On the Right Reckoning of the Moon and its Month

MOONAmid the leaves of Béda’s De Temporum Ratione (725 CE), there is found the heading De mensibus Anglorum, or as we may wend it from Latin into our nowtidely English, On the Months of the Angles.  Of the Anglo-Saxon heathen gearmæl (calendar) there is no earlier written witness nor, thereafter, did any church father fathom the fore-old reckoning so fully.  Indeed whilst hints of the heathen year may be found in the Old English Martyrology (800-900 CE), Ælfric of Eynsham’s De Temporibus Anni (1005 CE), Byrhtferþ’s Old English Enchiridion (1010-1012 CE), and the Old English Menologium (1044-1066 CE), such tell-tale tokens might well have been drawn from Béda’s earlier betelling.  Of this Anglo-Saxon heathen year and how its months were meted, Béda wrote that:

The English folk of olden days (for to me it only seems fitting that, if I should speak of the yeartides of other folk, I should not be silent on that of my own) reckoned their months by the begoing of the moon.  As with the Hebrew and the Greek, [the months] took their name from the moon.  Thus, as they named the moon móna, so they named the month mónaþ.[i]

One may well ask then whether the beginning of the month is marked the by the falling of the full moon (OE: full móna) or by the renewing of the new moon (OE: níwe móna).  Yet this is an asking already answered by Béda four headings before in De mensibus, that is to say The Months.  As bewritten by Béda, “it may rightly be said that the moon’s month is the begoing of the moon’s light as it is renewed from new [moon] to new [moon].”[ii] Likewise, in De Temporibus Anni, Ælfric of Eynsham marked the moon’s month as “when he turns, new, from the sun till he comes back before her again, old and weary, and then through her is tindered again.”[iii]  Moreover, in his Old English Enchiridion, Byrhtferþ went so far as to draw the begoing of the moon’s month from new moon to new moon.

Here it should be said that the new moon as known to our Anglo-Saxon forebears was not what nowtidely men now call the new moon.  Rather, for our fore-elders, the new moon was betokend by the first light of its waxing.  As betold by Byrhtferþ in his Old English Enchiridion (1010-1012 CE), “a moon of one night shines for four pricks, but we will say five pricks after that which was set forth by Béda;[iv]” a prick being a mark upon a sundial, four or five of which made what we now call an hour.  Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary still recalls this older meaning, marking the new moon as “the first visible crescent of the moon, after conjunction with the sun.”

Of the month’s beginning and its begoing from new moon to new moon we have not only the witness of churchmen but that of wizards as well.  Written betwixt and between 900 CE and 1100 CE, there abides a body of Anglo-Saxon booklore oft called the Anglo-Saxon Prognostics whereby sundry means of soothsaying by the weather, the weekday, the sun, or the moon are given.  Such prognostics, or wilings (OE: wíglung) as we may call them, were banned by both churchman and king as such witchery was believed to be a holdover of heathendom.

Amid his reckoning of the month’s wending in De Temporibus Anni, Ælfric was mindful to forbid foretelling by the moon, writing that “Nor shall any Christian man wile (divine) anything thing by the moon; if he does such, his belief is naught.”[v]  Moreover, before ending his homily Octabas et circumcision Domini nostri, Ælfric bemoaned that heathen customs (OE: hæðenum gewunan) and manifold wilings (OE: menigfealde wígelunga) that were still found in his lifetime, writing that “There also many taken with such mickle wrongness that they keep their faring by the moon and their deeds by the day.”[vi] But a few years thereafter in 1018 CE, King Cnut forbade by law any lingering worship or wiling of the moon, deeming that:

We earnestly forbid all heathenship.  Heathenship is, that men worship god-poles, it is that men worship Heathen gods and sun and moon, fire and flowing water, water-wells and stones and any kind of tree of the woods, and love witchcraft, and wonderworks perform, either in blót or foretelling…[vii]

Foremost among the Anglo-Saxon Prognostics are those works known as lunaries which we may call moonwrit.  Such moonwrit both foretold wyrd’s weaving by the night of the moon or, by such meting, forespelled what deeds might be lucky to undertake. Moreover, it should be noted that not one of these moonwrit began its soothsaying by the full moon. Rather each may be said to begin, as found in the Dream Lunarium and Agenda Lunarium alike, “upon a moon one night old.”[viii] Moreover the Prognostic for Weekdays of the New Moon[ix] leaves little room for inkling that the new moon marked the new month.  As it begins, “when the moon is new on Sunday such betokens three things in that month…”[x] Likewise the same reckoning follows five days thereafter with the rede: “if he [the moon] is new on Friday, there will be good hunting in that month.”[xi]

Though it should now be well shown that the Anglo-Saxon heathen month was reckoned by the new moon, rather than by the full moon, it must be said that amongst nowtidely heathens, such thew has seldom been held. Indeed, even among Théodsmen it has oft been found that the months have wrongly been reckoned by the full moon. Such murkiness is born from a misunderstanding of Béda’s wordlore of the month known as Winterfylleþ.  Of that month and the name that it is given, Béda wrote:

Likewise they sundered the year into two tides, namely winter and summer. The six months wherein the days are longer than the nights are called summer and the other six, winter.  Thus the month wherein the tide of winter begins is called Winterfylleþ, a name born by binding of the words “winter” and “full moon,” as it is from the full moon of that month that winter is allotted to begin.[xii]

From such wordlore many have mistakenly foreguessed that it is the month itself which begins upon the full moon, yet such is in no wise what Béda wrote.  As already shown four headings before in De mensibus, or as such may be wended from Latin, On the Months, Béda wrote that the moon’s month began upon the new moon. Such was the understanding of the moon’s month that Béda had set forth before he even began to recall the géarmal of his heathen forefathers. Rather, in De mensibus Anglorum, Béda wrote no more than that it was from the full moon of Winterfylleþ that the tide of winter began.  To say that the moon’s month begins at its fullness, rather than at its newness, is akin to saying that “the man in the moon” begins his life when he is already middle-aged rather than when he is born.

As such, in the Ealdríce, it has always been our thew to mark the new month (OE: níwe mónaþ) by the new moon (OE: níwe móna).  As our Anglo-Saxon heathen fore-elders once did, so do we the same.

Anglish Wordhoard
Asking – a question
Begoing – a procession
Betell – to tell about, to describe
Betoken – to signify
Bewrite – to describe
Blót – Old English for “sacrifice”
Booklore – literature
Fathom – to delve, to embrace
Foreguess – to assume
Fore-old – ancient
Forespell – to prescribe
Heading – chapter
Inkle – to doubt or be skeptical
Leaf, leaves – page, pages
Mete – to measure
Mickle – great, large
Moonwit – a lunary
Nowtidely – contemporary, modern
Rede – counsel, advice
Thew – custom
Wend – turn, translate
Wile, Wiling – From the OE: wíglung, with wíg being a variant of wéoh, “holy.” Whereas wíglung meant to “cast lots” or “practice divination,” in such NE words as wily, guile, and beguile, it has come to mean “to deceive,” itself a fascinating insight into what the church thought of heathen wíglung. Here it is here used in its original heathen sense.
Wordlore – etymology
Wyrd’s weaving – a kenning for “the future”

Endnotes
[i] Antiqui autem anlorum populi (neque enim mihi congruum videtur, aliarum gentium annalem observantiam dicere et meæ reticere) iuxta cursum lunæ suos menses computavere. Unde et a luna hebræorum et græcorum more nomen accipiunt; siquidem apud eos luna mona, mensis appellatur monath. siquidem apud eos luna mona, mensis appellatur monath. Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.

[ii] De mensibus Ideoque rectius ita definiendum, quod mensis lunae sit luminis lunaris circuitus, ac redintegratio de nova ad novam.  Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.

[iii] Ac his mónað is máre, þæt is ðonne hé gecyrð niwe from ðære sunnan oð þæt he eft cume hire forne gean, eald ⁊ ateorod, ⁊ eft ðurh hí béo ontend. Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.

[iv] Anre nihte eald mónan scynð feower prican, ac wé wyllað secgan fíf prican æfter Béda gesetnysse. Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.

[v] Ne sceal nan cristenman nan ðing be ðam mónan wiglian; gif he hit deð, his geleafa bið naht. Ne sceal nan cristenman nan ðing be ðam mónan wiglian; gif he hit deð, his geleafa bið naht. Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.

[vi] Sind eac manega mid swa micclum gedwylde befangene, þæt hí cepað be ðam monan heora fær, and heora dæda be dagum… Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.

[vii] Wé, forbeódaþ eornostlíce ǽlcne hǽðenscipe. Hǽðenscipe byð, þæt man god-gyld weorðige, þæt is þæt man weorðige hǽðene godas and sunnan and mónan,  fýr and flód, wæter-wyllas and stánas and ǽniges cynnes wudu-tréow, and wiccecræft lufige, and wundorweorc gefremme, oððe blóte oððe fyrht. Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.

[viii] on anre nihte ealde mónan. Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.

[ix] MS Cotton Tibrius A.iii. T10

[x] þonne se móna bið acenned on sunnandæig þæt tacanð iii þing on þam mónþe Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.

[xi] Gif hé bið on frígedæig akenned, þæt bið gód huntoð on þam mónþe. Wended from Old English by Þórbeorht.

[xii] Item principaliter annum totum in duo tempora, hiemis videlicet et æstatis, dispertiebant—sex illos menses quibus longiores sunt noctibus dies æstati tribuendo, sex reliquos hiemi. Unde et mensem quo hyemalia tempora incipiebant Vuinterfylleth appellabant, composito nomine ab hyeme et plenilunio, quia videlicet a plenilunio eiusdem mensis hyems sortiretur initium. Wended from Latin by Þórbeorht.

About Þórbeorht Línléah

Ealdorblótere (chief priest) at Whitthenge Heall of the Ealdríce, an Anglo-Saxon Théodish fellowship. Author of Of Ghosts and Godpoles: Theodish Essays Pertaining to the Reconstruction of Saxon Heathen Belief, Both Old and Anglo (2014). Author of Þæt Ealdríce’s Hálgungbóc: The Théodish Liturgy of Þæt Ealdríce (2015, 2016). Þórbeorht resides in Richmond, Virginia with his wife Eþelwynn and two daughters.
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