Many years ago when I was reading F.E. Farwerck’s Noord-Europese Mysteriën for the first time and when I saw the “stafkalender” (“stave calendar”) on page 104 (see above), I was captured by this strange image. The writer doesn’t give a whole lot of information. The image contains parts of the months December and January of what is said to be a calendar. Farwerck only refers to the inverted horn which supposedly marks the end of the 12 days period after the winter solstice (on 12 January?).
When I noticed that there are more of such ‘rune calendars’ and they are also similar to so-called ‘farmers calendars’ I wondered what they would mean. Other calendars look alike, but they obviously evolved. Just a few examples:
I could have shown so much more! The first appears to be a runestone Norwegian, or perhaps English in origin, this item is made from a porpoise jawbone. The inscription is in a mixture of Old Norse and Northumbrian runes. It dates from about 1000AD. The drawing (from a 17th century woodcut) is full scale viewed at 800×600 screen-size” (source). The second is a so called “clog almanac”. “Clog” means “worked wood” and is still the English term for wooden shoes. The image shows four sides of a piece of wood (a side for each season). The last is the relatively famous MS 2913, from Uvdal, Norway, 1636. Also you have “primstav”s, a Northern name for such calenders.
I asked around a bit how to read such a calendar, but it seemed that nobody could get me an answer. So I started to search the internet. As you can already see above, there are different kinds of calendars, which are more or less similar. According to Ole Worm (1588-1654) (see my Northern Renaissance article) there are calendars on rune-stones, such as his drawing suggests. Also Worm wrote the Computus Runicus explaining these calendars. Unfortunately the text is hand-written and in Latin, but I did get a few clues from it. It is not known how old the first of such calendars is, but the point that they may have been carved in stones, suggests that they could find their origin with the Vikings who transported them to the lands where they travelled. The “clog almanacs” date back to at least 1200.
Scroll back a second to the image that I opened with. As you can see there clearly, the calendar consists of three lines, most of these calendars do, whether they are rune-, clog-, or farmers calendars. Explaining what you see there is not too hard. A description of the colourfull calendar on the site Stavacademy says: “calendar with golden numbers, feastdays, occupations of the months and hours of light and darkness, table with good and evil days “. That says about everything!
The most important line is the middle line. If you watch closely, you will see that every time a list of seven is repeated. Of course you will immediately think of the days of the week. It is a calendar after all! Some people say that a certain rune, refers to a certain day, but this is not true. The calendars are (as we will see later) perpetual calendars and of course 1 January is not always a Sunday. The seven runes (and as you can see on the colourfull Uvdal calender, they were later replaced by letters and/or numbers) are just a way of counting days.
Then when we take a look at the upper line, it is obvious that they refer to festive days, especially when you look at the Uvdal calendar. Naturally these festive days were originally ‘pagan’ feasts and important events in the lifes of farmers (sowing, harvesting periods, etc.), but when Christianity came, they were replaced by Christian feasts. You can clearly see Epiphany on the Uvdal calendar (three crowns on 6 January). To figure out the rest, would take a lot of work, but now you get the idea…!
Before the Christian saints occupied the upper line, there were all kinds of symbols refering to festivies. It is impossible to figure them all out, but the website symbols.com has a few explanations (they think a certain rune is a certain day btw):
I just made a summery. Needless to see that not every symbol is in every calender, but here you may get an idea of how a calendar like this is built. Symbols referring to days of celebration. It seems that this site tried to explain such symbols, but unfortunately, the image is very blurry.
Maybe like yours, my eye fell on the remarks “golden number of” which appears a few times in this table. There I had a clue about the bottom line of the calendars.
Golden numbers refer to the position of the moon compared to that of the sun. The four-week moon-cycle does no run exactly the same as the sun’s year cycle. It takes 19 years for the moon to be on the same positions, meaning, every 19 years, the full moons are on the same days. If this is the case, a year has the golden number 1, the next year, 2, etc. and there are 19 golden numbers. The Udval calendar makes a perfect example. The symbols in the bottom line are nothing more than numbers:
These are the numbers 1 to 10. There are other varieties to this theme of course, but you can easily recognise the numbers once you get the idea. Unfortunately many images (like the one I started with) do not cover enough months to find out if the figures on the bottom line are indeed the golden numbers, but I think often they are. The numbers say on which day the full moon falls in the year with that particular golden number. So if 16 is on 3 February, then in golden year 16, the full moon is on that day. You have to pay attention to know in what year you are! Also I must shortly add, the system is not waterproof, every 300 years one day must be added in order to keep things correct.
Many, but not all of the calendars have a circle somewhere, sometimes one for each month, sometimes just one. In case of the Udval calendar they are very obvious, because besides the circle, ‘the clue’ is given in text. January says: “Tagen 6:44” and “Natten 17:12”. Together this of course counts up to 24 hours, so there is 6 hours and 44 minutes of daylight in January and 17 hours and 12 minutes of nighttime (the calendar of course is made in Scandinavia!). The same goes with the calendar I opened with. There is a circle with little stripes, counting upto 23. 23 Whole hours, the minutes are not mentioned. That I am right, proves because above the circle are the numbers 19 (left of the Raido rune) and 4.
But since things can’t be that easy, this theory of mine does not work with the rune-stone. That circle has 28 runes around, divided 7 groups of four, so this more likely refers to the cycle of the moon. Other calendars also have this moon-circle.
I may not have given you a detailed explanation of every stave-, rune-, clog-, or farmers calendar, because it is impossible to figure out all the symbols for the feasts. The structure is very clear though, so you can start having a look at them and trying to figure one out yourself. There are many, many examples on the internet. Furthermore there are three good articles (if you can read them).
The Viking Answer Lady answers a question about “primstav”s. History and some explanation.
The magnificent Arild Hauge’s Rune page not only has tons of rune-stone photos, but also an article about rune-calendars in Swedish and…
Ole Worms’ Computus Runicus scanned in and put online.