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It’s time for our monthly installment of the Shepheardes Calender, an epic poetic journey through the 12 months of the year which takes the form of dialogues between classically-minded shepherds concerning love, poetry, sheep, and politics. Ultimately the poem is about nature and the nature of reality and, of course, it is about love. We have come half-way through the year, from January’s abject darkness to glowing light of June. The exceedingly beautiful month of May featured a very peculiar and dark sort of fable. Likewise glorious June features a sad tale of love lost… The beauteous shepherdess Rosalind has left Colin for his arch-rival…yet this lament is couched within lovely pastoral poetry.

What is going on with this thing anyway? Who are these people and what are they talking about? Spenser wrote his poems for sophisticated classically-trained courtiers who delighted in unraveling complicated intrigues and unmasking hidden figures.  By this time, it has become plain that the unhappy, but gifted Colin represents Spenser himself.  Likewise the figure of Tityrus, “the God of Shepherds,” is Chaucer, the progenitor of English verse.  The identity of Rosalind, who appeared back in January to inaugurate the entire work, would seem to be the central mystery of The Shephearde’s Calender, but who she is…whether she represents love in general, or fame, or poetry…or whether she is some actual golden haired beauty whom the melancholic Spenser fixated upon is lost in time.

The poetry of each season has an entirely different character just as the months are each different.  So far the words have been honeyed and filigreed to the point where they are too pretty to understand, but June features the summer solstice–the turn of the year.  As the year darkens and winds down, the poems become earthier and easier to understand.  Perhaps we can get some closure on this Colin/Rosalind romance then, but if things are not good in June, when will they be good?

Well, there are still six months to come, but for now, here is June’s Aeglogue:

june

Aeglogue

HOBBINOL. COLIN.
Lo! Colin, here the Place, whose pleasant Sight
From other Shades hath wean’d my wandring Mind:
Tell me, what wants me here, to work Delight?
The simple Air, she gentle warbling Wind,
So calm, so cool, as no where else I find:
The grassy Ground with dainty Daisies dight,
The Bramble Bush, where Birds of every kind
To th’ Water’s Fall their Tunes attemper right.

COLIN.
O! happy Hoblinol, I bless thy State,
That Paradise hast found which Adam lost.
Here wander may thy Flock early or late,
Withouten Dread of Wolves to been ytost;
Thy lovely Lays here mayst thou freely boast:
But I, unhappy Man! whom cruel Fate,
And angry God, pursue from Coast to Coast,
Can no where find, to shroud my luckless Pate.

HOBBINOL.
Then if by me thou list advised be,
Forsake the Soil, that so doth thee bewitch:
Leave me those Hills, where Harbrough nis to see,
Nor Holly-bush, nor Brere, nor winding Ditch;
And to the Dales resort, where Shepherds rich,
And fruitful Flocks been every where to see:
Here no Night-Ravens lodge, more black than Pitch,
Nor elvish Ghosts, nor ghastly Owls do flee.

But friendly Fairies, met with many Graces,
And lightfoot Nymphs can chace the lingring Night,
With Heydeguies, and trimly trodden Traces;
Whilst Sisters nine, which dwell on Parnass’ hight,
Do make them Musick, for their mere Delight;
And Pan himself to kiss their crystal Faces,
Will pipe and daunce, when Phoebe shineth bright:
Such peerless Pleasures have we in these Places.

COLIN.
And I, whilst Youth, and Course of careless Years,
Did let me walk withouten Links of Love,
In such Delights did joy amongst my Peers;
But riper Age such Pleasures doth reprove,
My Fancy eke from former Follies move
To stayed Steps: for time in passing wears
(As Garments doen, which wexen old above)
And draweth new Delights with hoary Hairs.

Tho couth I sing of Love, and tune my Pipe
Unto my plaintive Pleas in Verses made:
Tho would I seek for Queen-Apples unripe,
To give my Rosalind, and in Sommer Shade
Dight gawdy Girlonds, was my common Trade,
To crown her golden Locks: but Years more ripe,
And Loss of her, whose Love as Life I wayde,
Those weary wanton Toys away did wipe.

HOBBINOL.
Colin, to hear thy Rimes and Roundelays,
Which thou wert wont on wasteful Hills to sing,
I more delight, then Lark in Sommer Days:
Whose Eccho made the neighbour Groves to ring,
And taught the Birds, which in the lower Spring
Did shroud in shady Leaves from sunny Rays;
Frame to thy Song their cheerful cheriping,
Or hold their Peace, for shame of thy sweet Lays.

I saw Calliope with Muses moe,
Soon as thy Oaten Pipe began to sound,
Their Ivory Lutes and Tamburins forgo:
And from the Fountain, where they sate around,
Ren after hastily thy silver Sound.
But when they came, where thou thy Skill didst show,
They drew aback, as half with Shame confound,
Shepherd to see, them in their Art out-go

COLIN.
Of Muses, Hobbinol, I con no Skill,
For they been Daughters of the highest Jove,
And holden Scorn of homely Shepherds-Quill:
For sith I heard that Pan with Phoebus strove,
Which him to much Rebuke and Danger drove,
I never list presume to Parnass’ Hill,
But piping low, in shade of lowly Grove,
I play to please my self, albeit ill.

Nought weigh I, who my Song doth praise or blame,
Ne rive to win Renown, or pass the rest:
With Shepherd fits not follow flying Fame,
But feed his Flock in Fields, where falls him best.
I wote my Rimes been rough, and rudely drest;
The fitter they, my careful Case to frame:
Enough is me to paint out my Unrest,
And pour my piteous Plaints out in the same.

The God of Shepherds, Tityrus is dead,
Who taught me homely, as I can, to make:
He, whilst he lived, was the sovereign Head
Of Shepherds all, that been with Love ytake.
Well couth he wail his Woes, and lightly slake
The Flames, which Love within his Heart had bred,
And tell us merry Tales, to keep us wake,
The while our Sheep about us safely fed.

Now dead he is, and lieth wrapt in Lead,
(O why should Death on him such Outrage show!)
And all his passing Skill with him is fled,
The Fame whereof doth daily greater grow.
But if on me some little Drops would flow
Of that the Spring was in his learned Hed,
I soon would learn these Woods to wail my Woe,
And teach the Trees their trickling Tears to shed.

Then should my Plaints, caus’d of Discourtesee,
As Messengers of this my painful Plight,
Fly to my Love, wherever that she be,
And pierce her Heart with Point of worthy Wight;
As she deserves, that wrought so deadly Spight.
And thou, Menalcas, that by Treachery
Didst underfong my Lass to wax so light,
Should’st well be known for such thy Villany.

But since I am not, as I wish I were,
Ye gentle Shepherds, which your Flock do feed,
Whether on Hills, or Dales, or other where,
Bear witness all of this so wicked Deed:
And tell the Lass, whose Flowre is woxe a Weed,
And faultless Faith is turn’d to faithless Fear,
That she the truest Shepherd’s Heart made bleed,
That lives on Earth, and loved her most dear.

HOBBINOL.
O! careful Colin, I lament thy Case,
Thy Tears would make the hardest Flint to flow!
Ah! faithless Rosalind, and void of Grace,
That are the Root of all this rueful Woe!
But now is time, I guess, homeward to go;
Then rise, ye blessed Flocks, and home apace,
Lest Night with stealing Steps do you foreslo,
And wet your tender Lambs, that by you trace.

COLIN’S EMBLEM.
Gia speme spenta.

[Works, ed. Hughes (1715) 4:1074-78]

Pshh ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist's conception)

Pshh…ha ha ha! I mean, um, the planet Nibiru collides with Earth (artist’s conception)

According to wild-eyed (& hare-brained) eschatologists the world is supposed to end tomorrow (December 21st, 2012) as the Mesoamerican long-count calendar runs out.  The methodology of destruction is a bit unclear, but a general consensus (of stupid crackpots) seems to hold that the nonexistent mystery planet Nibiru will slam into the Earth and everything will disintegrate in fire.  Volcanoes and solar storms are also somehow featured in some versions of the narrative.

Super bitchin' Mayan Calendar

Super bitchin’ Mesoamerican Calendar

All of this sounds very exciting—and it would certainly prove immensely fascinating to astronomers who keep a close watch on the local solar system with telescopes and spacecraft–and have never seen any hint of the apocalyptic space phenomena made up by crazy people. Yet I think we are overlooking a big part of the fun.  The long count calendar is a 5,125-year reckoning of time created by the ancient Mayans.  Since tomorrow’s apocalypse is therefore Mayan, one would certainly expect the lords of Xibalba (the Mayan gods of the underworld) to show up to harrow the Earth–or, you know, at least to assist Nibiru in finishing off the job.   Dedicated readers will recall that we have already met the gods of Xibalba in this dramatic post concerning the great heroic quest at the center of Mayan mythology.  To summarize, the sun and the moon went down into the dark torture city of Xibalba to free their father’s spirit and release the living world from slavery to the gods below.  After an epic magical battle, the story ended Hollywood-style with the twins burning and hacking all of the underworld gods to pieces.  The heroes then apotheosizing into the familiar celestial bodies we know and love.

I really love this picture

I really love this picture

This would not seem to bode well for the lords of Xibalba (what with the being killed and all), yet underworld deities are wily and treacherous–so we should not count them out of the picture despite the fact that they were chopped up and fricasseed.  So that you can more fully appreciate the Mayan apocalypse (or if it goes badly, so you will know whom you are talking with in the afterlife) here is a comprehensive listing of the Lords of Xibalba.  These characters operate in themed pairs–which is why each entry contains two gods):

Ahalmez (Sweepings Demon) and Ahaltocob (Stabbing Demon): are gods for the obsessively cleanly.  They hide in dirty or unswept areas of peoples’ houses and, when the filth is too much, leap out to kill the slovenly inhabitants.

Xiquiripat (Flying Scab) & Cuchumaquic (Gathered Blood) are both blood-themed gods who cause septicemia/blood poisoning

Ahalpuh (Pus Demon) and Ahalgana (Jaundice Demon), are tumor gods who cause people’s bodies to swell up with poison dropsy;

Chamiabac (Bone Staff) and Chamiaholom (Skull Staff), are bone demons who turn dead bodies into skeletons.

Xic (Wing) and Patan (Packstrap), are gods of pneumonia and lung disorder who cause travelers to choke to death from pneuma disorders.

Most importantly One Death and Seven Death were the two rulers of the underworld.  They were synonymous with death itself (although I have no idea what their jersey numbers stand for).

The Lords of Xibalba

The Lords of Xibalba

Hmm, all right, that is a pretty scary list and these guys certainly sound like bad news (although none of them seem to be particularly affiliated with planetary collision).  I guess we will keep our eyes peeled for stabby glowing characters in loincloths jumping out from behind the refrigerator.

Of course if the end of the days truly has you down, it is worth listening to David Morrison, an astronomer at Nasa, who has gone on record to say, “At least once a week I get a message from a young person, as young as 11, who says they are ill and/or contemplating suicide because of the coming doomsday. I think it’s evil for people to propagate rumours on the internet to frighten children.”

That seems like a pretty direct slap in the face to the lords of Xibalba (assuming any of them survived the rampage of Hunahpu and Xbalanque).   I guess we’ll watch the heavens tomorrow with interest.  If anyone is incredibly scared, you can come over to my place for chocolate pie, hot peppers, and tequila.

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie "The Fountain"

A still image from the extremely logical and coherent movie “The Fountain”

Happy solstice!

Happy leap day!  Every time one comes around it makes me cast my mind back to where I was on past leap days—grinding through elementary school; about to graduate high school; about to graduate college; working without meaning at a parasitic bank, and so on.  Four years is a convenient marker in human life and there is something memorable about the end of winter as life takes a breath before flinging itself into spring.  However, if you keep leaping back over the century and millennia, eventually the leap years run out.

Prior to Julius Caesar, the Roman calendar was 355 days long.  Following such a calendar for any length of time caused the months to drift out of alignment with the seasons, so the ancient Romans sporadically included a leap month named Mercedonius, or Intercalaris.  Mercedonius, when it happened, was 27 days long and followed February.

February was named for the Latin word februum, which means “purification.”  Romans did not like even numbers (they regarded odd numbers as lucky).  February was the one month of the Roman year with an even number of days and so the Romans thought of the winter month as a time of purification and cleansing.  The Romans did not care for cold dark February, so they made it shorter than all other months—28 days.  Whenever Mercedonius was declared, February became shorter still—shrinking down to 23 days (at least this is probably what happened—contemporary classicists are still arguing about the precise mechanism of the ancient Roman calendar).

The pontifex maximus, the highest Priest of ancient Rome, was responsible for deciding when to insert Mercedonius into the calendar.  Throughout most of the history of Rome this worked well, however it broke down badly at least two times.  During the second Punic War, Roman society was so badly damaged by Hannibal’s invasion that the Romans lost track of Mercedonius and literally did not know what time it was.  After the battle was won, order was restored with the reforms of the Lex Acilia in 191 BC (the nature of which are unknown—but which seem to have solved everything).

"Excuse me, but do you perhaps know today's date?"

The second breakdown occurred during the years of confusion leading up to Julius Caesar’s ascendancy as dictator for life.  The pontifex maximus was inevitably a powerful citizen who was deeply involved in Roman politics.  He could interfere with the length of time other elected officials served by shortening or lengthening the year.  As civil war enveloped Rome, the calendar became a political tool and Romans again lost track of what day it was.  The confusion was only solved when Caesar took supreme office and proclaimed himself pontifex maximus.  He reformed the addled calendar into the Julian calendar, which abolished Mercedonius, the haphazard leap month, forever.

The "Tusculum bust" of Julius Caesar, possibly the only survivng portrait from Caesar's lifetime

Father Time Discovers Truth Trampling Feudalism (French School, circa 1792-93, intaglio print)

Today is December 1, 2010.  It is now the last month of the last year of this decade (and good riddance to the “aughts”).  As the calendar winds down, one’s thoughts invariably turn to timekeeping.  Although the dominant calendars of history–the Jewish calendar, the Chinese calendar, the Moslem calendar, the Aztec calendar (!)–are each fascinating in their own right, I thought today I might feature a calendar which I admire for its tremendous poetry.  It is also remarkable for its epic stupidity.  I mean of course the calendar of the French Revolution aka “the Republican Calendar”.

This calendar was introduced in 1793 to bring rigorous standardization to what the leaders of the Revolution regarded as a slipshod artifact of the aristocracy. The makers of the new calendar wanted to purge the year of its religious associations and bring an enlightenment (and Roman classicist) frame of reference to the months and days.  They did this by reinventing everything wholesale.

To quote a whole page from Wikipedia:

The Republican calendar year began at the autumn equinox and had twelve months of 30 days each, which were given new names based on nature, principally having to do with the prevailing weather in and around Paris.

  • Autumn:
    • Vendémiaire in French (from Latin vindemia, “grape harvest”), starting 22, 23 or 24 September
    • Brumaire (from French brume, “fog”), starting 22, 23 or 24 October
    • Frimaire (From French frimas, “frost”), starting 21, 22 or 23 November
  • Winter:
    • Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, “snowy”), starting 21, 22 or 23 December
    • Pluviôse (from Latin pluvius, “rainy”), starting 20, 21 or 22 January
    • Ventôse (from Latin ventosus, “windy”), starting 19, 20 or 21 February
  • Spring:
    • Germinal (from Latin germen, “germination”), starting 20 or 21 March
    • Floréal (from Latin flos, “flower”), starting 20 or 21 April
    • Prairial (from French prairie, “pasture”), starting 20 or 21 May
  • Summer:
    • Messidor (from Latin messis, “harvest”), starting 19 or 20 June
    • Thermidor (or Fervidor) (from Greek thermon, “summer heat”), starting 19 or 20 July
    • Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”), starting 18 or 19 August

(Thanks Wikipedia! Good luck with your donation drive!)

All of this was rightfully pilloried by the English who (somewhat brilliantly) characterized the Republican months as “Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy; Slippy, Drippy and Nippy; Showery, Flowery and Bowery; Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety”.  Of course years are longer than 360 days, so each Republican year ended with five holidays (or six, on leap years) dedicated to heroes of the revolution.  The calendar abolished the Babylonian week in favor a ten day week confusingly known as a “decade.”  Familiar 24 hour chronology was replaced with decimal time–concerning which, the least said, the better (if you really want to know about this abomination click here).  The years were recorded with Roman numbers.  By Republican reckoning today would therefore be 11 Frimaire an CCXIX.

This is all baffling to good Gregorian thinkers like ourselves.  In fact it was always confusing to everyone–even the most dedicated Jacobins.  After 12 years, during which the French did not know what day, or month, or year, it was, Napoleon finally abolished the Republican calendar on 1 January 1806 (aka the day after 10 Nivôse an XIV).

The brilliant and beautiful part of the Republican calendar lay in the agrarian poetry of the individual days.  During the Ancien Régime, the days of the year were each associated with a saint or a religious festival.  With Enlightenment zeal, the Republican calendar did away with this and each day was associated with either an animal (for days ending in “5”); a tool (for days ending in zero), or a plant/agricultural product (for all other days).  Today 11 Frimaire is “Cire” which means honeycomb.  Yesterday was “Pioche” (Pickaxe) and tomorrow will be “Raifort” (Horseradish).  The plants, animals, and items were all chosen to be synchronized with the rhythm of the year.  For example the animals characteristic of Floréal (which roughly corresponds to May) are the nightingale, the silkworm, and the carp.

Pickaxe, Beeswax, Horseradish: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (source: French Republican Calendar)

This all sounds goofy and it is, but just look over this chart of the days of the Republican year with their individual associations. If you bring a poet’s imagination I guarantee you will be charmed.

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