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How was "The Tyme Appointed"?

by Anthony Aveni

Jerry Fortune of the Rappahannock tribe

Virginia's Powhatan Indians, here represented by Jerry Fortune of the Rappahannock tribe, made the heavens their calendar.

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Imagine living without watches or calendars. How would you know when your bills were due or when to plan periodic visits to your dentist or physician? For most cultures that thrived before the invention of the mechanical clock the time to stop work was reckoned by whether you could see heads on a coin, and lunchtime was determined by raising your hand skyward to see whether the sun had reached its highest point. Longer-term intervals were counted off on notched sticks, and by the lost art of moon watching.

The neat thing about the moon is that anyone who pays attention to it can easily discern changes in its face from day to day. The moon begins its month-long cycle as a thin "first crescent," visible in the west shortly after sunset. Within a week it moves farther from the setting sun as it waxes to a D-shaped first quarter seen high on the meridian. Then it bulges through the waxing gibbous phase as it grows to a full moon. Rising directly opposite the setting sun, it takes over the duties of lighting the sky all night in the sun's absence. That seven-day period from quarter to full correlates perfectly with our week, a convenient timing device in agrarian societies because that's just about the time it takes to pick vegetables, carry them to a regional market, dispense them be-fore they spoil, and get back to the fields after a day of rest to repeat the market cycle.

During the last two weeks of the 29-day lunar cycle, the process takes place in reverse, as the moon transforms itself through waning gibbous to last quarter and finally to the thinnest of crescents seen hovering over the predawn sun before it disappears for a day or two. The British term "fortnight," which stands for two weeks or fourteen nights may have been a spin-off of the early relationship between the week and the month—an interval that divides the month into its pair of familiar half cycles from new to full and from full to new moon. Then it happens all over again. Little wonder lunar mythologies all over the world characterize the man in the moon as a nocturnal hero who waxes to maturity, only to be eaten away in old age by the devil of darkness. Though his feeble remnant falls from the sky, his son soon rises anew to avenge the death of his father.

In low-tech societies, the month-to-month intervals are convenient for reckoning major changes in the environment, such as when the rains come and go, when the bear hibernates, when the salmon spawn or the geese go away, when the mulberries are ripe or the nuts ready to crush to make flour, when the corn should be planted and harvested. All of these events and activities functioned as names of months in the orally transmitted calendars of Native Americans. Harvest, the first, and Hunter's, the second, full moons following the autumn equinox on September 22 or 23 are familiar northeast native survivals.

The Powhatan Indians, as Virginia's band of Algonquians are known, were no exception.

The moon
passes through a cycle of illumination, known as a lunation, in 29.5 days.

The moon passes through a cycle of illumination, known as a lunation, in 29.5 days. The composite of twenty-four digital photos, shot by António Cidad‹o through a reflecting telescope in his home rooftop observatory in Oeiras, Portugal, tracks half a lunation.

sophisticated use Indians made of natural wealth, suggested by the
interpretations of Henricus Historical Park and Pete McKee, embraced the sky.

The sophisticated use Indians made of natural wealth, suggested by the interpretations of Henricus Historical Park and Pete McKee, embraced the sky.

Edward Waterhouse, in the 1623 Virginia Company of London tract A Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia, described the Powhatans as "naked, tanned, deformed, savages ...no other than wild beasts," and "worse then their old Deuill which they worship." The Powhatan, to the contrary, were skilled lunar timekeepers. These farming hunter-gatherers, who lived in a land of rivers, bays, and estuaries, grew corn and vegetables in summer, took game in winter, and fished during spring. They reckoned a "moon of stags," a "corn moon," and a first and second "moon of cohonks"—the Algonquian word sounds just like the call of the geese, the sound from which the word derives. Moreover, they tallied their moons by knots on strings and notched sticks.

Any effective lunar calendar must be in sync with the seasonal or solar year, which the crop cycle follows. But as nature would have it, the moon and sun have trouble living together in harmony. Our years of 365+ days can accommodate twelve lunar cycles, or 354 days, with a shortfall of eleven days, or thirteen with an overrun of eighteen, that is to say, 383 days. Our Roman forebears, who bequeathed us the calendar we use, force-fitted the two cycles together. They artificially lengthened the months to thirty and thirty-one days, a most unnatural choice for attentive sky watchers, which the Romans decidedly were not. Another solution for keeping seasonal time by the moon would be to keep successive twelve-month years, inserting a thirteenth month into the year cycle when necessary to make up for lost time, as we do with our Leap Year. Many Native American tribes, likely including the Powhatans, did just that.

Some were more precise with their lunar reckoning. We know the Delaware named the phases of the same moon; for example, the new moon, likely the first visible crescent; the round or full moon; and the half round, or probably last quarter, moon. The intervals between the directly visible phases—ranging from a few to several days—proved convenient in day-to-day practical operations. Think of how often in a given day you refer to activities that will take place "after the weekend," "early next week," or "in a few weeks."

"Little Corn," "Great Corn," "Turkey," "Cold Meal," and "Deer" are a long way from our abstract January, February, March, and April, but what we learn from Native American timekeeping is that the names given to time periods represent "lived time"—the activity itself. And in any successful society such activity would necessarily include scheduling the conduct of war.

One of the most revealing discoveries about the recently deciphered inscriptions of the ancient Maya of Yucatan is that they undertook their raids in neighboring cities when the maize was already in the ground, that is, after the intensive labor associated with sowing the crop following the rains had already been dispensed with. We know this because hieroglyphs and imagery pertaining to warfare have been correlated with the appearance of the planet Venus at specific times in the seasonal year. The Maya were conducting real "Star Wars."

As we learn from "The tyme appointed," Mary Miley Theobald's article published elsewhere in this issue, although there were undoubtedly some profoundly political causes, such as loss of land, dissatisfaction over English policies, avenging recent wrongs, and so forth, the crucial question of the proximate cause or causes remains unsettled. Timing of the end-of-winter attack is another issue, and this is where the moon enters our story. Early spring would have been an illogical time for the Powhatan to rise against an adversary.


The Virginia Company of London emphasized the naturalism of Eiasuntomino on a 1615 broadside promoting a fund-raising lottery for Jamestown.


Matahan, also portrayed on the Virginia Company of London broadside, lived in adaptive harmony with the rhythms of Nature's seasons.

John Smith tells us that May was the main corn—along with pumpkin and melon—planting month, with some early planting in April and later planting in June. Each crop was reaped four months later. These crucial Nepinough, or corn-earing, months were the busiest time in the agricultural cycle; it would have been important to the natives to recoup the fields after an attack by the middle of May to allow enough time to perform these vital activities. Though the record is sparse, given what we know of their methods for keeping time, it is not at all implausible that the Powhatan would have conducted star—or moon—wars of their own. What little we do know of the celestial circumstances surrounding the Powhatan coups of 1622 and 1644 points to it.

On the eve of the March 22, 1622, attack, calculations reveal that the moon was in its third quarter phase and that it rose in the south-southeast in the constellation of Sagittarius about an hour past midnight. The moon presented almost precisely the same aspect the night before the April 18, 1644, attack: third quarter, rising, this time in Capricorn, in the same direction, also about one hour after midnight. Successful attacks require not only good timing but advance planning. Waterhouse's account of the first uprising says, "Several days before this bloodthirsty people put their plan into execution they led some of our people through very dangerous woods," and, "On Friday before the day appointed by them for the attack they visited, entirely unharmed, some of our people in their dwellings."

If Opechancanough, who masterminded both attacks, wanted to plan them on these dates, the most obvious way to convey his intent to his cohorts would have been to set the lunar clock by counting days from the first visible crescent. For more effective long-range planning the Powhatans, an association of scattered tribes, could have synchronized the strikes to take place on a particular moon in the cycle, provided they shared an intertribal calendar—another not unlikely assumption.

For the 1622 attack, in the latitude of Virginia, first visible crescent occurred March 1; for the 1644 episode it happened March 28—in both cases twenty-one days, or three-quarters of a lunar cycle, before history records the dramatic results.

Why, then, did the two attacks occur a month apart—one in March, the other in April—as reckoned by our calendar? Here we need to call to mind two facts we have already learned about native timekeeping: first, the moon always takes precedence; and second, there can be twelve or thirteen moon cycles in a lunar year. Suppose, for example, that we count moons from the December solstice, which is December 21, the day when the sun rises and sets farthest to the south.

Suppose Year One—or better, "Sun One"—ends with the completion of the twelfth moon, eleven days short of the winter solstice of Year Two. Then the first moon of Year Two will begin with the observation of the first crescent around December 10. If Sun Two also contains twelve moons, then the first moon of Sun Three will begin about November 30. Clearly, the next year cycle, or Sun Four, would be a most convenient one in which to insert a thirteenth moon.

Now, if we were to count to last quarter from the first crescent of Moon One of Sun One, we would arrive at December 21 + twenty-one days, or January 11. But if we performed the same operation, in say Sun Three, we would land on December 21 (November 30 + twenty-one days). From this hypothetical example it is easy to see that, with a casual system for intercalating months, identical dates in the Powhatan moon calendar could correspond to dates up to a month apart in our sun or seasonal calendar.

The moon was
in its third quarter

The moon was in its third quarter in March 1622 and April 1644 when Virginia's Native Americans attacked European intruders.

on Spanish missionaries near Yorktown in 1571

The engravings shown above and below were published in 1675 at Prague by Melchior Küssell. The conjectural images depict a Native American, who some historians think could have been Opechancanough, leading attacks on Spanish missionaries near Yorktown in 1571 during a first quarter moon.

on Spanish missionaries near Yorktown in 1571

The historical record conflicts on whether Opechancanough took Easter into account when planning the attacks. What makes this difficult to corroborate in real time is that Easter is computed in such a wide variety of ways that reckoning when it was celebrated is difficult. Incidentally, there is a touch of irony in the fact that our way of calculating Easter depends on the Jewish lunar calendar, and, like dates set in the Powhatan lunar calendar, it, too, is a movable holiday—it floats in the seasonal calendar.

To make matters more difficult, because the events under consideration occurred in the century following major corrections of the Western calendar, there has been considerable confusion over whether dates reported by Virginia's earliest historians are given in the Julian, or Old Style, calendar in use in Roman Catholic Europe before 1582 or the Gregorian, New Style, calendar adopted since. The two calendars differed by eleven days at that time, but the computation of Easter yields dates up to a month apart. Thus, in 1622 Easter Sunday, Old Style, fell on April 21, but it occurred on March 27, New Style. Could it be that those who noted that the attack took place around the Easter holiday were referring the Old Style March 22 date to the New Style celebration of Easter, five days before which it took place?

By striking coincidence both versions of Easter fell on exactly the same dates in 1644, the year of the second uprising. But this time if we wish to juxtapose it with the Paschal holiday, as some historical accounts require, we must assume that the record refers to the Old Style Easter date. In that case the attack would have taken place three days before Easter. Unfortunately no 1644 almanacs seem to survive, but an extrapolation of an Anglican common prayer book dated 1641 suggests that the April, Old Style, date is indeed the most likely one to have been recognized in the colonies.

Last, and not often considered in the problem of whether the Powhatan coups were celestially timed, there are the circumstances of the attack on the mission of the Jesuits, who first attempted to establish permanent settlements in Virginia. It happened on the eve of the feast of Purification, or Candlemas, which was February 2, in the year 1571. What transpired in the sky the night before?

A quarter moon, this time first quarter, rode high in the sky at sunset, illuminating the landscape until midnight. Might this signal a tradition of strikes on the enemy at quarter moons coinciding with key points in their holiday cycle? Only our lack of knowledge of Powhatan religious and social customs prevents us from speculating further.

Anthony Aveni, editor or author of more than two dozen books on ancient astronomy, is the Russell B. Colgate Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology, serving in the department of physics and astronomy and the department of sociology and anthropology at Colgate University. He helped develop the field of archaeoastronomy, and his research in the astronomical history of the Maya Indians of ancient Mexico puts him among the founders of Mesoamerican archaeoastronomy. This is his first contribution to the journal.