LUNAR CALENDARS AND TRADITIONAL FOOD WAYS
stars around the beautiful moon
hide back their luminous form
whenever all full she shines
on the earth
—Sappho, translated from the ancient Greek
Our sense of time and the seasons is based on the rhythms of life on planet Earth. Darkness gives way to daylight; the sun moves through the sky until its setting blankets the Earth in darkness again. At night the moon and stars shine clear against the black canopy of the sky, and they appear to move until daylight overtakes them.
We live our lives, literally, day by day: waking in the morning, working through the day, resting in the evening, and sleeping at night. While we know that the spinning of the Earth on its axis accounts for this rhythm—it takes twenty-four hours for the planet to spin once around—beautiful sunrises and sunsets still have the power to take our breath away, and to make us aware of the miracle of life on our planet.
Throughout most of human history, the activities of the nighttime sky were much more visible and more a part of human consciousness than they are now. With our cities lit up by electric lights, with televisions, computers, and movies to claim our attention, and with bedside lamps to read by, most of us are distracted from what is happening in the night sky. Our ancestors, however, watched the rhythm of the heavenly bodies with great interest.
Each night marks a subtle but discernible change in the shape of the moon. Sometimes the moon is not visible at all. And then it seems to magically reappear, as a slender crescent, getting bigger and bigger until finally it is a complete sphere of light. And then it begins to shrink until once again it disappears. This cycle, from new moon to new moon, is called a lunation. Lunations vary somewhat in length, but average twenty-nine and a half days. We now know that a lunation is the period of time it takes for the moon to orbit the Earth.
We have evidence that humans kept track of lunar cycles as early as 25,000 BCE. Lunar calendars were probably the first calendars developed throughout the world, underscoring how intimately the moon is connected to our concepts of time and measurement. Our ancestors connected the cyclical rhythm of the waxing and waning of the moon to the changes in seasons of the world around them. Ancient and traditional cultures often developed evocative names for the different lunations that corresponded to the seasons, and to the natural phenomena that nature replayed in their environment year after year.
Many of these old moon names are hard to find, and even harder to verify once you do find them. They are part of the oral traditions of hunter-gatherer and agrarian peoples from around the world, and almost everywhere they have been replaced by our modern Gregorian calendar. But some of these names were written down, and can be found if you look for them. It would take extensive field research to verify the authenticity of these names—and it may not be possible anyway, since so much of this traditional knowledge and language has been lost. But if we listen to them for their poetry, and for the way of life they recollect, they resonate with meaning with or without proof of their perfect accuracy.
Naturally, each culture’s moon names related to the seasons as they experienced them. The Saanich (Wsanec) people of the Pacific Northwest named the moon that fell around our month of October Pekelánew, which can be translated as the Moon That Turns the Leaves White. An old Japanese name for the moon that fell around May was SaTsuki, the Moon When Rice Sprouts. An ancient Babylonian name for a moon in early spring was Addaru, the Moon of Threshing. A Cree name for a moon that fell roughly around our month of May was Sakipakawpicim, or the Leaves Appear Moon. A moon in the Islamic Hijrah calendar is Jumaada Awal, the Moon of the First Freeze. An old German springtime moon was Winnemanoth, the Grazing Moon; and the lunation that corresponds to our July was—to the Maasai of East Africa—the Moon When Women Wrangle and Squabble Because the Cows Give but Little Milk.
Many cultures had names for the moon that fell around the time of year that their primary food source was harvested. Many of us have heard of the Harvest Moon, a name that has been preserved by the Old Farmer’s Almanac. The Hopi had a moon called Tuho’osmuya, which has been translated as the Moon of Harvesting. An ancient Norse name for a moon was Kornskurdarmánudr, or Corn-Cutting Moon. There was an ancient Hebrew moon named Hodesh ha-Aviv, which can be translated as the Moon of the Harvest. The old Anglo Saxon calendar had a Hærfestmo:nath, the old Dutch calendar had a Herstmaand, and the old German had a Herbistmanoth. In all of these names can be heard the ancient importance of the harvest.
About four years ago I began writing a monthly e-letter that I send out to a list of subscribers around each new moon. I used an old moon name for that lunar cycle as my starting point for writing about food, cooking, health, and culture. I discovered that these moon names gave me a deeper sense of seasonality, and of what each time of year meant for my own ancestors as well as other cultures living in the same physical place I do (North America.) They helped me to connect modern foods to culinary history and agricultural traditions. I mostly used names from the Old Farmer’s Almanac, from indigenous North American traditions, and from Old European calendars. Writing an e-letter that comes out on the new moon, rather than once a month, has helped me to reconnect to the lunar cycles that were once so important in people’s daily lives. The discipline of having a lunar deadline has actually been a great blessing in my life, and I feel more drawn than ever to living in a way that takes into account the cycles of nature and the cosmos.
This book grew out of that experience. For any moon at any time of year there are many names in many languages. I chose the names that resonate for me, and introduce topics that matter to me. In other words, these moon names do not reflect one particular culture’s calendar. They are a collage of names from various calendars of peoples that have lived in the northern half of the Western Hemisphere. (I have avoided using the lunar names of peoples that lived in places dramatically different in terms of climate and geography from North America so that I could talk about issues and seasons familiar to me.) I might have called chapter 9 The Harvest Moon, but I wanted to write about salmon, and so chose instead The Moon When Salmon Return to Earth. Each moon name does, however, reflect a particular time of year, and the moons move through the seasons just as they do in nature.
Why are there thirteen moons? It is nearly impossible to synchronize a lunar calendar with a solar calendar. There are more than twelve lunations in a year, but fewer than thirteen. Many peoples that used a lunar calendar had thirteen moon names, one of which was used only once every three years or so (similar to our leap day), as a way to recalibrate their lunar calendar to the seasons of the solar year. In the Old Farmer’s Almanac there were twelve regular moon names. The term Blue Moon was used when a month had more than one full moon, or a season had more than three. This thirteenth moon name enabled the keepers of the almanac to bring their lunar calendar into sync with the solar one. These extra moon names are called intercalary months.
According to one observer, the Maasai also had twelve regular moon names. When their moon name didn’t correspond to what was happening in nature, they would recalibrate their calendar by repeating the moon name just passed. If they reached what should be the Moon When the Lesser Rains Fall (December), but the hot season was not yet actually over, they would say, “We have forgotten, it is the Moon When the Clouds Become White” (November), even though that moon had just ended. This is similar to the Chinese lunar calendar, which has occasional leap months that share the name of the previous moon.
The Islamic calendar is lunar, but is not calibrated to the solar calendar. Because it has only twelve moon names, the months rotate backward a bit each year. This means that even though one Islamic moon name is Rabia Awal—the Moon of First Spring—this month could fall at any time of year. Interestingly, the new lunar month in the Islamic calendar begins not at the point of the astronomical new moon, but at the point when the first crescent of moon is visible in the sky—a day, or two, or even three days later. The first sighting of the new crescent moon would be announced to the community, and the new month would begin. A similar process happened throughout the ancient Mediterranean, and our English word calendar comes from the Latin verb Calare, to call out.
The Hebrew calendar is also lunar. Like many other lunar calendars it uses twelve regular moon names, and then an intercalary month every few years to synchronize the moons with the solar seasons. Jewish holidays are still determined based on this traditional lunar calendar. The major holiday in the Christian liturgical calendar—Easter—is also still determined by lunar cycles. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. The word Easter itself appears to be a reference to the Germanic fertility goddess Eostre, who was celebrated in times of old with a lunar festival—on the vernal equinox full moon.
Most American Indian calendars had thirteen moon names, one of which wouldn’t be used every year. Some cultures taught the moon names as a series described by the thirteen sections on a turtle’s back. A lovely children’s book called Thirteen Moons on Turtle’s Back shows how this worked.
Although thirteen is sometimes thought to be a dangerous or unlucky number—while twelve is considered a more holy or wholesome number—I think this is a misreading. Thirteen is twelve plus one, which is holy even in the Christian context. There were twelve apostles plus Jesus. That makes thirteen. There are twelve moons in a year plus one added every few years. Some claim that the fact that the value ration between gold and silver—which has remained around one-to-thirteen since antiquity—is based on the relationship between the sun (gold) and the moon (silver). The number thirteen was sacred to the ancient Maya and remains so among modern Mayan peoples. I think there is good reason for this. Thirteen is a powerful number.
I chose to use thirteen moons as a way to draw on this power, to honor indigenous traditions, and to make the distinction between months and moons. Although the idea of a month as a unit of time is directly descended from the word for moon, and our months are roughly similar in length to the period of a lunation, our modern months have now lost all correlation to the phases of the moon. Twelve months are of course easier to manage than thirteen moons, but they have lost their connection to the waxing and waning of a heavenly body, and their names no longer resonate with what is happening in the natural world.
Naturally, because food was so important in the lives of traditional peoples, many moon names reflect what was happening on farms at a particular time of year, or what people were doing to secure food for the community. Many lunations were named for a food abundant during that moon. This makes old lunar calendars a good fit for writing about food and culinary traditions.
In my own life’s journey of discovery, food has been a great guide and teacher. I’ve spent countless hours over the years in my kitchen—cooking or engaged in other culinary projects and pursuits. I’ve also read extensively about traditional foodways, health, nutrition, and culinary history. My fascination has led me to learn more about agriculture, visit many farms and ranches, get to know farmers, and shop at farmer’s markets—where I ask lots of questions and get inspired over and over to try something new. All of these pursuits have opened up a world of connections between the deep spirituality of this fundamental necessity—food—and the benefits of recovering a whole relationship to it.
Life is a great mystery and an enormous blessing. I am honored to share with you this taste of life as I’ve experienced it. May it be sweet.