Triskaidekaphilia

Many of you fear the combination of calendar date and weekday that is Friday the 13th. It’s part of a much older fear of the number 13 in general, about which I have a simple theory (shared by many others). Before I do that, I need to make it clear that not only do I not fear it – it is actually a sign of good luck in my family. 

So why do you fear 13? There are many different answers (and I’m going to cut out the folklore references such as the 13 people at the Last Supper and the Friday on which the Templars/Cathars / Bogomils / {insert other heresy here} were brutally wiped out by the Catholic Church), but there are just two I want to focus on today. 

Firstly, it’s an odd number – and since we are animals that love to echo our bilateral symmetry with even numbers, that makes odd numbers (except 7) basically the source of all strange and scary things. Hence we call those numbers “odd”. When even numbers occur in multiples of odd numbers, bad things also happen – think of 666 (222 x 3).

Secondly (and this is by far the more interesting answer), 13 is a lunar number. Numbers with base 6 are related to the human concept of solar time, hence we now have 12 months and 24 hours and 60 minutes. At some point in history, this idea of 12 being the fullest number representative of all the cosmos was systematically forced onto the people who believed anything else. The number 12 came to be associated with the Sun worshippers, who still cling to their male-oriented cosmos in imagery like that of the 12 Olympians, the 12 apostles of Christ or the signs of the Zodiac. It is because of them that we measure large quantities in dozens.

A Baker’s dozen, however, has 13 loaves in it. That decision may not seem subversive, and may in fact appear to be the very paragon of economy, “just in case something goes wrong with one of the other loaves”, but it is one of the last vestiges of the cult of the Moon. You see, there is another way to measure the year – in Moons (izinyanga, mo(o)nths, maande). Each moon takes roughly 28 days to go through its cycle, which means that 12 of those would take you to… 336 days. 

Wait a minute. A year is 365 days, isn’t it? so what if we add another 28 on to 336? Ah. now we have 364. That’s better. 

But that means that there are 13 moons in one year! The horror! Quick, do something about that! My OCD is acting up! Even it out! Even it out!

And thus we have our current system – where we have 12 months with irregular days, needing a mnemonic to remember it. 

There are, however, still cultures which follow the moon – Islam and Judaism and traditional African religions are among the top contenders here. Interestingly, both Islam and Judaism make the lunar calendar fit the solar norm of 12. One of the many little acts of oppression enforced by the European colonists on isiZulu was to “normalise” the number of months in the Zulu year by removing the month of Luthuli (last month of the year, occuring at the end of winter) completely. 

The sun-worshippers didn’t just do that to isiZulu – they systematically did it throughout Europe, and spread their idea (the supremacy of 12, and the evil of 13) to the rest of the world by fire and preaching and the sword (not necessarily in that order).

I am a child of 13. I was born on the 13th of May. My father was born on Friday the 13th of March, and celebrated his birthday yesterday. When I met my Khethiwe, I realised that there were others who were also triskaidekaphiliacs – she lived at number 13 twice growing up, won her first boat-race in 13 minutes and 13 seconds, and Dambuza (her eldest) was born at 6:13 on her birthday. When we first met, it would happen that we would meet each other or contact each other at 14:53 (add the numbers up and you’ll see why), and since then the number 13 keeps cropping up. At the beginning of this year, I was seated at seat number 13 to introduce my isiZulu highschool curriculum to the school. And yesterday, I was given ticket number 113 when getting our Friday night pizza. I think you get the idea. 

Let’s set ourselves free from the heliocentric propaganda. Embrace the oddness of the moon instead.

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uMandulo

This is a moon with three names – uMandulo, uMpande & iSokanqangi. 

andula – the herald, the harbinger, the rituals to bring about fertility, the kites wheeling like whirlwinds in the sky.

this name was adopted after the accession of uMpande to the throne, as an isihlonipho. 

Before Cetshwayo’s father, youngest son of uSenzangakhona, acceded to the throne, this was the moon of the izimpande, the roots with the golden flowers in the undershrubs of the deep forest. 

And then it is also called i(li)sokanqangi, the first lover taken in one’s youth, the principal or senior wife, the eldest & first-born in a homestead, the long-proscribed tradition of circumcision among the amaZulu living a half-life through the word for a lover. 

This is the second month of the lunar calendar. Where European languages denote the 1st of September as Spring, as the new beginning, the amaZulu see the beginning in the first greening of the grass in August. If you’ve only noticed it’s a new year now, then sorry for you. 

Sebefikile onhloyile ezulwini, bakwethu. 

iziNyanga zoNyaka

What do you mean in English when you talk about ‘a month’? If you speak a Teutonic language, it’s an easy association to make – ‘month’ comes from the root-word ‘moon’.

In isiZulu, there is no disguising the word – izinyanga means 3 different things: Moons, Months & Herbalists (who are Moon-people possibly because of their picking of herbs etc. according to lunar cycles). In traditional Zulu culture, time is reckoned by the moons, and there used to be 13 of them in a single ‘movement’ of the sun (unyaka means ‘year’ and comes from the root ideophone nyáka denoting ‘moving’ or ‘shaking’). Since the abelungu arrived, the 13 became 12. If you know the name of the lost month, I’m impressed – you’ll see it at the end of the list.

I’m going to list these according to the progression of the Zulu year, rather than the western JFMAMJJASOND method (NB there used to be various descriptive names for these months, and I’ve only listed the accepted official ones here):

1. uNcwaba – the 1st moon of the year, when the green and glossy shoots first poke up through the burnt veld. Equivalent to August now.

2. uMandulo – the 2nd moon of the year, the forerunner of summer, when the first gardens begin to appear. September.

3. uMfumfu – the 3rd moon, when the new shoots and buds that have been hidden begin to come out and open. October.

4. uLwezi – the month when the ulwezi insects (the grubs of the cicada “which hide themselves in froth”) begin to appear, steaming slowly down the branches of trees. November

5. uZibandlela – the path-crowding month, when the rains cause the rivers to burst their banks and the grass to cover (ziba) the paths (izindlela). December.

6. uMasingana – the 6th moon, when you peep out suspiciously at the world. January.

7. uNhlolanja – the dog-ruling moon, which is quite apt for Valentine’s day. February.

8. uNdasa – the month of the abundance of new mealies, when people toddle about with their fat tummies. March.

9. uMbasa – when you begin to kindle (basa) fires in the early morning to stave off the cold. April.

10. uNhlaba – the piercing of the Aloe-flowers into the sky names this moon. May.

11. uNhlangulana – the little-sweeper-out-of-dusty-corners. June.

12. uNtulikazi – the great dusty one. July.

13. uLuthuli – the dust. the forgotten thirteenth month, with many other names besides this one.

So that’s the complete list – one thing you might notice is that they are all given human names. For this reason, I made up stories for our kids where the izinyanga are sitting around a fire telling stories.

Enjoy!

uNcibijane

Happy New Year to everyone! Ngithemba ukuthi ningene kahle kunyaka omusha (I hope you entered the new year well).

There is some linguistic and anthropological interest in this day, when looked at from the perspective of isiZulu – mainly because of its special place as a borrowed custom.

The isiZulu word for New Year is uNcibijane, which sounds authentic – even down to a fairly standard diminutive ending -ane or -ana, as seen in words like inkosazane and inkosana. However, it isn’t even remotely Zulu. It’s Dutch (or early Afrikaans, to be more precise), and is an approximation of Nuwe Jaar (with the w pronounced somewhat like a v and with a hard j, as opposed to the modern y pronunciation of Afrikaans).

Thus it can be deduced that the celebration of New Year was more important among the Afrikaans-speaking communities that were in contact with the amaZulu than it was among the English-speaking ones – in contrast with the isiZulu word for Christmas, uKhisimusi, which chose the English exemplar rather than the Afrikaans Kersfees.

The fact that there is not an isiZulu word for New Year is incredibly obvious when you consider that the festival marks nothing of any significance to a Southern Hemisphere culture – it marks neither a lunar nor solar event in the southern hemisphere, but is rather a fossilized remnant of northern hemisphere festivals to celebrate the darkest part of the year, and the rebirth of the sun from the depths of winter.

To a traditional Zulu, the year does not begin in January. It begins with the dead moon in July or August, just after the southern hemisphere’s Winter Solstice.

And yet the linguistic adaptation (and cultural adoption) of uNcibijane shows an interesting shift away from the traditional lunar timekeeping to the fossilized solar obsessions of the northern hemisphere.