Calendars & Timekeeping in Fantasy

Have you ever thought about how your characters keep time? Our observation of time shapes our days, years, and lifetimes, shaping what we focus on when and how we are able to interact with others. If you haven’t yet shaped the calendar and divisions of time in your world, now is a great time to start. ;) This post will help you understand the critical principles to think through as you develop your culture’s calendar and timekeeping methods.

The Basis of Time

The easiest way to begin breaking down your culture’s view of time is to ask what they look to as the basis of their measurements. Do they look to one (or more) of the celestial bodies to shape their days and years? Are their seasons based on agriculture, husbandry, or the weather? Are their times determined by something earthly at all, or by a spiritual decree?

Think about how your culture’s marking of time fits with the rest of their values. A nocturnal society may have no need to measure the passage of the sun, but instead measure the passage and phases of the moon and/or the movement of the stars. An agrarian society whose days operate based on the rising and setting of the sun might not measure much by the moon or stars at all. A religious society might pay closer attention to both, believing they were created by their god, whether for the explicit purpose of measuring days and seasons or not.

What your culture pays attention to as the natural measure for time will affect how it divides time, measures time, and even determines the timing of special days/holidays.

Divisions of Time

Days, weeks, months, years (and decades, centuries, millennia). These are the divisions we operate under–not to mention the smaller divisions of hours, minutes, and seconds; or the less precisely measured (or precisely accurate in their use) divisions like mornings and evenings and the seasons.

While your culture will likely have days, at least, they may or may not be 24-hour cycles; they may be closer to 12, relying on daylight rather than passage of time, they may be longer or shorter if they’re based on working hours, or they may be as long as a combined “morning and evening” or “evening and morning” (which still may not be 24 hours depending on the astronomy of your world).

Years, too, will likely be measured by passage around the sun (depending on the astronomy and astronomical understanding of your culture), a number of sets of moon phases, a set of seasons, or something unique to your world like the emergence of a particular species or the passage of a slow-moving moon.

But weeks, hours, minutes, seasons… these may all differ or be more vaguely observed depending on your world and your culture’s attitude toward time (which we’ll address more specifically later). In a world that observes time by the moon, perhaps a week spans every every stage or every couple stages of a moon’s passage through its phases (for a real-world example, from full moon to first quarter/waning half, from first quarter to new moon, from new moon to third quarter/waxing half, from there back to full moon–or you could include crescent and gibbous if you wanted to break it down further!). Maybe an agrarian society measures weeks by the height of their crops. Maybe a polytheistic society has a ten-day week, with a day for each of their gods.

Smaller increments of time may be measured for the sake of particular tasks–cooking, baking, smelting, etc.–in which case they may be based around those tasks. Maybe an hour is known as a “leavening” because it’s based on how long they leave their bread to rise, for example.

Other measures of time may not be necessary to this culture; maybe they don’t bother with anything smaller than “mornings” or “evenings” because they prefer to let things take as long as they need to take or the bulk of their tasks are long or continuous rather than short or precise. On the other hand, a very precise society might have very precise measurements of time and may be more particular about how measures of time stack into one another (like our 60 seconds to a minute, 60 minutes to an hour, 24 hours to a day, etc.)

Special Days and Holidays

I’ve talked about holidays before, so I won’t spend too much time on them here, but the way that your culture measures time can affect both when they set their holidays and how long those holidays last. Holidays based on historical events will, obviously, be based on the time in which they occurred; the time in which they’re celebrated may be more or less precise depending on how precise your culture is or isn’t about keeping time. (Maybe cultures that aren’t as precise use this as an excuse to have longer celebrations; if you party for days, surely one of those days is bound to be the right one.) Other holidays may be tied to certain seasons or natural cycles, differing some (or a lot) in their location on the calendar each time they’re celebrated.

Besides holidays, your culture may have other special days that come up more frequently or have different purposes. Perhaps they have days or seasons of mourning and remembrance, perhaps days or seasons of rest, etc. These, too, will shape–or be shaped by–the rest of your culture’s timekeeping. Our 7-day weeks, for example, are defined by the sabbath. In the Old Testament, there were 7-year and 70-year cycles that shaped the rest of the Israelites’ calendar. Your culture may have similar changes of pace every so often.

Measuring Time

Now that we’ve discussed what your culture bases their timekeeping on, we can ask how they actually measure the passage of time as it passes. For example, cultures that keep time based on the sun may have sundials or sticks with which to measure the sun. Moon-observant cultures might have devices that allow them to measure the width of the moon and determine its proximity to fullness. Others might measure based on the height of crops (as previously noted), the general height of the sun (measuring with their hands rather than a sundial, for example), the position of the stars, a clock with hands and/or numbers, a device that measures time by the flow of water or sand, etc.

Consider not only their attitude toward time and how they keep it overall, but also what resources they have at their disposal and how much invention they’re willing to invest in keeping time. Maybe they have intricate clockwork, or maybe they’re content with a stick in the ground. This, too, will reflect your culture’s overall attitude and values.

Attitude Toward Time

As a near-final point, let’s look more closely at your culture’s overall attitude toward time. Do they have a mindset of “Teach us to number our days so that we may gain a heart of wisdom”? Is it more of a “Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” attitude? Do they view time as a precious resource, or as just another part of the everyday backdrop to take for granted? Do they believe time must be filled to the brim with work or other activity, or do they make time for rest?

In a similar but distinct vein, what do they think of time and history as a greater whole? Is time viewed as cyclical, does it have a clear beginning and end, or do they see some combination of the two? Is destiny seen as fixed or malleable? Are people believed to have an afterlife beyond the limits of time to look forward to, or is time within their world all they have?

The answers to these questions will greatly influence how much attention and care your culture gives to time–both in general and within their everyday lives.

Lifespans & Personal Timekeeping

I won’t spend a lot of time here before I wrap up, but I want to add a brief note about timekeeping as it relates to individual lifespans (with things like birthdays). In a society that thinks more communally or that doesn’t make a big deal of keeping time, birthdays might not even be a consideration; it may not much matter how old you are as long as you’re doing things with your life. The same may be true in a culture that sees time as something designed by a deity; to mark time around your own life may be seen as selfish and even idolatrous.

In other cultures, however–those that highly value individuality, life, or growth, for example, and don’t also have objections based on other values–birthdays may be normal. In such cases, the general principles discussed before will apply; more precise timekeeping cultures will likely be more precise about birthdays, less precise cultures less precise; birthdays may be celebrated over a longer or shorter period of time; etc.

I may talk more about age and birthdays in another post; comment below if that’s a topic you’d be interested to see me cover. In the meantime, the closest I have is a post that discusses coming of age in fictional cultures.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you built fictional calendars before? What patterns does your culture follow in its timekeeping? If this is a topic that’s new to you (or even if it isn’t!), which point(s) did you find most interesting?

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3 thoughts on “Calendars & Timekeeping in Fantasy

  1. I’m definitely interested in a post on ages and birthdays! I want to properly include celebrations of life in my stories, but I don’t know where to begin when it comes to birthdays.

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