Counting the passage of time

From time to time when my mind is wandering and wondering about different topics, I’ll bring up one of those topics in conversation with my wife or another person who is close to me. For example, somehow yesterday, I was thinking of the origins of tea. It seems to me quite possible that the practice of tea bears a connection to the practice of boiling water to make it potable. A few leaves fall into the boiling water by accident and people discover that they like the taste and pretty soon they are steeping the leaves on purpose to make tea. Since we know that there are regional differences in the development of the practice of drinking various hot beverages, does it mean that other places had other practices for purifying water. England, for example, imported its tea habit from India. Throughout much of Europe, fermentation was a preferred way of making a beverage safe from bacteriological infection.

At any rate, I was commenting about these thoughts to my wife as we drove to a meeting yesterday morning and she was amused at the way my mind works, to come up with such thoughts and ideas.

It is just the way I think, I guess. I’m always coming up with questions. So the question for today is this: “Why have we settled on the various ways we have for measuring the passage of time?”

Take the days of the week, for example. The Greeks named the days of the week after the sun, the moon and the five known planets, which were in turn named after the gods Ares, Hermes, Zeus, Aphrodite and Caronus. They called the week Then hemerai “days of the gods.” When Roman culture dominated over the Greek, they substituted their equivalent gods for the Greek ones: Mars, Mercury, Jove (Jupiter), Venus, and Saturn. Then, when Germanic peoples invaded at the fall of the Roman empire, they substituted roughly similar gods for the Roman ones, Tiu (Twia) got Tuesday, Woden got Wednesday, Thor got Thursday, Freya got Friday. They stuck with Saturn for Saturday for reasons that seem to have been lost to time. And we’ve finally settled on the Old English “day of the sun” for Sunday.

That is interesting, but the real question is why didn’t we substitute Norse and other northern European names for the months of the year? We’ve stuck with mostly Roman names: Janus, Februus, Mars, Majesta, are gods; Julius (Caesar) and Augustus were emperors. April got its name from a Latin verb apeirie, meaning “to open.” and the end of the year’s months names are based on Roman numbers. septem is even; octo is eight; novem is nine and decem is ten. Why didn’t we substitute norse names when the geopolitics shifted as we did with the days of the week?

Thinking of months named after Roman numbers brings up another quirky question about the passage of time. You’ll notice that there are 12 months but the last one is named for the number 10. What is with that? The original Roman calendar had just 10 months, but it was observed that there are 12 lunar cycles in the year. Actually the lunar cycles don’t come out even, so there are really a bit more than 12 cycles per year, but that is another story entirely. Anyway, the Romans added two months to the beginning of the year, Janus and Februus, at the same time as they renamed the previously numbered months of July and August after their emperors.

The reason for having 12 hours in the day and 12 hours int the night, however, is apparently not related to the reason for having 12 months in the year.

24 hours in the day comes from a strange adaptation of an ancient Egyptian decimal (base 10) counting system. The Egyptians devised shadow clocks that were based on ten even divisions. Egypt, being close to the equator, had roughly equal amounts of daylight and dark. When the moon shown brightly the shadow clocks worked well. However there was roughly an hour of twilight at the beginning and the ending of the day so they added those two hours. The day was thus divided into 10 hours of light and 10 hours of dark with an hour of transition at each change. For some strange reason that counting system stuck.

When it comes to dividing the hours into minutes and the minutes into seconds, however, you have to look to a different part of the ancient Mid East. Before the rise of Babylon as a dominant culture, the Sumerians developed a counting system based on their astronomical observations. Like the Egyptians, they divided the day into 12ths then each 12ths was broken into 1/360ths called a gesh and each gesh into 240 seconds. It is confusing, but you have to understand that the Sumerians and later the Babylonians were fascinated with the number 60 in a similar way that the number 40 became prominent in Biblical writings. The Babylonians further developed the base 60 system and invented the abacus to provide for base 60 calculations. Their system was so complex, that it might not have survived had it been transmitted through memorization only. Therefore the base 60 counting system was transmitted to future generations through the medium of writing, often making marks in wet clay that subsequently dried and left behind a semi-permanent record.

None of this explains why a 63-year-old man in South Dakota who has a busy day filled with meetings and who needs to be paying attention to the business of running a church and dealing with people who have complex lives and pressing problems would wake up with such thoughts on his mind. After all, I don’t really need to know why we count with seconds and minutes. I have a watch and a phone with a digital clock either of which will get me to the meeting of the Altar Guild on time.

There is a fascinating story about how our computers and cell phones keep track of the passage of time, but that, perhaps, is a thought for a different day.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!