The ancient Egyptian calendar was a solar calendar with a 365-day year. The year consisted of three seasons of 120 days each, plus an intercalary month of 5 epagomenal days treated as outside of the year proper. Each season was divided into four months of 30 days. These twelve months were initially numbered within each season but came to also be known by the names of their principal festivals. Each month was divided into three 10-day periods known as decans or decades. The last two days of each decan were usually treated as a kind of weekend, with royal artisans and others free from work.
Because this calendrical year was nearly a quarter of a day shorter than the solar year, the Egyptian calendar lost about one day every four years relative to the Gregorian calendar. It is therefore sometimes referred to as the wandering year (Latin: annus vagus), as its months rotated about a third of the way through the solar year each century. Ptolemy III's Canopus Decree attempted to correct this through the introduction of a sixth epagomenal day every four years but the proposal was resisted by the Egyptian priests and people and abandoned until the establishment of the Alexandrian or Coptic calendar by Augustus. The introduction of a leap day to the Egyptian calendar made it equivalent to the reformed Julian calendar, although it continues to diverge from the Gregorian calendar at the turn of most centuries.
This civil calendar ran concurrently with an Egyptian lunar calendar which was used for some religious rituals and festivals. Some Egyptologists have described it as lunisolar, with an intercalary month supposedly added every two or three years to maintain its consistency with the solar year, but no evidence of such intercalation before the 4th century BC has yet been discovered.
Current knowledge of the earliest development of the Egyptian calendar remains speculative. A tablet from the reign of the First-Dynasty pharaoh Djer (c. 3000 BC) was once though to indicate that the Egyptians had already established a link between the heliacal rising of Sirius (Egyptian: Spdt or Sopdet, "Triangle"; Greek: Σῶθις, Sō̂this) and the beginning of their year, but more recent analysis has questioned whether the tablet's picture refers to Sirius at all. Similarly, based on the Palermo Stone, Scharff proposed that the Old Kingdom observed a 320-day year but his theory has not become widely accepted. Some evidence suggests the early civil calendar had 360 days, although it might merely reflect the unusual status of the five epagomenal days as days "added on" to the proper year.
The first lasted from roughly June to September, the second from roughly October to January, and the last from roughly February to May. As early as the reign of Djer (c. 3000 BC, Dynasty I), yearly records were being kept of the flood's high-water mark. Neugebauer noted that a 365-day year can be established by averaging a few decades of accurate observations of the Nile flood without any need for astronomical observations, although the great irregularity of the flood from year to year[a] and the difficulty of maintaining a sufficiently accurate Nilometer and record in prehistoric Egypt has caused other scholars to doubt that it formed the basis for the Egyptian calendar.
The Egyptians appear to have used a purely lunar calendar prior to the establishment of the solar civil calendar in which each month began on the morning when the waning crescent moon could no longer be seen. The month may have been divided into four "weeks" of 7 or 8 days, reflecting each quarter of the lunar phases. Parker and others have argued for its development into an observational and then calculated lunisolar calendar which used a 30-day intercalary month every two to three years to accommodate the lunar year's loss of about 11 days a year relative to the solar year and to maintain the placement of the heliacal rising of Sirius within its twelfth month. No evidence for such a month, however, exists in the present historical record.
Because the exact time of morning considered to begin the Egyptian day remains uncertain and there is no evidence that any method other than observation was used to determine the beginnings of the lunar months prior to the 4th century BC, there is no sure way to reconstruct exact dates in the lunar calendar from its known dates. It remains unknown how the Egyptians dealt with obscurement by clouds when they occurred and the best current algorithms have been shown to differ from actual observation of the waning crescent moon in about one-in-five cases.
A second lunar calendar is attested by a demotic astronomical papyrus dating to sometime after AD 144 which outlines a lunisolar calendar operating in accordance with the Egyptian civil calendar according to a 25-year cycle. The calendar seems to show its month beginning with the first visibility of the waxing crescent moon, but Parker displayed an error in the cycle of about a day in 500 years, using it to show the cycle was developed to correspond with the new moon around 357 BC, placing it in Dynasty XXX after Egypt's 1st Persian occupation. This lunisolar calendar's calculations apparently continued to be used without correction into the Roman period, even when they no longer precisely matched the observable lunar phases.
The civil calendar was established at some early date in or before the Old Kingdom, with probable evidence of its use early in the reign of Shepseskaf (c. 2510 BC, Dynasty IV) and certain attestation during the reign of Neferirkare (mid-25th centuryBC, Dynasty V). It was probably based upon astronomical observations of Sirius whose reappearance in the sky closely corresponded to the average onset of the Nile flood through the 5th and 4th millennium BC.[b] A recent development is the discovery that the 30-day month of the Mesopotamian calendar dates as late as the Jemdet Nasr Period (late 4th-millennium BC), a time Egyptian culture was borrowing various objects and cultural features from the Fertile Crescent, leaving open the possibility that the main features of the calendar were borrowed in one direction or the other as well.
The civil year comprised exactly 365 days,[c] divided into 12 months of 30 days each and an intercalary month of 5 days, were celebrated as the birthdays of the gods Osiris, Horus, Set, Isis, and Nephthys. The regular months were grouped into Egypt's three seasons, which gave them their original names, and divided into three 10-day periods known as decans or decades. In later sources, these were distinguished as "first", "middle", and "last". The last two days of each decan were usually treated as a kind of weekend, with royal artisans and others free from work. Dates were typically expressed in a YMD format, with a pharaoh's regnal year followed by the month followed by the day of the month. For example, the New Year occurred on I Akhet 1.
|Lord of Years
The importance of the calendar to Egyptian religion is reflected in the use of the title "Lord of Years" (Nb Rnpt) for its various creator gods. Time was also considered an integral aspect of Maat, the cosmic order which opposed chaos, lies, and violence.
The civil calendar was apparently established in a year when Sirius rose on its New Year (I Akhet 1) but, because of its lack of leap years, it began to slowly cycle backwards through the solar year. Sirius itself, about 40° below the ecliptic, follows a Sothic year almost exactly matching that of the Sun, with its reappearance now occurring at the latitude of Cairo (ancient Heliopolis and Memphis) on 19 July (Julian), only two or three days later than its occurrence in early antiquity.
Following Meyer, the standard understanding was that, four years from the calendar's inception, Sirius would have no longer reappeared on the Egyptian New Year but on the last day of the intercalary month; four years later, it would have reappeared on the day before that; and so on through the entire calendar until its rise finally returned to I Akhet 1 1460 years after the calendar's inception,[d] an event known as "apocatastasis". Owing to the event's extreme regularity, Egyptian recordings of the calendrical date of the rise of Sirius have been used by Egyptologists to fix its calendar and other events dated to it, at least to the level of the four-Egyptian-year periods which share the same date for Sirius's return, known as "tetraëterides" or "quadrennia". Most importantly, Censorinus's placement of an apocatastasis on 20 July AD 139[e] permitted the calculation of its predecessors to 1322, 2782, and 4242 BC. The last is sometimes described as "the first exactly dated year in history" but, since the calendar is attested before Dynasty XVIII and the last date is now known to far predate early Egyptian civilization, it is typically credited to Dynasty II around the middle date.[f]
|3500 BC||III Peret 3||July 16||June 18|
|3000 BC||III Shemu 8||July 16||June 22|
|2500 BC||III Akhet 8||July 16||June 26|
|2000 BC||III Peret 14||July 17||June 30|
|1500 BC||III Shemu 19||July 17||July 4|
|1000 BC||III Akhet 19||July 17||July 8|
|500 BC||III Peret 25||July 18||July 13|
|AD 1||III Shemu 30||July 18||July 16|
|AD 500||IV Akhet 2||July 20||July 22|
The classic understanding of the Sothic cycle relies, however, on several erroneous assumptions: the shift of Sirius during the cycle and other factors produces a more accurate period of 1457 years, with observational difficulties producing a further margin of error of about two decades. Against this modern correction, however, it has been noted that there is no mention in ancient sources of recognition that the minor irregularities of Sirius sometimes produced a triëteris or penteteris (three- or five-year periods of agreement with an Egyptian date) rather than the usual four-year periods. Given that the expected discrepancy is no more than 8 years in 1460, the cycle may have been applied schematically. The occurrence of the apocatastasis in the 2nd millennium BC so close to the great political and sun-based religious reforms of Amenhotep IV/Akhenaton also leaves open the possibility that the cycle's strict application was occasionally subject to political interference. The record and celebration of Sirius's rising would also vary by several days (equating to decades of the cycle) in eras when the official site of observation was moved from near Cairo.[h] The return of Sirius to the night sky varies by about a day per degree of latitude, causing it to be seen 8–10 days earlier at Aswan than at Alexandria, a difference which causes Krauss to propose dating much of Egyptian history decades later than the present consensus.
Following Alexander the Great's conquest of the Persian Empire, the Macedonian Ptolemaic Dynasty came to power in Egypt, continuing to use its native calendars with Hellenized names. In 238 BC, Ptolemy III's Canopus Decree ordered that every 4th year should incorporate a sixth day its intercalary month, honoring him and his wife as gods equivalent to the children of Nut. The reform was resisted by the Egyptian priests and people and was abandoned.
Egyptian scholars were involved with the establishment of Julius Caesar's reform of the Roman calendar, although the Roman priests initially misapplied its formula and—by counting inclusively—added leap days every three years instead of every four. The mistake was corrected by Augustus through omitting leap years for a number of cycles until AD 4. As the personal ruler of Egypt, he also imposed a reform of its calendar in 26 or 25 BC, possibly to correspond with the beginning of a new Callipic cycle, with the first leap day occurring on 6 Epag. in the year 22 BC. This "Alexandrian calendar" corresponds almost exactly to the Julian, causing 1 Thoth to remain at 29 August except during the year before a Julian leap year, when it occurs on 30 August instead. The calendars then resume their correspondence after 4 Phamenoth / 29 February of the next year.
For much of Egyptian history, the months were not referred to by individual names, but were rather numbered within the three seasons. As early as the Middle Kingdom, however, each month had its own name. These finally evolved into the New Kingdom months, which in turn gave rise to the Hellenized names that were used for chronology by Ptolemy in his Almagest and by others. Copernicus constructed his tables for the motion of the planets based on the Egyptian year because of its mathematical regularity. A convention of modern Egyptologists is to number the months consecutively using Roman numerals.
A persistent problem of Egyptology has been that the festivals which give their names to the months occur in the next month. Gardiner proposed that an original calendar governed by the priests of Ra was supplanted by an improvement developed by the partisans of Thoth. Parker connected the discrepancy to his theories concerning the lunar calendar. Sethe, Weill, and Clagett proposed that the names expressed the idea that each month culminated in the festival beginning the next.
|Seasonal||Middle Kingdom||New Kingdom|
|1st Month of Flood
|2nd Month of Flood
|3rd Month of Flood
|4th Month of Flood
|1st Month of Growth
|2nd Month of Growth
|3rd Month of Growth
|4th Month of Growth
|1st Month of Low Water
|2nd Month of Low Water
|3rd Month of Low Water
|4th Month of Low Water
|Opening of the Year
|Birth of the Sun
|—||Those upon the Year
|ἐπαγόμεναι||epagómenai||Ⲡⲓⲕⲟⲩϫⲓ ⲛ̀ⲁⲃⲟⲧ||Pikougi N'avot|
The reformed Egyptian calendar continues to be used in Egypt as the Coptic calendar of the Egyptian Church and by the Egyptian populace at large, particularly the peasants, to calculate the agricultural seasons. It differs only in its era, which is dated from the ascension of the Roman emperor Diocletian. Contemporary Egyptian farmers, like their ancient predecessors, divide the year into three seasons, namely winter, summer and inundation. It is also associated with local festivals such as the annual Flooding of the Nile and the ancient Spring festival Sham el-Nessim.
The Ethiopian calendar is based on this reformed calendar but uses Amharic names for its months and uses a different era. The French Republican Calendar was similar, but began its year at the autumnal equinox. British orrery maker John Gleave represented the Egyptian calendar in a reconstruction of the Antikythera mechanism.
- In the 30 years prior to the completion of the Aswan Low Dam in 1902, the period between Egypt's "annual" floods varied from 335 to 415 days, with the first rise starting as early as 15 April and as late as 23 June.
- Other possibilities for the original basis of the calendar include comparison of a detailed record of lunar dates against the rising of Sirius over a 40 year span, discounted by Neugebauer as likely to produce a calendar more accurate than the actual one; his own theory (discussed above) that the timing of successive floods were averaged over a few decades; and the theory that the position of the solar rising was recorded over a number of years, permitting comparison of the timing of the solstices over the years. A predynastic petroglyph discovered by the University of South Carolina's expedition at Nekhen in 1986 may preserve such a record, if it had been moved about 10° from its original position prior to discovery.
- It has been argued that the Ebers Papyrus shows a fixed calendar incorporating leap years, but this is no longer believed.
- The calculated Sothic cycle is 1460 Julian years (exactly) or Gregorian years (roughly) but takes 1461 years within the Egyptian calendar itself.
- Using Roman dating, he said of the relevant New Year that "when the emperor Antoninus Pius was consul of Rome for a second time with Bruttius Prasens this same day coincided with the 13th day before the calends of August" (Latin: cum... imperatore quinque hoc anno fuit Antonino Pio II Bruttio Praesente Romae consulibus idem dies fuerit ante diem XIII kal. Aug.).
- Meyer himself accepted the earliest date, though before the Middle Chronology was shown to be more likely than the short or long chronologies of the Middle East. Parker argued for its introduction ahead of apocatastasis on the middle date based on his understanding of its development from a Sothic-based lunar calendar. He placed its introduction within the range c. 2937 – c. 2821 BC, noting it was more likely in the Dynasty II part of the range.
- Specifically, the calculations are for 30° N with no adjustment for clouds and an averaged amount of aerosols for the region. In practice, clouds or other obscurement and observational error may have shifted any of these calculated values by a few days.
- This seems to be the case, for example, with astronomical records of the XVIII Dynasty and its successors, including the Ebers Papyrus, which seem to have been made at Thebes rather than Heliopolis.
- Reconstructed Egyptian accentuation Phaō̂phi (Φαῶφι).
- Reconstructed Egyptian accentuation Khoíak (Χοίακ).
- Reconstructed Egyptian accentuation Tŷbi (Τῦβι).
- Reconstructed Egyptian accentuation Mekheír (Μεχείρ).
- Reconstructed Egyptian accentuation Pharmoûthi (Φαρμοῦθι).
- Reconstructed Egyptian accentuation Paûni (Παῦνι).
- Reconstructed Egyptian accentuation Epeíph (Ἐπείφ).
- Winlock (1940), p. 450.
- Clagett (1995), pp. 10–11.
- Winlock (1940).
- Tetley (2014), p. 40.
- Winlock (1940), p. 452.
- Herodotus (1890), Macaulay, ed., Histories, London: Macmillan, Book II, §5.
- Tetley (2014), p. 39.
- Winlock (1940), p. 453.
- Clagett (1995), p. 4–5.
- Clagett (1995), p. 33.
- Neugebauer (1939).
- Parker (1950), p. 32.
- Parker (1950), p. 23.
- Parker (1950), pp. 30-2.
- Høyrup, p. 13.
- Clagett (1995), p. 3–4.
- Parker (1950), pp. 13-29.
- Parker (1950), pp. 30–2.
- Tetley (2014), p. 153.
- Schaefer (2000), pp. 153–154.
- Parker (1950), pp. 29.
- "Papyrus Carlsberg 9", The Papyrus Carlsberg Collection, Copenhagen: University of Copenhagen, retrieved 11 February 2017.
- Parker (1950), p. 13–23.
- Clagett (1995), p. 25.
- Clagett (1995), p. 26.
- Parker (1950), p. 27.
- Clagett (1995), p. 28.
- Clagett (1995), p. 37.
- Englund, Robert K. (1988), "Administrative Timekeeping in Ancient Mesopotamia", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, No. 31, pp. 121–185.
- Høyrup, pp. 12–13.
- Clagett (1995), p. 6.
- Parker (1950), p. 7.
- Spalinger (1995), p. 33.
- Parker (1950), pp. 43–5.
- Clagett (1995), p. 4.
- Jauhiainen (2009), p. 39.
- Clagett (1995), p. 5.
- Budge, Ernest Alfred Wallis (1911), A Hieroglyphic Vocabulary to the Theban Recension of the Book of the Dead, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., p. 201.
- Clagett (1995), p. 1.
- Lacroix, Jean-Pierre (1997), "Heliacal rising of Sirius in Thebes", Thebes: A Reflection of the Sky on the Pharaoh's Earth.
- Clagett (1995), p. 29.
- Gautschy, Rita (2012), The Star Sirius in Ancient Egypt and Babylonia.
- Censorinus, De Die Natali, Book XXI, §10.
- Schaefer (2000), p. 151.
- Grun, Bernard (1975), "4241 BC", The Timetables of History, 3rd ed., Thames & Hudson.
- Clagett (1995), p. 31.
- Parker (1950), p. 53.
- Clagett (1995), p. 36–7.
- Van Gent, Robert Harry (2016), "Calendar Date Module", Ancient Luni-Solar and Planetary Ephemerides, Utrecht: University of Utrecht.
- Schaefer (2000), p. 150.
- Walker, John (2015), "Calendar Converter", Fourmilab.
- Clagett (1995), p. 30.
- Schaefer (2000), p. 152–3.
- "Ancient Egyptian Civil Calendar", Biblical Archaeology, La Via.
- Tetley (2014), p. 43.
- A Chronological Survey of Precisely Dated Demotic and Abnormal Hieratic Sources
- Alexandrian reform of the Egyptian calendar
- Clagett (1995), p. 14–15.
- Montanari, F. (1995), Vocabolario della Lingua Greca. (Italian)
- Pestman, P.W. (1990), The New Papyrological Primer.
- Clagett, Marshall (1995), Ancient Egyptian Science: A Source Book, Vol. II: Calendars, Clocks, and Astronomy, Memoirs of the APS, No. 214, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.
- Høyrup, Jens, "A Historian's History of Ancient Egyptian Science" (PDF), Physis, a review of Clagett's Ancient Egyptian Science, Vols. I & II.
- Jauhiainen, Heidi (2009), Do Not Celebrate Your Feast without Your Neighbors: A Study of References to Feasts and Festivals in Non-Literary Documents from Ramesside Period Deir el-Medina (PDF), Publications of the Institute for Asian and African Studies, No. 10, Helsinki: University of Helsinki.
- Krauss, Rolf; et al., eds. (2006), Ancient Egyptian Chronology, Handbook of Oriental Studies, Sect. 1, Vol. 83, Leiden: Brill ref stripmarker in
|ref=at position 1 (help).
- Neugebauer, Otto Eduard (1939), "Die Bedeutungslosigkeit der 'Sothisperiode' für die Älteste Ägyptische Chronologie", Acta Orientalia, No. 16, pp. 169 ff. (German)
- Parker, Richard Anthony (1950), The Calendars of Ancient Egypt (PDF), Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, No. 26, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Schaefer, Bradley Elliott (2000), "The Heliacal Rise of Sirius and Ancient Egyptian Chronology", Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol. XXXI, Pt. 2, pp. 149–155.
- Spalinger, Anthony (January 1995), "Some Remarks on the Epagomenal Days in Ancient Egypt", Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 54, No. 1, pp. 33–47.
- Tetley, M. Christine (2014), The Reconstructed Chronology of the Egyptian Kings, Vol. I.
- Winlock, Herbert Eustis (1940), "The Origin of the Ancient Egyptian Calendar", Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, No. 83, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, pp. 447–464.
- Detailed information about the Egyptian calendars, including lunar cycles
- Date Converter for Ancient Egypt
- Calendrica Includes the Egyptian civil calendar with years in Ptolemy's Nabonassar Era (year 1 = 747 BC) as well as the Coptic, Ethiopic, and French calendars.
- Civil, ver. 4.0, is a 25kB DOS program to convert dates in the Egyptian civil calendar to the Julian or Gregorian one