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Misseri-calendar: A Calendar Embedded in Icelandic Nature, Society, and Culture

Author(s): 
Kristín Bjarnadóttir (University of Iceland)

Introduction

Ethnomathematics exists in one form or another in all societies. Its subjects are the topics of everyday life: they concern nourishment, space, and time. This article recounts how the settlers of the uninhabited Iceland created their own calendar to keep track of time.

Iceland was settled from Norway by Vikings in the latter half of the ninth century, bringing with them Celtic slaves. Icelanders became literate in the twelfth century and soon began to write voluminously, initially to document the laws of the newly-founded Commonwealth [1]. The settlers brought with them the Norwegian traditions of sheep and cattle farming, the seven-day week, and an empirical lunar calendar.

Placed so far from other inhabitancies, the Icelandic settlers had to create their own calendar of the year, based on their heritage of counting time in weeks and on their observation of Nature. A thirteenth-century law-codex, Grágás [2], contains a concise description of a week-based calendar, originally created in Iceland in the tenth century. Observations of the solar cycle soon revealed errors in the original 52-week calendar, which were cleverly amended. The resulting calendar, called the misseri-calendar or farming calendar, was synchronized to the Julian calendar in the twelfth century and later to the Gregorian calendar.

The misseri-calendar remained in common use in Iceland for secular purposes until the nineteenth century. Remnants of the misseri-calendar have survived in the country to the present day, and the calendar gave rise to midwinter-feasts and the First Summer Day as a public holiday. The misseri-calendar system is embedded in the ethnic language and serves to link generations together in their views of time and Nature. 

Outline

The first part of the article explains the creation of the pagan calendar invented in Iceland in medieval times and its gradual adaptations to observed changes in Nature. Secondly, the article describes the domestic calendar’s compatibility with the calendar of the Roman Church and a discovery of errors in the Christian calendar. Finally, some discussion ideas for the classroom are included at the end of the article.

The article addresses the questions of why the errors in the original calendar became obvious only a few years after its adoption, how the problem was fixed, and why it was so urgent to fix it. Furthermore, it describes the problem and challenges of adjusting the pagan calendar to the Julian calendar.


[1] Kristjánsson, J. 1980. Icelandic Sagas and Manuscripts, p. 29. Reykjavík: Iceland Review.

[2] Grágás. Konungsbók. Laws of early Iceland: Grágás, the Codex Regius of Grágás, with material from other manuscripts. 1980–2000. Translated by A. Dennis, P. Foote, R. Perkins. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Kristín Bjarnadóttir (University of Iceland), "Misseri-calendar: A Calendar Embedded in Icelandic Nature, Society, and Culture," Convergence (July 2016), DOI:10.4169/convergence20160701

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