Sunday, 10 August 2014

Moon Time

Photo by Orion 8

In Virginia, on March 22, 1622, and again on April 18, 1644, paramount chief Opechancanough arranged attacks killing several hundred colonists on both occasions. The fact that assaults could be carried out with such devastating consequences on unsuspecting colonists demonstrates Opechancanough's organizational skills. But how did he time his attacks with such precision?

For the most part, the various tribes commonly referred to as the Powhatan lived in towns near water, which could be reached by dugout (a type of canoe). Runners were also common messengers, but the tribal people used the moon as a calendar. Both attacks came one day shy of the third-quarter moon.

Moon cycles have been used for thousands of years to mark the passage of time. Each month the moon cycles has a new moon, first quarter, a full moon, last quarter, then returns to the new moon. The cycle repeats approximately every 29 days. One clergyman wrote that the Powhatan kept track of time by days, moons, and years. In their numbering system, they had specific words for one to ten, after which, according to John Smith, they counted by tens, and they also had a word for a thousand. If necessary, they used notched sticks and knotted strings to keep track of larger numbers.

The people tracked the lunar calendar with seasonal and solar cycles, along with crop and migratory seasons. Little is known about the astronomical knowledge of the Powhatan, but they recognized lunar months, such as "moon of the stags," the "corn moon," and the first and second "moon of cohonks." Cohonk is the Algonquian word meaning Canada goose, and the moons so named occurred in early winter when the geese returned. It was also the beginning of their year. The word itself sounded like a goose honking. Not only that, I recently discovered an interesting tidbit that to honk your car horn is derived from the same Algonquian word.

According to some anthropologists, calendars were developed by women to coincide with not only the lunar cycle, but menstrual cycles as well. Mayan midwives knew that when a woman missed her period a baby would be delivered about 260 days later. Opechancanough most likely timed his attacks using a similar method. In any case, the attacks were timed with precision, taking place just before spring planting and the beginning of the busiest time of year.

Kim Murphy


Christy K Robinson said...

Thanks, Kim, interesting to see how precisely they used the sun and moon for dating.
Providence, Rhode Island sits on the Seekonk River, named by the Indians for the black goose (honk!). Fascinating to observe onomatopoeia at work in other languages.

Kim Murphy said...

I had to look up onomatopoeia, but I really don't find it surprising with the Native American languages. Thanks for the reply.