April fish and other hoaxes

Along with others among his many books, Gordon Brotherston's Book of the Fourth World (CUP, 1992) has been translated into several languages. Feather Crown: the Eighteen Feasts of the Mexica Year has just appeared with British Museum Press.

On seasonal halfwits

Oviparous or viviparous? The birth modes favoured by us vertebrates are few and generally specific. Admittedly, snakes may opt for either, but fish, saurians and birds tend to prefer the primordial egg as much as marsupials and mammals go straight for lively bodies. So, what-ho Leporidae, Easter hare and sundry cony kin, what drives you to revert and madly lay eggs at this time of year? And why does April bring forth fish and fool? It's all doubtless to do with the northern Spring and annual rebirth. More tellingly, maybe with origins, too, older beginnings.

For, absorbing millennia of pagan knowledge, belief and custom, the new year once opened with Eastertide throughout Christendom. Correlated with the zodiac and the "first point" of Aries, the Easter resurrection was highlighted as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring equinox, in the moveable season that coincides with a whole cycle of Mercury (in this cycle, Eastertide begins in Septuagesima and ends on Ember Day - always a Wednesday, the day of Wotan/Hermes/Mercury). Validated by the heavens, the grand ecclesiastical start brought together stars, sun, moon and the planets, these last doubling as names of the week's Seven Days. At least that was the idea. In practice, the atrocious mathematics and astronomy that the Christians inherited from pagan Rome ensured that such an arrangement could not work forever. And as everyone knows, it didn't.

In this sense, Julius Caesar might be blamed for Gregory's feeling obliged to eliminate 10 days from the lives of his flock in the year 1582, to their evident distress. Rome did so in order to re-align the calendar with the sun and, while at it, made January 1st the fixed un-moveable start to time. Few disputed the gain in accuracy, as such. Many (not least East Rome) resisted the standardizing and control it implied, lamenting the loss of memory and imagination and knowledge, the sheer reduction of time. Among them were counted the fools of April 1st, the former new year, distant from the equinox by the days of the lunar-solar epact and equal to the eleven who went to heaven. Indeed, what a loss it was, and is, since the shrinking goes on apace, inexorable, down to the nano of global finance.

Fixing January 1st as the New Year's Day effectively meant devaluing not just the equinox but the moon. Thereby it may usefully have put a lid on the Paschal Controversies about the lunar dating of Easter that for centuries had raged from Gaul to Ethiopia. Yet psychiatrists still detect the tug of lunar tides on our brain. Certainly, the arithmetically preciser stages of the moon's journey through the zodiac, patent in the 27 Lunar Letters of medieval tables now long-forgotten, appear to have provided us with our first incentive to count. At all events, if the anagram moon/mono is right, we began by deferring to our companion satellite not least when tallying our very matrix.

As for the planets, the identification of Christ with Mercury/Hermes had come to be abominated by Rome long before Gregory. The first popes branded and pursued as heretics those who held to the belief that their saviour embodied that planet as a psychopomp, rising heliacally in the east after his spell in the underworld (inferior conjunction). Mercury's dance around the sun that had yielded the transformational ratio 22/7 (in primes, twice eleven to seven) was shielded from pious eyes. Rome finally suppressed Septuagesima altogether in the 1960s, eradicating vestiges of the planetary cycle that have somehow survived in the Anglican cult.

In making their own critique of Rome's Reform, on their own terms and in their own script, the books of ancient Mexico highlight the Hermes of Septuagesima, restoring the moon to its own place in the zodiac.

Without question, the greatest victim of the Reform, beyond moon and planets, was the night sky, signally the starry crossing of zodiac and our galaxy (the Milky Way), the womb we all emerged from very very long before anyone became vertebrate. It could be a question of their extra-tropical latitude, but the Old Testament writers quite explicitly warn us off this reality and Aristotle, while conceding its legendary beauty, excluded it from his physics. Medieval books of the Hours lovingly enhance the zodiac constellations in blue and gold; Gregory had no time for them at all.

Literally, since at that date Christian astronomy was far behind that of others in the world. So far behind that Rome was incapable of usefully assessing the difference between the year of the sun (albeit in a now improved estimate of its length) and the year of the stars. The difference is otherwise known as the "precession of the equinoxes" that caught Kipling's attention. In his Georgics, Virgil harked back to the age when the equinoctial sun was still in Taurus, the bull whose horn "opened the Year" like a furrow. By his and Christ's time, it was approaching Pisces, hence the latter's fish logo. Now we await (God help us) the New Age of Aquarius.

Like the Greeks, early societies in tropical America numbered the "living" constellations of the zodiac as eleven (prior to intrusive Libra), condensing the evolutionary story into the year. In the Mexican calendar, anatomical change in vertebrates that is measurable in multiples of the precessional cycle is embodied in the protean snake-saurian of the year and time known as Xiuhcoanaual. On the page of Mexicanus Codex that defends Septuagesima, this creature metamorphoses into nothing other than the oviparous hare or rabbit, saurian-tailed yet floppy eared.

At about twenty minutes per year, precession gathers into the great cycles of time that humans everywhere once recognized as indispensable to genesis, that is, before monotheism had its way. Our better senses taught us to read these longer rhythms in fossils, asteroid impact, seismic catastrophe, climate shift (witness Kogi or Mapuche multi-millennial graphs of the Andean snow line), volcanoes and vertebrate evolution. At all events, Rome's Reform put paid overnight in the West to many thousands of years of human devotion and intelligence, leaving the way open to the meaner calculations of new-found "science".

Greetings then, oviparous hare and April fish and fool.

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