(Celtic) Coligny Calendar

The Celtic calendar has been estimated by scholars based (amongst other evidence) on the re-assembled remains of a 5ft wide, beaten copper, ‘perpetual’ calendar buried in the ground in Coligny, Gaul, to protect it after it was destroyed, probably by the Romans.

The Coligny calendar had little peg holes next to every single day which helped the Gaulish Celts track time across a fixed five year (60 month) period. It established a year of twelve months of 29 or 30 days with a leap month every 2.5 years to correct seasonal drift. While it seems fiddly to interject a whole month every 2.5 years it’s much simpler to think of it as every thirty months. Simpler still if you consider it as mid-way and end of the 60 month period. Suddenly it’s quite straight forward and must have made as much easy sense to the Celts as “thirty days has September, April, June, and November…” does to us.

The Coligny Calendar (photo: D. Bachmann - image is in the public domain).
The Celts were big on duality (things being either one thing or the other — dark time of year/light time of year, summer/winter, good/bad, day/night) and so it makes sense that they would divide their 60 month period into two halves and mark each with an extra month at its end. And depending on what the climate was doing that month would either have been extra harvest/work time or extra hunkering down/winter time.

To stop it slowly creeping too far the other way, every five ‘sets’ of 60 months (ie: every 30 Coligny years or 40 actual years) they would finish the period and NOT have the extra month, dragging it back by 30ish days. Those simple rules kept the Coligny Calendar (ie: the Celtic calendar) ticking along accurately and comparisons to the modern/Gregorian calendar certainly show it keeps admirable pace with our own sense of timekeeping.

Celtic Month

Experts are divided on what phase of the moon the Celts started their month. Modern, western society starts ours on the ‘new’ moon (when it’s fully dark). Some think the Celts started on the full moon because that’s when they celebrated festivals etc.

But Pliny the Elder (who, it must be said, captured many correct details of popular culture of his time but managed to either invent or misreport many others) wrote of the Celts beginning their month on ‘the fifth day of the moon’. This seems like a bit of a random time to start a month until you consider that it coincides with the quarter-moon, a phase in which the moon appears exactly half/half light and dark to us on Earth.



Half/half is a pretty unequivocal kind of shape (compared to the three-day linger of a new and full moon) because every eye turned to the sky could see when the moon was exactly divided (even one day before or after a quarter-moon is visibly not half/half). And it fits with the common Celtic practice of interpreting their world dualistically.

Starting the Celtic month at a quarter-moon ensures that the first fortnight is ‘light’ as the moon gets fuller and brighter, and that the fortnight following it is ‘dark’ as the moon goes back to being in shadow. In fact, the Celts seemed to call them a bright moon and dark moon respectively (rather than ‘full’ and ‘new’ which are contemporary terms). This fits with references in the Coligny Calendar to the Mat and Anmat periods in the first and second halves of the month. (mat meaning ‘light’, and an as we’ve seen elsewhere meaning absence of).

Therefore, if a month began on the quarter moon (half/half) then the mat fortnight would take us through the brightest part of the month, until the three-quarter moon (where the half/half is reversed) and then the period marked as Anmat would predominantly feature a dark moon. But… the Coligny Calendar clearly marks the second fortnight of each month with the Gaulish word Atenoux which has been translated as the return of light. The dark fortnight would most definitely end in the return of light. So perhaps the Atenoux fortnight was all about looking forward to the moon’s return.

Celtic Days, Weeks and Fortnights

Pre-Christian Celts counted the passage of time in nights (starting and finishing at sunset) rather than days, with longer periods being se’nnight (seven nights) and fortnights (forten-night or fourteen night).

The concept of fortnights is much older but the word itself comes from the Old English fēowertyne niht (fourteen nights). It has long outlasted its cousin ‘sennight’ which has fallen out of use now. 

Though neither word was actually used by Celts lingering in post Roman Wales (who would have had their own word for it), I’ve used it in y Ddraig so that it’s meaningful to readers (except for those in the US which is reportedly the only English-speaking country in the world not to use the term).