The calendar that once ruled Norway

Yardstick-like primstaver were the primary calendars of Scandinavia for centuries

Photo: Roede photo / Wikimedia
Primstav from Hallingdal, Norway, 18th century, with the Norwegian coat-of-arms at the upper end.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Before printing made almanacs and calendars everyday articles, Scandinavians used calendric devices made of wood, with lines or notches for the days of the year and carved characters for solstices, equinoxes, festivals, and holidays. Most were slender wooden staffs, called primstav in Norway and Denmark (hyphenated in Danish) and runstav in Sweden.

The names are descriptive. The word primstav is a compound that comes from the Latin primatio lunae, which means “first appearance of a new moon,” which designates it as the basis of the calendric details presented in symbols. Moreover, prim is the Old Norse word for “new moon.” The word runstav means “rune staff,” which denotes the presentation of calendric details in runes, the first example of which is the 13th century Nyköpingsstaven.

The primstav and runstav are perpetual calendars based on the Metonic cycle, named for the Greek astronomer Meton of Athens who in 432 BC observed that a period of 19 years is within a few hours equal to 235 lunar months, so over the period of a single cycle the solar and lunar calendars agree. Each year in a Metonic cycle has a gyllentall (golden number), though not all primstav show it.

Photo: Ingvar Bohm / Nordic Museum, Stockholm
Primstav from Setesdal, Norway, 1781.

A primstav usually has two sides, a summer side starting on April 14 and a winter side starting on October 14. The dates reflect the yearly rhythm of the agrarian societies at northern latitudes in medieval Europe: one period for production and one for consumption. In Norway there are about 650 known primstaver, fashioned from late 15th to the early 19th centuries.

The primstav is believed to have traveled abroad with Danish Vikings, most likely in their settlement of England mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 876. English naturalist and University of Oxford professor Robert Plot speculated on that in his Natural History of Staffordshire, published in 1686. In it he described what he called a “clog almanac,” from his description, clearly like the Danish primstav. That speculation most likely is the root of the commonplace modern English translation of primstav to “clog almanac.”

Photo: Public Domain
Cover of Tyge Nielssøn’s Almanac of 1644, the first book printed in Norway.

In Norway, the primstav was the everyday calendar through the 17th century. Two events then eclipsed its use. First, in 1644 Tyge Nielssøn, a Danish printer then living and working in Christiania, published Norway’s first printed book, an almanac. Second, in 1700, the Gregorian Calendar replaced the Julian Calendar in Norway and in Denmark. Thereafter, the primstav disappeared from mainstream life, though use of it persisted until the mid 19th century in remote districts.

Nonetheless, the primstav is an artifact of Norwegian cultural history that fascinates to this day. There are books on it, including:

Primstaven, by Anne B. Bull-Gundersen, Oslo 2003, Aschehoug, ISBN 82-03-22923-9, a chronology of definitions of its symbols (Norwegian).

Hverdagskost og festmat langs primstaven (Daily fare and feasts), by writer Birger Sivertsen and chef Arne Brimi, Horten 2011, Publicom Forlag, ISBN 978-82-92526-53-8, a culinary guide to everyday and party dishes suiting events symbolized along the primstav (Norwegian).

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and with time turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the June 30, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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