant. There are other versions of the story, one of which is that the boys were nursed by the wolf goddess Lupa, protector of sheep from wolves, and her spouse Lupercus, the shepherd god who brought fertility to the flocks.
In honor of Lupercus and others, including Faunus – the god of nature and fertility known to the Greeks as Pan – an annual rite of spring and the renewal of fruitfulness was established. Called the Lupercalia, it was celebrated at the Ides of Februaris, the day of the full moon. The ritual included young women being ritually flailed (but lightly) with whips made from the skin of sacrificed goats. These whips were called “februa”and some say that it was from these that the month of February got its name.
Valentine's Day also seems to have originated with this old Roman festival, which became the popular feast of love and lunacy, a day of romance when young men and women of marriageable age paired off – presumably after the maidens had been acceptably lashed. Anyway, the names of eligible maidens were placed in an urn, and local bachelors were allowed to pick ones out to be their partners. The Roman Catholic church tried to ban this licentious practice without success and subsequently adopted it as a day of remembrance for Valentinus, a martyred saint who had performed weddings for soldiers whom the emperor had forbidden to marry so they could instead go to war.
In time, it became a day for lovers to express their sentiments with flowers and confectionery and, in the 19th Century, with handwritten notes. Nowadays, Valentine cards are exchanged in the millions, but februa have unsurprisingly fallen into disuse.
Springtime was the time of war
March (or Martius) had been the first month of the year according to the old 10-month calendar, which Romulus adopted about 753 BCE using the Latin names Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Junius, Quintilis (5), Sextilis (6), September (7), October (8), November (9) and December (10). So the numbers had made some sort of sense back then, but why not name all of the months, or simply give them all numbers? That’s a good question.
Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, changed that 10-month system in 713 BCE according to Plutarch, and he added two months which were put in at the beginning of the year, Januaris and Februaris. When Julius Caesar came to power he realized that a proper working calendar was needed for the expanding empire. He was not only a brilliant (if brutal) military commander, but also a studious historian, orator, lawyer, politician and statesman. He employed the noted astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria to create a more practical calendar, which is essentially what we use today.
It was refined by Pope Gregory Xlll in 1582 CE. The problem during Pope Gregory’s time was that the year, which was about 11 minutes shorter than the early Romans had calculated, had over time put the seasons ten days out of order. This adversely affected the church festivals, especially with regard to the vernal equinox and the dating of Easter.
Therefore, in order to bring the seasons back in line, 10 days were dropped during October 1582. Catholic countries adopted the Gregorian calendar immediately, but Protestants did not. England didn't accept it until 1752, at which time Benjamin Franklin observed that it was pleasant for an old man to go to bed on September 2nd and not have to get up until the 14th! England had by that time fallen 11 days behind and so September 3rd that year was followed by the 14th. Incidentally, the Gregorian calendar is accurate to one day in 3,236 years.
Now, in the old Roman system, three days were publicly announced every month: the first days were called the “calendae” (and that is where the word “calendar” comes from); the second were the “nones”, which were half-moon days, followed by the “ides” which corresponded to the full moons (on the 13th or 15th day of the month depending on whether it had 29 or 31 days).
Shakespeare famously had Julius “beware the Ides of March” (Julius Caesar, Act 1, Sc. 2) and he was indeed assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BCE. March, coming from Mars – the god of war – was the month in which armies went to war, or at least resumed battle. It was considered senseless to get bogged down by nasty weather in winter battles, an ancient precaution which seems to have been lost on both Napoleon and Hitler.
But the business of impending combat might explain why Valentinus acceded to the soldiers' desire to be wed in February before the commencement of hostilities: it would for one thing secure their wives' standing in society. The biblical decree, of course, was that a newly married man should not go out with the army for one year (Deuteronomy 24:5). Marriage not only gave his wife standing in the community, providing for her security and that of their posterity, but also gave him something more personal and precious to fight for.
However, March had been the first month of the year for the Romans until Julius Caesar revised the calendar, and then it became the third month. It was later moved back to number one by popes who attempted to adjust things for the church festivals, especially Easter which is dated according to the new moon nearest to the vernal equinox each year. Pope Gregory Xlll took care of all that in 1582 as mentioned above, so that March remained the third month thereafter, but still leaves people scratching their heads about the odd-ball numbering of the last four months. Apparently he didn't care to rename or renumber them.
In the second half of this article series, we will discover the fascinating stories behind the remaining months of the year.
To learn more about God’s calendar and its corresponding holy days, read our free study aid God’s Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind.