24 June, 2008

Litha (June): the early English calendar

Before they converted to Christianity and adopted the Roman calendar, the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) reckoned time using a system of lunar months. Each cycle of the moon, probably from full moon to full moon, was a month. The year began at the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. There were two seasons, summer, when the days were longer than the nights, and winter, when the nights were longer than the days (See my earlier post for a summary of the early English calendar.)

The sixth month of the year, corresponding approximately to the Roman and modern month of June, was called Litha. Like its counterpart in the winter, Giuli (from which we get the word Yule), Litha was a double-length month, or two months of the same name, placed either side of the midsummer solstice.

Bede, writing in 725, tells us:

Litha means “gentle” or “navigable”, because in both those months the calm breezes are gentle and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea.
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

In the online Old English Dictionary, “lithe” is translated as “soft, gentle, mild, serene” and the verb “lithan” as “to go, travel, sail”, both consistent with Bede’s statement.

However, it might also have another meaning, since elsewhere in the same passage Bede says:

“Winterfilleth”, a name made up from “winter” and “full moon”
--Bede, On the Reckoning of Time, Chapter 15. Translated by Faith Wallis.

This suggests that the element ‘-leth’ can mean ‘moon’, or at least that Bede thought it could. This is somewhat puzzling, as it doesn’t appear in the Old English Dictionary, and the usual Old English word for ‘moon’ is ‘mona’, related to 'monath', modern English ‘month’. However, the same dictionary also gives the Old English word ‘lyftfaet’ meaning ‘vessel in the air’ for ‘moon’. The element ‘lyft’ appears as ‘Luft’, ‘sky’, in modern German, so it isn’t directly related to ‘-leth’. But to speak of the full moon ‘sailing in the sky’ is occasionally used as a poetic figure of speech now, and I wonder if that poetic image of the full moon as a serenely sailing ship goes back to Bede’s day. If so, it could be a link between ‘Litha’ and ‘-leth’. Perhaps some sort of kenning described the moon as ‘sailing’ and could be used as an alternative name for the moon in certain contexts, much as the sea could be called the ‘whale-road’. If so, perhaps the name ‘Litha’ could have been something to do with the moon, as well as being a description of prevailing travelling conditions? I should stress that I am no linguist and I have no evidence for this suggestion.

We know from Bede’s account that the midwinter solstice was an important feast day. Since Litha bracketed the midsummer solstice in the same way that Giuli bracketed the midwinter solstice, it would seem a reasonable inference that the midsummer solstice was also celebrated in some way. Bede doesn’t mention any celebration, ceremony or feast, so the imagination is pretty well free to roam. Kathleen Herbert argues that Bede’s silence on the subject shows that Litha “… must have been a sacred name, too holy – or too pagan – for common use and Christian explanation.” (Herbert 1994). I don’t think I would go quite that far in inference from a negative. But there may be a few clues to be gleaned from the Christian feast-day held on the same date in the calendar.

The Christian church celebrates the feast of the birth of St John the Baptist on or near Midsummer’s Day. That might be pure coincidence, since according to Luke’s Gospel St John was supposed to have been conceived (and therefore, presumably, born) about six months before Jesus and therefore once Christmas had settled on the midwinter solstice, logically St John’s nativity would have had to settle on the midsummer solstice for consistency. Or it might indicate the importance of the midsummer date. St John the Baptist was an extremely important saint, so giving him the midsummer solstice feast day may indicate that the pre-Christian festival had also been a very important one, perhaps second only to the midwinter feast.

Various European traditions involve a special fire being lit on St John’s feast-day (see Wikipedia for some examples), along with drinking, feasting and revelry. This might suggest that a pre-Christian midsummer festival, if one existed, also involved a fire ceremony. Or, prosaically, it might just indicate that a big fire helps any outdoor party go with a swing! As usual, other interpretations are possible.

Bede: The Reckoning of Time. Translated by Faith Wallis. Liverpool University Press, 1999, ISBN 0-85323-693-3.
Herbert, Kathleen. Looking for the Lost Gods of England. Anglo-Saxon Books, 1994. ISBN 1-898281-04-1.


Meghan said...

"Litha means “gentle” or “navigable”, because in both those months the calm breezes are gentle and they were wont to sail upon the smooth sea."

I love that. That is so pretty!

Bernita said...

Pre-Christrian seemed to have been aware that the summer solstice was the longest day, so the sun wheel celebrates that.
But I like the idea of bonfire=a good party!

Gabriele Campbell said...

A little correction. German Luft means 'air, breeze' not 'sky'; the word for 'sky' is Himmel (German makes no disctinction between 'sky' and 'heaven'). But there are some metaphors where 'air' stands for 'sky'. Es waren Habichte in der Luft (title of a novel by Siegfried Lenz) would translate as: There Were Hawks in the Sky; and a Zeppelin is a Luftschiff. :)

Carla said...

Meghan - yes, Bede had rather a nice turn of phrase :-)

Bernita - the solstices and equinoxes can be observed just by watching the sun, so I'm sure people have been aware of them for a long time.

Gabriele - many thanks. I'd come across it in the context of Luftschiff (and Lufthansa, naturally) and associated it with sky. It's very interesting that it can apparently have a slightly different meaning if used metaphorically instead of literally. I should have gone and found a German dictionary before posting! The Old English word 'lyft' is translated as 'air, sky, clouds, atmosphere' so covers both meanings.

Rick said...

What a pretty word lithe is - so pretty that in modern English it is probably most used of young women. But the Sutton Hoo ship must have been a lithe and pretty thing at sea!

Traveling conditions must have deteriorated in the course of the Middle Ages, since 'lithe' in this sense got replaced by the French word for 'labor!'

Winterfilleth - Could this simply be 'filleth' as in 'grows full?' Or didn't Old English work that way?

Carla said...

Rick - yes, indeed it must. Edwin Gifford built a half-size replica (Sae Wylfing) and it looks lovely in the photographs I've seen. I gather it took some learning to sail without capsizing it, though!

To be fair, 'litha' referred to a time of year when travel was supposed to be especially easy if I have understood the dictionaries correctly. The Old English word 'fara' was also used for travelling or journeying, from which we get words like 'wayfarer' - which doesn't have connotations of being particularly easy! 'To fare' is occasionally used as a poetic or archaic word for travel in modern English, e.g. Bilbo says somewhere in LOTR that in winter "'tis evil in the wild to fare".

It seems 'travel' has an even worse origin than labour - I just looked it up in the Concise Oxford and it says that 'travail' is derived from Latin 'trepalium' meaning an instrument of torture. Even Heathrow Terminal 5 has a way to go on that one :-)

Winterfilleth. Good question. You'd need to ask an expert in Old English grammar if that's a possibility. Bede does say explicitly that it's derived from "winter" and "full moon", and he could easily have said "winter" and "grows full" if that's what he meant, so I'd be inclined to take his word for it that "filleth" meant "full moon". He spoke the language better than I do :-)

Rick said...

I gathered that the connotation of litha wasn't simply travel as such, but 'smooth sailing.' Perhaps a very loose modern counterpart is 'cruise' for comfortable travel of any sort, 'I'll be cruising up your way,' or figuratively a relaxed life. ('Cruise control' on cars has probably reinforced this usage.)

'Travel' has a very grim origin indeed - easy to see how a word for torture got applied to work, but the shift of meaning in English is curious.

On 'Winterfilleth' I was unclear - not that it literally meant a waxing moon, but was applied to a full one. I seem to recall that in later English someone could say 'the moon waxeth full' to mean the actual full moon, not just a gibbous one.

Rick said...

Meant to add that 'fare' survives in one everyday travel context, what you pay to ride a vehicle. Presumably 'lyft' survives in 'loft' and related words.

Carla said...

Rick - I hadn't thought of that, but you're exactly right - 'cruise' does sound like the nearest modern counterpart. Litha - the month of cruising. I like that :-) (I suppose it also fits with the song lyric "Summertime, and the living is easy". Which always makes me think "Yeah, right" when it comes on the radio and I have a deadline to meet.)

Words shift in meaning all the time, which is one reason why reading dictionaries is so addictive :-) Once it had come to mean 'work' or 'labour', I suppose the jump to travel was not such a big one. Travelling must have been hard work for most people most of the time - bad roads, bad weather, fatigue, the constant problems of finding food and shelter, danger from thieves, getting lost, etc, etc. Chaucer aside, a medieval pilgrimage was supposed to be a penance, wasn't it?

Modern English 'loft' and 'lift' are both derived from 'lyft' according to the Concise Oxford. I suppose that's another example of language drift, like 'travel'. 'lyft' meant 'air' or 'sky', but managed to give rise to words that mean 'to raise up' and 'upper room', presumably via something like 'high' or 'above'.

Rick said...

'Cruising-month' sounds wonderful!

'Travel' isn't the only travel-related word from French that changed its meaning - 'journey' did as well.

Gabriele - note that in English 'the heavens' retains its connection with the sky.

Carla said...

I wonder if 'journey' had something to do with phrases like "a day's journey from here" which would be a reasonably natural way of estimating distances without road maps?

Just looked it up in the ever-faithful Concise Oxford, and it says "from Old French jornee, day, day's work or travel." So I suppose that confirms how that change came about.

Rick said...

I was thinking that 'a day's journey' is sort of redundant, like 'the La Brea Tar Pits.'

Carla said...

Rick - the same thing in two languages, you mean? That's probably how it came about. Journey originally meant a unit of time (a day) then came to mean the amount of work or distance that could be covered in that unit of time, then came to mean travel of indeterminate distance without reference to a unit of time. (Though it still tends to mean travelling a long way or for a long tme, we don't talk of taking a journey round the corner.) At which point it can have the original unit of time tacked back on as a separate word. Adding 'day' is redundant with the original meaning of journey, but not with its current meaning.