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5.0 out of 5 stars Diverse and mixed, but eventually contributes to a rounded picture, 4 April 2013
R. B. Abbott "Richard Abbott" (London, England) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Living the Lunar Calendar (Paperback)
This book is in fact a set of papers, presented at a 2010 conference held in Jerusalem, edited by Ben-Dov, Horowitz and Steele (who are also all contributors). As such, the contents are very diverse, though obviously all around the same theme - how use of a fully or partially moon-centred calendar impacts life in society. We are used here in England, as well as much of the world now, to a solar-based calendar, but traces of lunar dependence remain in festivals such as Easter. Other countries, for example China, have kept a much greater link with a lunar cycle. But almost all cultures in the world have used lunar cycles at times during their history, since the moon provides just about the only easily observed middle-length cycle between a day and a year.

A few of the articles seem to be pretty much verbatim as originally delivered, but others are far too long for any feasible presentation length. I presume that these have been extended by the authors from the original lecture by filling in considerable background detail. It has to be said that some of the contributions are highly technical, and will mean little to anyone who is not engaged at a high level with that topic. However, others are very accessible to the interested lay person who does not mind reading academic material. The focus of the conference tended to foreground social and cultural issues, and so even without specific familiarity it is interesting to learn how different nations - and their rulers - have accommodated themselves to the practical vagaries of using a lunar calendar. In some cases it is reasonably certain that the need to overome these uncertainties fuelled the development of a mathematical apparatus able to predict solar system movements and so lessen the dependence on direct observation.

Inevitably most of the material comes from the ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamian worlds, since these generated far more written explanatory material than anywhere else. Given that, the gaps in our present knowledge - such as exactly what visible sign was used to indicate the end of one month and the start of the next - are all the more surprising. Presumably the indicators were so abundantly obvious to the people of the time that they felt no need to record the specific details, while at the same time writing extensively about the day of observation, and any attendant difficulties (for example cloudy skies, or unexpected elevation above the horizon). A couple of articles discuss Central American issues, dealing largely with the interface between astronomy and architectural design. Some authors include China and Japan in their focus. These discussions are, however, scattered thinly through the book.

Additionally, much of the book tackles the technicalities inherent in using a lunar calendar - for example how to (and whether to) introduce additional months to regulate the lunar year against the solar year, or whether particular cultures used the last visibility of the old crescent or the first visibility of the new one as the monthly trigger. Given that, it is refreshing to encounter one of the articles looking from an artistic perspective at a Minoan frieze and interpreting the items depicted as a kind of calendar highlighting key religious points of the year.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book as a whole (though not all contributions to an equal degree), and am very happy to give it 5 stars. However, as noted above it is not uniform in style or theme, and the book as a whole will not interest all readers equally. Prospective purchasers should be aware that:

- it is an academic conference and not a popular presentation,
- it strays hardly at all into chronological issues, which for some people would be a major focus of such a book,
- the level of prior knowledge required varies considerably between articles, and
- while the editors have made efforts to place similar articles alongside each other, each contributor approaches the subject from their own perspective, thus leading to a slightly strange mixture of abrupt change and frequent repetition.

Readers who are willing to accept these features, and who are interested in how adoption of a lunar calendar impacts social institutions, will enjoy the book.
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Living the Lunar Calendar
Living the Lunar Calendar by John M. Steele (Paperback - 30 April 2012)
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