Time has become such an important aspect of modern civilization that people have difficulty conceptualizing the possibility of ancient cultures viewing time any differently than we do today (Whitrow 3). In fact, as Whitrow observed, “[f]or many people the way in which we measure time by the clock and the calendar is absolute" (3). Human beings in the modern world believe tend to believe time is a historical given, shared universally across all people and all ages (Whitrow 3). Nonetheless, if one takes a historical perspective and looks back across the timeline of human civilization, one begins to see how notions of time emerged initially and how they have evolved over the course of the centuries; one even notices how time was thought of and treated differently by disparate societies and cultures. Although the historical record indicates that the Egyptians had no “single, unequivocal term for ‘time’ in [their] vocabulary" (Dunand & Zivie-Coche 43), the ancient Egyptians were largely responsible for defining time as Western cultures now know it, devising the notions of hours and days as temporal units, as well as establishing the social norms by which people related to time (Whitrow 24). By examining the history of the concept of time as it was developed by ancient Egyptians, one can, perhaps, come to understand contemporary people’s relationship with time from a more knowledgeable perspective.
Many ancient societies, tied closely to their land, did possess notions of time, even if their ideas were not articulated or formalized in theories. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, were intimately familiar with the cycles of the seasons and the fluctuations in climate and tides; the mighty Nile River cut through their territory and it was the Nile upon which they depended for sustenance and commerce (Whitrow 24). “[E]verything," wrote Whitrow, “depended on the Nile" (24), and he did mean everything. From making the determination of when to plant and harvest crops to scheduling the appropriate moment for installing a new pharaoh, the ancient Egyptians rendered their most important decisions by looking to such aspects of the environment as when the river rose and when its waters fell (Whitrow 24). There were patterns to be discerned in these environmental elements, and the ancient Egyptians began to develop a concept of time based on this “succession of recurring phases" (Whitrow 25), which today, of course, our culture refers to as the seasons. The recognition of seasons and the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth was the first element of time identified by the Egyptians, the largest unit of time, and one which would form the framework into which the other units of time could be set. The idea most fundamental to ancient Egyptians’ view of time was that it was cyclical, not linear, “made up of periods that renewed themselves…." (Dunand & Zivie-Coche 52). These periods were the “daily rising of the sun…, the annual return of the foundation and beginning of the year, and… the succession of the reigns of the pharaohs" (Dunand & Zivie-Coche 52). Thus, one sees how the observed world and the lived world coincided through the emergent ideas about time advanced by the ancient Egyptians.
Before moving on to explain how the ancient Egyptians identified the other units of time, such as day, night, and hours, it is important to explain what function the view of life as a cycle of seasons played in Egyptian life (Dunand & Zivie Coche 42). As TenHouten explained, “A theory of time and society requires a model not only of time but also of society…." (x), thus it becomes critical to understand how societies shape concepts of time to fit their arbitrary social needs and how, over time, these concepts become integral to maintaining the social order and structure. For the Egyptians, the units of time they were developing served not only the purposes of farming and the ritualization of certain social celebrations, but also supported the fundamental beliefs of their culture (Meskell 423; Whitrow 25). Whitrow wrote that the ancient Egyptians had “very little sense of history or even past and future," and that they thought of the world as “static and unchanging" (25). The seasons, then, predictably repeated in a never-ending cycle, affirmed “cosmic balance" and “inspired a sense of security from the menace of change and decay" (Whitrow 25). As Bochi remarked, time was both immutable and pervasive for the ancient Egyptians (51). This fact did not, however, preclude the ancient Egyptians for devising both the concepts and the words to explain time.
The idea of seasonal cycles was not only important for propagating agricultural crops. In fact, Meskell has argued that the ancient Egyptians came to view their individual lives as cyclical as well (423). The narrative ancient Egyptians began to live and tell about themselves played out in a trajectory of “pregnancy, birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, old age, and death" (Meskell 423); each generation could gain comfort and security from knowing its life story would unfold in the same cycle as the generation that preceded it. What is still more fascinating, however, is that this belief seemed to be embodied in virtually every aspect of Egyptian culture and daily life. Meskell pointed out that the symbolism of the life cycle and the degree to which it permeated the ancient Egyptian village can even be substantiated by archaeologists, who have discovered that the placement of the deceased members of the community was “layered in terms of a life cycle," with “neonates buried at the base of the slope [of the village], followed by children and adolescents mid-slope, and adults…buried at the high point of the hill" (Meskell 423). Clearly, cycles, seasons, and the evolving conceptualization of time were so important to the Egyptians that they were not only shaped by their beliefs and their culture, but came to be so influential as to reshape beliefs and culture, or, at the very least, to reaffirm them.
Despite this apparently rigid and faithful adherence to the emerging notion of time, one may observe that it was interesting that the need to believe in a cyclical theory of time did not translate—at least not immediately—to the notion of a year. Again, because time serves specific and subjective social functions, the Egyptians did not count time in annual units that proceeded chronologically (Whitrow 25). Rather, they marked time according to significant social events, and effectively stopped and started years when it was convenient for them. As Whitrow explained, “The years were… numbered…according to a particular pharaoh’s reign, each mounting the throne in the year 1, and also according to the levy of the taxes" (25). Because taxes were levied every two years, years were effectively rolled back and the clock started anew. This utterly unique system of numeration of the years has complicated historians’ and archaeologists’ understanding of the chronology of ancient Egyptian culture, but it underscores the observation that time was adapted at the society’s collective and subjective whim to support its social values and norms. These facts seem to support TenHouten’s argument that time can be and is viewed from biological, cognitive, and social dimensions, but beyond these attributes, it also remains highly subjective (x; 5).
Given the preceding facts, it may seem surprising that it was the Egyptians who devised the 365-day calendar which remains in use—and is the dominant model for time measurement—centuries later (TenHouten 222; Whitrow 25). In addition to their lunar calendar, the ancient Egyptians developed a 365 day calendar, which was appropriated by Greek and Middle Age astronomers, Copernicus among them (TenHouten 222). Yet the reason why the calendar was developed appears to have been thoroughly pragmatic. By watching and marking the cycle of the Nile’s rising and receding, the cycle of seasons was identified and farming could become more predictable and, presumably, more successful (Whitrow 25). The 365 day calendar was divided into three seasons: the “time of inundation, sowing time, and harvest time" (Whitrow 25). Each season had a duration of four months, so the entire year totaled 12 months (Mainzer 4). The ancient Egyptians retained the calendar throughout the entire course of their civilization, cognizant of the calendar’s “convenience as an automatic record of the passage of time in an era…." (Whitrow 26). It was adapted occasionally as new discoveries were made, but the essential structure and philosophy of the calendar remained intact.
The ancient Egyptians’ theories about and relationships with time did not end at the season and year. Starting with these larger units of time, the Egyptians worked their way to smaller and smaller units, reducing time to mere fractions. For instance, although cultures both contemporaneous with and subsequent to that of the ancient Egyptians would adopt “[a] wide variety of conventions…for deciding when the day-unit begins," ancient Egyptians chose dawn as the arbitrary and symbolic start of the new day (Whitrow 15). Clearly, the Egyptians’ choice was adopted as a standard in the Western world; today, we still recognize dawn as the start of a new day.