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Thursday, December 30, 2010


The Clog Almanac, so named by Dr. Robert Plot, keeper of the
Ashmolean Museum and chemistry professor at Oxford,  in 1686.
It was a square stick or box about 8" long that could be hung up or carried as
part of a walking stick.  It was a perpetual almanac showing Sundays and
other fixed holidays.  One would have to calculate which day the year began.
Image courtesy of Wilson's Almanac.

Almanacs are annual publications that include practical information, based on cultural need-to-knows, such as weather forecasts, tide tables, astronomical data, and best planting times.  Some cultures produce almanacs that provide auspicious and inauspicious days for various rites and celebrations, and dates for religious festivals.  Astrological, once akin to astronomical, dates are also often included.

Illustrations of Taurus and Gemini by Mirzazade Salim Efendi.
Circa 1740, Istanbul University Library

The first use of the word was in 1267 by Roger Bacon.  The source of the word is unknown, although many think it is from an Arabic word.  However there is no corresponding word in Arabic, causing some scholars to think it is pseudo-Arabic, constructed to give it the prestige that Arabic works had in medieval times.   The word possibly comes from the Patristic Greek almenichiata from the Coptic  meaning "supernatural rulers of the celestial bodies."

Page from an Ottoman almanac from the reign of Bayezid II.
1711, Topkapi Palace Museum Library. 

Babylonian astronomy may have been the origin of the concept.  Tables of planetary periods were constructed to predict planetary and lunar phenomena.  In Hellenistic times a parapegma was used, an inscribed stone with pegs inserted into holes to show the day of the month.  Ptolemy, the 2nd century Alexandrian astronomer, wrote a treatise featuring a type of parapegma with astronomical information, predictable weather changes, and other similar events based on the solar year.  Islamic scholars composed a similar work called a Zij.

Babylonian almanac from the British Museum.

An almanac from China may be derived from the oldest one.  The Wong lik, or yellow calendar, is rumored to have been founded by Huang Di, the Yellow Emperor.  Regarded as the founder of Chinese civilization, the half-real/half-legendary ruler is said to have ruled from 2696-2598 BCE.  A later version of his almanac was edited by the Qing dynasty (1644-1912 CE) and called the Tung Shu.  The Tung Shing (name change from Tung Shu) is still published in Guangzhou and Hong Kong.  This “fortune telling almanac” mostly contains suitable actions for each day, and auspicious timings for activities.  It also provides for conversions between the lunar year and the common year.

Cover of the 2010 Tung Shing

The Almanach cracoviense ad annum 1474, or Cracovian Almanac for the Year 1474, is a single sheet wall calendar from Poland.  This incunabulum was made in Kraków by Kasper Straube, a Bavarian printer who worked in Kraków.  Printing with moveable type had only existed for about twenty years at the time of this publication.

Sole surviving copy of the Almanach cracoviense
ad annum 1474,
Jagiellonian University

A tonalamatl is a Nahuatl word meaning “pages of days”, and was a divinatory almanac from central Mexico in the early 1500s, around the time of the Spanish conquest.  It was based on the tonalpohualli, a sacred year of 20 divisions of 13 days each, making a 260-day year.  Each page of a tonalamatl was one division, called a trecena, and featured a depiction of the reigning deity for that trecena.  The various signs and glyphs were used to predict the future and cast horoscopes.  There are surviving examples in the Codices Borbonicus and Borgia.  (Click here for a look at all the pages of the Codex Borbonicus.)

Page 13 of the Codex Borbonicus showing the 13th trecena, which was
under the auspices of the goddess Tlazolteotl.  She is portrayed wearing
a flayed skin giving birth to Cinteotl.

A panjika, or panchangam depending on what part of India one is referring to, is a Hindu astrological almanac.  Used by Indians of all religions (it contains information on Muslim, Christian, and other religious festivals), it is one of the most popular books published in India and used to find auspicious times.  The earliest Indian almanacs date back to about 1000 BCE, but were not very accurate.  It wasn’t until the 4th and 5th centuries CE that better calculations were derived.  Finally, in 1952, a major revision was done by the Indian Government, published in 1957.  Several of the panchangams contain information for more than one year – the Vishvavijaya Panchanga covers 100 years.

Fabric Hindu calendar/almanac corresponding to 1871-1872.
The left column shows the ten avatars of Vishnu, the center right column
shows the twelve signs of the Hindu zodiac.  Rajasthan, India
Hindu almanac from Kannada was published by Majestic Press, Udupi.
It is mostly used by Shivalli brahmins.

In the western world, almanacs have a rich and varied history.  Copies of 12th century almanacs are in the British Museum and Oxford and Cambridge Universities.  In the 17th century English almanacs were second to the Bible in sales, and by mid-century 400,000 were produced annually.  Perhaps the most famous almanac in the U.S. was Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack (1733-1758). 

One of the many American almanacs published over the centuries.

Modern western almanacs have expanded their contents, offering statistical data that covers the whole world and summaries of historical events.  There are also specialized almanacs available that cover varied topics such as sports, geography, religion, medicine, business, and agriculture to name some.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a reference work that not only features the standard information but also includes anecdotes and trend predictions.  It has been published continually since 1792, which makes it the oldest continual publication in the U.S.  Its founder, Robert B. Thomas, studied solar activity, astronomy cycles and weather patterns, then devised his own secret forecasting formula that is still used today (along with modern forecasting technology).  Few people have seen it and it is kept in the publication’s offices.  Thomas also began to drill holes in the almanacs to facilitate hanging them in outhouses, providing both reading material and toilet paper.  The hole was discontinued in the 90s to save the $40,000 it cost per year, but due to customer response the company decided to continue drilling the holes.

The market for almanacs seems to be steady throughout the centuries.  Although the newer ones don't have nearly the panache and decorum of the old ones, the information is certainly more germane to the times.  Obtaining almanacs from all over the world would be interesting, assuming one could read them all, and provide an interesting take on what is comparatively important to the world's denizens.

Unless otherwise noted, all images from Wikipedia
For more information and specifically for collecting almanacs check out the Private Library.

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