Thursday, December 31, 2015

The old year's gone away ... by the rivers of Babylon

We have to keep time and contextualize the life that we lead.  The passing of a day with the sunrise and sunset.  The week consisting of seven days.  A month with weeks, and a year with months.

Have you ever wondered why there are seven days in a week?  After all, it is arbitrary--not anything defined by the sunrise and sunset, right?  It could have been ten, given our ten fingers to count.  Or, five for the fingers in one hand.  Why seven?  Why this "totally random, basically meaningless divisions of time" that is "constant to almost every single culture"?
Jews, who use a lunar calendar made up of either 12 or 13 months beginning with the New Moon, use a seven-day week. The Bengali calendar, which splits the year up into six seasons of two months each, uses a seven-day week. Even the Bahá'í, with their 19-month (and change) year, use a seven-day week.
So, why seven, dammit?
“Only by establishing a weekly cycle of an unvarying, standard length could society guarantee that the continuity of its life would never be interrupted by natural phenomena such as the lunar cycle,” writes Eviatar Zerubavel in his book, The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week. In other words, this is all the moon’s fault for being so unreliable.
Zerubavel especially links the need for an interval of this length to the rise of market culture: there needed to be an agreed-upon time in which vendors and buyers could meet, and about four times every lunar cycle seemed a pretty good frequency.
Damn market! ;)
our best guess for the creation of the seven-day week is that the idea originated in ancient Babylonia. The Babylonians, living in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), held the number seven as a holy number, that being the number of objects in our Solar System they could observe at the time: the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The Babylonians already had months, just like anyone else, and if you want to split up a period of around 29 days into a smaller period, why not divide it basically into four parts, especially when that number is damnably close to your holy number of seven? So the Babylonians used a seven-day week, with the seventh day having certain religious responsibilities (relaxation, cessation of work, worship, that kind of thing).
Yes, from the cradle of human civilization.  And then the idea spread--perhaps one of the first global memes.
There’s nothing in particular about a 7-day week that makes it a requirement for anybody to observe; it seems that the idea took off simply because there was a need for a unit of time somewhere between five and 10 days long, and seven was a cool number. What’s surprising is that humans haven’t come up with anything better
What was good for the Babylonians is still good for us in this 21st century.

To say goodbye to the old year, here is a poem from my favorite source:

The Old Year  
by John Clare
The Old Year's gone away
     To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
     Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
     In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
     In this he's known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
     Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
     And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
     In every cot and hall--
A guest to every heart's desire,
     And now he's nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
     Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
     Are things identified;
But time once torn away
     No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
     Left the Old Year lost to all.


Anne in Salem said...

So did the Bible borrow from ancient Babylon or vice versa? Seven is quite significant in Christianity; I don't know about Judaism.

Welcome home and happy new year.

Ramesh said...

Well, some prehistoric Sriram Khe , I am sure, started the practice of 7 days. Somebody who thought about such things that others didn't.

Hope you had an uneventful journey back home. You are usually a magnet for flight delays, misplaced baggage, etc etc, but hopefully this time your magnetic powers failed ! Happy New Year :)

Sriram Khé said...

I assume you refer to the Old Testament part when you write that seven is significant in Christianity. Especially about creation.
1. Babylonian Civilization was quite a long time ago. 5,000 years ago. From whatever little that I know, this precedes Jewish history.
2. The Jewish creation mythology, which then carried forward into the Christian Bible too, has many parts that seem to be drawn from the creation stories from Babylon.
The academic religious studies folks have many such interesting things to offer. But, religions are based on faith and not on evidence-based studies--which is what, for instance, Wendy Doniger found out with her book(s) on Hinduism ... here's a whole bunch of posts tagged Wendy Doniger:

I had an eventful journey home. For one, the airline offered me a Business Class boarding pass for the 15-hour nontop flight and that was awesome ;) For another, the domestic flight, which was the final leg of the journey was delayed by an hour. Other than those two, it was uneventful. More on these in a post ;)

New year greetings to all

Shachi said...

Happy New Year Sriram! Love the poem that your shared.

A business class upgrade - hope you made the most of it :)!

Sriram Khé said...

New year greetings to you, Shachi.
I made the best use of the upgrade--was flat and fully stretched for hours ;)

Most read this past month