Ides of March

This year we will be having the 15th annual Ides Of Saint Patrick party.  After all those years of trying to be at least marginally creative about the Ides of March I greeted this month’s topic with all the joy I reserve for the annual arrival of the IRS.  Still, we must not be defeatist.  A little imaginative thinking/research and the spark will surely strike….

O.K…  First option when out of ideas is always the dictionary.  After four years of high school Latin I know about the Idus and Nonae.  In one of those demonstrations of the dominance of human custom over utility, the Romans used two days of each month as reference points.  They would say things like, “I’ll pay you on the fourth day before the Ides of Martius”  Or,  “the second day before the Nones”  This was not made any easier by the fact that the Nones and Ides moved around.  In March, May, July and August, they were the 7th and 15th.  In the rest they were the 5th and 13th.

This sort of idiocy is not unique to the Romans.  Lots of people live by systems incomprehensible to the outsider.   Obviously there must have been some compelling ritual or other imperative that drove the boringly logical Romans to use such an idiosyncratic system.  The trick was to find it.  Hence the dictionary.

I thought the key was probably hidden in the origins of the words themselves.  I knew that Nones just meant ninth day before the Ides.  But where the heck did Ides come from?   My trip to the library (and two book stores) proved most dictionaries are quite content to take a word like Ides back to its Latin root Idus and then stop.

Only two dictionaries were brave enough to venture beyond the Latin.  One said, “origin unknown.”  The other said “prob. not IE.”

Strike One.

O.K…  Skip word origins and the meaning of the Ides.  How about a column on the calendar itself?  The human attempt to get and keep their dates lined up with the heavens is a story that is close to pure comedy.  Those good old Romans began with a calendar of 355 days with odd days plugged in when it was deemed politically and ritually expedient to do so.  For some odd reason, this plan failed to stay in sync with the sun.  To fix it, in 150 BC they introduced a whole new month that brought their year up to 366 days.  This worked so well that by 46 BC they were three whole months out of whack.  In our world, that would be a nasty problem for a bureaucracy to cope with, involving endless debate.  In a stunning display of the power of autocracy, the Julian reform corrected this by the simple procedure of declaring 46 BC to be 445 days long!  For some churlish reason the locals called this the “Year of Confusion!”

The Julian reforms worked well enough that it was 1582 before Pope Gregory had to deal with a 10 day error.  If it is convenient to be Caesar, it is not so bad to be Pope, either.  Gregory simply declared that the day after March 11th was March 21st.  Of course, Gregory’s sway was not universal.  It took Protestant Great Britain and her colonies until 1752 to concede that the Papist had had a good idea.  By that time the correction had to be 11 days.  It is a nice note on the human perception of the limits of power that there were riots in Britain protesting the government’s stealing days from their lives.

I tried to find some information on parallel problems among the Mayans, the Egyptians or the Chinese, all of whom had calendars that required periodic adjustments to match the seasons, but my ethno-centric sources preferred to repeat the stories of Julius Caesar and Pope Gregory.  Hardly enough meat for a full column.

Strike two.

O.K.  How about the zodiac?  There is lots of fun trivia about the zodiac and the stellar year, like the fact that the zodiac and the constellations are thousands of years out of sync.  It seems that the constellations insist upon marching around the earth in a 26,000 year promenade caused by the precession of the equinoxes.  In the deep dark past, when our ancestors watched the skies with a persistence and precision that is staggering, oral tradition and teaching assured that the instruction matched the sky (that was the whole idea).  They were aware of the slow dance of the precession and based the Ages of the World on them.  The last sign seen before sunrise on the vernal equinox determined the Age.  The sun rose in the sign of the previous Age, sacrificing it.

Roughly 4,000 years ago, the last constellation seen before sunrise at the vernal equinox was Taurus, making that the Age of the Bull.  Bull worship ruled many countries up to about 2,000 years ago, the time of Moses, when the sun rose into Taurus, sacrificing it.  (One of the most popular religions of the Roman soldier required the ritual sacrifice  of a bull.)  Then the last constellation seen at the equinox marked this as the Age of Aries, when Moses led the Hebrews back to becoming shepherds.  (Worshipping the golden calf was backsliding on a large scale).  Another couple of thousand years and we moved into the Age of Pisces, lead by our Fisher of Men.  This time, the sun rose in Aries, sacrificing the Lamb of God.

Unfortunately, with the invention of writing, it became possible for the Egyptians to capture the zodiac on papyrus and carve it into walls, which they did about 4,000 years ago.  The sad result was that as observation declined the heavens continued to move, but the zodiac did not.  Look at your horoscope today and you will see that the equinox still falls in Aries, whatever the stars show.  We may have moved through the Age of Pisces and be moving into the Age of Aquarius, but you can’t prove it by any astrologer.  They will tell you about the influence of the stars upon your life, about how important it is to track the rising and falling of the signs, but not one in a hundred knows their “stars” are 4,000 years out of sync with the real ones.

This is the sort of thing I find endlessly fascinating.  I can be counted upon to bore my friends with stuff like that as often as I can keep them from running away.  But the simple truth is that it is about as interesting to most people as the Grand Unified Theory of physics.

Strike three.

So, dear editor, while I do not mean to complain, and while I admit that the Ides of March are resonant in literature and freighted with history, I just can’t find anything there to write a whole column about.

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