Talk abstract details

The Moon in the perception and measurement of social and ritual time. Comments on the Pre-historic Record
Catarina Oliveira


Time can be seen as a social and cultural construct. It is not only the organizing principle of human activities, establishing priorities and ordering the material resulting from experience (social time), as it is also a mediator to the sacred cosmos that shows up in the animal and vegetal world and in the celestial bodies that undergo periodical renewal (sacred time)
According to Eliade the Moon was decisive in the first mental synthesis of mankind, which we inherited, and was fundamental to the first perceptions and measurements of time by early societies. Thanks to the Moon and its lunation we can start to measure and divide time - a profound dimension in the lunar symbolism. The earliest Indo-Arian root for the word Moon, “me”, means “to measure”. And its role in the structure of the first Babylonian calendar, probably as remote as the third millennium BC, starting with the first appearance of the lunar crescent, seems well established.
However, recent results in archaeo-astronomy push us back into pre-history, a period where the observation of the sky, and particularly of the Moon, seems to have been for the hunters-gatherers, and later to the first farmers, the scheme to mark the time and organize the relationship with the cultivation of the land. The first records of such activity may be attributed to marks (tally) found in cave paintings and mobile artifacts.
Man sedentarisation enhances the cyclic variations of the celestial bodies in their relation to the territory, in particular with the horizon. For the hunter-gatherers the Moon may have promoted regularly increased “monthly” activities around full Moon, while for the neolithic farmers the “yearly” cycle acquires a decisive significance associated to the reappearance of vegetation, a vital element for group survival. Man may have associated agriculture to the lunar rhythms, to land fertility and to rain, the guarantee of fertility. The concept of cycle follows then from man awareness of regularities in the sky and of their correlation with land regularities dominating his “monthly” and “yearly” activities, thus structuring a calendar where the spring does signal the beginning of the New Year. The importance of the Spring Full Moon on the possible orientation of the megalithic tombs, enclosures and isolated menhirs in Central Alentejo seems to support this view of the territory and of its vital cycles signaling this moment of renovation and rebirth in nature. This framework of astral and calendar references seems to have found its way in recognizable features later into the history of recent civilizations.