LESSON Fantasy Worldbuilding — Calendars and Methods of Keeping Time

Discussion in 'DEVELOPING CHARACTERS & CULTURES' started by Malkuthe Highwind, Mar 23, 2016.

  1. Fantasy Worldbuilding - Calendars and Methods of Keeping Time


    Do not be alarmed by the massive red triangle with an exclamation point within. This guide should not, if you are an upstanding citizen of Iwaku, hurt you.

    In any case, I would like to preface this guide with a simple disclaimer. While the concepts outlined here may very well apply in other genres, the information is provided predominantly with the assumptions that one: you are developing a world that involves the supernatural(deities, magic, or otherwise); and that two: you are developing for a Fantasy setting.

    If, however, you are developing for any other genre, do not fret. This information still applies, however, it is incomplete. That is alright, though, as workshops like this one are intended to be stepping stones and not specific guides pointing to how to do worldbuilding right. There is no single "right" way to do worldbuilding, so feel free to use the concepts shown here and adapt them to your own worlds.

    With that in mind, please, do not hesitate to proceed with the workshop.

    Calendars? Systems of Keeping Time?For the purposes of this workshop, let's refer to these two things as Calendars and Timesystems respectively. And because any good discussion begins with a proper delineation of terms, let's define Calendars and Timesystems as two very distinct things:

    Calendars — Any system that is used in order to keep track of the passage of time on a longer scale. At the minimum, Calendars keep track of the passage of periods of time greater than the culture's equivalent of a "day." In our world, Calendars involve days, weeks, months and years.

    Timesystems — A timesystem, compared to a calendar, measures an entirely different realm of time. Timesystems measure the passage of time on the day to day, dividing each culture's equivalent of a "day" into measurable chunks of time. In our world, our timesystem encompasses periods(ante-meridiem[a.m.] and post-meridiem[p.m.]), hours, minutes, seconds, and smaller subdivisions of time after that.

    Why Do I Even Need to Think About This for My World?Because it makes your world feel much more alive and dynamic! One of the problems that plagues modern fantasy is its homogeneity. Even George R.R. Martin's acclaimed the Song of Ice and Fire doesn't play too much on language differences and how cultures differ on the smaller scales. Of course it makes for easier reading and less of a need for exposition, but that's the beautiful thing about worldbuilding... exposition isn't required for many things, but if the opportunity comes up, you should jump on it!

    Calendars and timesystems are central to the way that most cultures and civilizations work. After all, agricultural peoples need to keep track of when the best times to plat crops is, and when the best time to harvest them comes. How does someone from one culture know when to meet someone from another culture entirely if the other person uses a measure of time that is foreign to him? Say someone in our world, who counts hours at 60-minute intervals, wanted to meet with someone at 8:00 AM, but the other person counted hours in 90-minute intervals. The first person would be at the agreed meeting place at 8:00 AM, but the other person wouldn't be there until 12:00 PM, four hours(by the first person's counting) later.

    On the larger scale, how can historians of one culture determine how many years it has been since auspicious events in another culture? In recent history we have already gone through two kinds of calendars: the Julian and the Gregorian. Conversion from one to the other is a pain. What if two cultures meet and the way that they measure the long-scale passage of time is as different as the way we do with the way that the Maya did?

    Calendars and timesystems, while seemingly trivial at first, can add a lot of life to your world if done right, so why not give them a think?

    Let's Talk about CalendarsWhy are Calendars so Important? — The first and probably most obvious use of a calendar is in the field of agriculture. With a calendar, provided that the world experiences regular cyclical changes of seasons, a civilization can standardize the best and worst times to plant crops and to harvest them. More than that, though, it gives people a general idea of when preparations, for periods of time when less food is around, should begin. Say, for example, you have a world where one civilization gets all its foods from lush, fertile fields at the borders of a river at the heart of its territory, but there is seasonal flooding for about three or four 'months' when nothing can be planted. A calendar, while not necessarily perfectly accurate, may give them an idea of how much time they have to prepare before they get cut off from their primary source of food.

    Another, but probably entirely underrated purpose for a calendar is solidifying the scale of history. Without a calendar, events in the past fall under 'recent past,' 'little further past,' 'very far past,' and 'time immemorial,' basically. These are abstract and arbitrary concepts. With a calendar, a people can know just how far back in their history a certain auspicious event occurred. An event that would otherwise have been classified as 'a long time ago' could become more concrete—'it happened 45 years ago.'

    How Varied Can They Be? — Depending on the purpose for which a calendar is conceived, it can take on considerably different forms. Take the Maya, for example. It is very popular knowledge that the Maya created a long-count calendar that keeps track of dates on timescales bordering on the obscene, however, it is less known that later on, the Maya adopted an abbreviated version of this calendar, known aptly as the short-count calendar. Certain types of calendars are better fitted for keeping track of the passage of certain scales of time.

    The Gregorian Calendar, for example, which is still in use in the world today is decent for keeping track of the passage of time on the scale of decades or even centuries. This is just as well, as most human lifetimes will not see the turning of a century from the date of their births. However, the Gregorian Calendar fails to capture the sheer magnitude of the cosmological timescale, and not because the numbers reach absurd levels. No, the reason the Gregorian Calendar is not a good tool when it comes to considering the cosmos is the fact that to a human mind, the billions and trillions of years on which the universe operates is simply inconceivable. There doesn't exist an intuitive understanding of such huge numbers.

    In Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos(successor of Carl Sagan's earlier series of the same name), the concept of a "cosmic calendar" is introduced. This, in contrast to the Gregorian Calendar, is able to capture what the passage of time means in the cosmological sense. Sure, it is a daunting concept all the same, but it is relatively less so, particularly because the "cosmic calendar" comes with an inherent scale factor that helps the human mind grasp the magnitude of cosmological timescales. In the cosmic calendar, which takes on the same format as the Gregorian Calendar, all of written human history takes place in the last 14 seconds.

    I would further make the claim that the development of a calendrical system is intimately linked to the longevity of individuals of a certain culture. Longer-lived folk may elect to develop and establish long-form systems of measuring time that span many lifetimes of a much shorter-lived race, while those like us, with relatively short lifespans may choose to develop systems spanning much shorter periods so that every lifetime feels fulfilling. For example, if the year of an immortal elf is 90 years in the Gregorian Calendar, a human being that lives under the Elven calendar is more likely to feel like they have not reached a significant milestone--the turning of the year--in their lifetime.

    But Malkuthe, how will these creatures keep track of the passage of time on such a long scale? Well, here's the thing, any cyclical phenomenon can be used to determine the beginning or ending of a certain period of time. Say for example, there exists a civilization living on a shore with evenly spaced holes in a nearby cliff-face that begin to 'weep' seawater when the tide comes in at certain times of the year. These people are likely to look at the holes in the nearby cliff-face and define the passage of "seasons" by the number of them that are 'weeping' seawater. This would be considered a short-form calendrical system as the passage of the "seasons" in this regard are governed only by the orbit of the planet, which conceivably should not take very long.

    What about a race of dwarves who never climb to the surface, whose only conception of the long-term passage of time is something that they call the "heartbeat" of the mountain? That is, the regular rising and falling of magma in an open, active volcanic chamber that occurs in cycles that are much too long for a single human lifetime.

    Let's Talk about TimesystemsTimesystems. Why? — Where Calendars are meant to solidify the footing of history and to compartmentalize the passage of time on the long term, Timesystems serve a much different purpose. Timesystems are meant to instead divide the day into manageable chunks of time for whatever purposes as they might serve.

    Timesystems may play a significant role in religions, as a matter of fact, and some religious practices, such as praying at certain times of the day, would be nigh-impossible without Timesystems. Alternatively, Timesystems may in fact inform the practices developed by certain religions, with certain cyclical occurrences in the day having some sort of theological significance. Just imagine a particular culture developing an act of ritual religious observation whenever the sun reaches its zenith. If it is a sun-worshipping people, they may interpret high noon as a time when their god is looking expectantly down upon them and create rituals accordingly.

    Furthermore, Timesystems determine the periods of the day when individuals are expected to work or to unwind after work. One could easily imagine that in a world where the tides are used to divide the day that the first high tide marks the beginning of work while the first low tide marks the end of the work day.

    What can be used to define Timesystems? — Any short-period cyclical phenomenon can work. the obvious one for most words is just the rising and the setting of the sun. While the sun is up, it is day. When the sun goes down, it is night. But this isn't very interesting and for many reasons. All it does is divide the day into two parts and doesn't really give much meaning other than "this is when you're awake and doing stuff" and "this is when you go to sleep and don't do stuff."

    As I suggested above, the tides could be a useful reference for primitive peoples. On an earth-like planet, the depending on the coastline, tides may come twice a day. Two high tides and two low tides each day. The first high tide may signal the beginning of the day for a coastal people. Perhaps high tide means that they will perform religious observances for an hour or two, and then they make and eat breakfast. Then, afterward, with the turning of the tide, the work day begins. The fishermen head out into deeper waters, helped by the retreat of the tide, while others comb the ocean floor that is exposed by the retreat of the seawater. Then, when the tide turns again, it signals the end of the work day and life continues on and on in such a manner.

    Alternatively, for a subterranean civilization, compartmentalizing the day may be difficult. If there is an area that is open to the sky, then it is a simple matter of looking at when it is dark or when it is bright in that area. Imagine a cave people who have no idea that there is a world beyond their subterranean home. They only know that a particular room in the depths of the mountain lights up and then goes dark at regular intervals. This may be their conception of "day." Alternatively, people who live underground may strive to create artificial ways of measuring the passage of time. Perhaps they create a large hourglass-type contraption that runs for a regular length of time. Perhaps they have three periods of the day: work, worship, and rest, and each period is started by "turning" the hourglass and continues until the hourglass is turned again, starting the next period.

    Final WordsBecause they govern the way that a culture remembers its past, Calendars are an important aspect to consider whenever you are constructing a world. Furthermore, timesystems are equally important, because they inform many aspects of day-to-day lives for the peoples of your world. The fact of the matter is that while initially they seem trivial, they are not. Imagine the modern world without calendars. Imagine having to go through the day only having day and night as references. It would be disastrous.

    So there we are. That's the end of this workshop. What I'd like to know is how helpful you found it, and whether or not you think this is something you will use in your own worldbuilding.

    I want to put forth a challenge to you, dear reader. Come up with a possible timesystem for a culture you've created! It's not going to harm anyone. :3.
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