Tag Archives: agriculture

Cyclical time

Hades taking Persephone to the Underworld

There are two ways to think about time: as a circle and as a line.

The ancient Greeks—like other cultures that relied on farming for food—saw time as a circle, as cyclical. They planted in the Spring;, they weeded and pruned in the Summer; they harvested in the Autumn; they waited through the Winter for the cycle to start over again.

Let me tell you the Greek myth of Persephone. Persephone was the beautiful daughter of Demeter, the goddess of fertility and harvest. Demeter made the seeds take root, the flowers blossom & the fruit ripen. Demeter loved Persephone and everything was literally sunshine and daffodils all year long. At least it was until Hades, the dark god of the Underworld, saw the beautiful Persephone and decided to steal her away to be his wife. Demeter was heartbroken—and while Persephone was gone, Demeter neglected her goddess-duties until the world became cold and barren. Frosty wind killed all the crops; fruit withered on the vine. No grain to harvest meant no pita bread for gyros. No cucumbers for tzatziki sauce. No falafel. The situation became desperate! Finally Zeus stepped in and made them strike a deal: Hades would keep Persephone only half of each year and let Persephone spend the other half with her mom. So while Persephone lives in the Underworld, it’s winter. When Persephone is reunited above-ground with Demeter, there is planting and growth and harvest.

This is an example of thinking of time as a cycle.

Egyptian calendar

An Egyptian man plows a furrow so the lady can sow seeds into it.

Both the Sumerians and Egyptians had economies that depended on agriculture—they grew crops for their food. If you ever planted tomatoes—or onions, or zucchini, or those two-ton pumpkins you see at the state fair—in a garden, you’ll have seen on the seed packages instructions about when to plant. If you plant your tomatoes too late, the fruit will never ripen in time before the first frost. This is why calendars are so important.

The Egyptians’ planting schedule was built around their river, the Nile. Every year the Nile would flood. After the floodwater receded, it left behind nutrient-rich silt that improved the soil. Egyptian farmers had to plant crops as soon as the Nile receded so they could harvest before the Nile flooded again.

By around 2450 bc the Egyptians had developed a calendar whose year was twelve months. Each month was thirty days long (12 x 30 = 360 days). The year was divided into three seasons—Inundation, when the Nile was flooded (Akhet), Emergence, time to plant the crops (Peret), and Harvest, time to gather the crops (Shemu)—of four months each, with five days added to the end of the year.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Egyptian calendar used Base Sixty for counting the days. I’d like to think they sent a nice thank-you note to the Sumerians.