The ancient Mvskoke calendar is grounded in astronomical observations. Each new year, for example, begins with posketv, the ceremony known in English as Green Corn, traditionally held around summer solstice. And the sequence of twelve hvse approximates the number of lunar months occurring in an annual period.
So cokv-walv Mvskoke is structured by the sun’s yearly migration between north and south and the moon’s monthly passage through fractional phases. But its months are named for vital aspects of the earth’s seasonal ecology, those subsistence foods and weather patterns that sustained our Mvskoke ancestors. They understood natural cycles both celestial and terrestrial, and their time-honored calendar synthesizes the astronomical and ecological knowledge they found to be useful.
The first five months of the Mvskoke year name pursuits and perceptions that signify traditional Mvskoke life: harvest, chestnut-thrashing, glistening (frost). The sixth month, on the other hand, refers to a season familiar in most temperate climates: Rvfo-Rakko, “Big Winter.” The name was formed by modifying the word rvfo, “winter,” with the augmentative suffix –rakko, “big.”
Several later months also are based on common seasonal terminology. These references to seasons in the names of months made me curious about Mvskoke knowledge of seasonal divisions.
The most recent Mvskoke-English dictionary includes entries for rvfo, “winter”; tasahcē, “spring”; and meskē, “summer.” (The Koasati language—another member of the Muskogean family—has a very similar word for “winter,” so rvfo is probably very old.) But “there is no fixed expression for ‘autumn’ in Creek,” the authors note, “though rvfo hakof, ‘when it becomes winter,’ may be used.” The same entries can be found in an earlier Mvskoke-English dictionary published in the late nineteenth century.
No Mvskoke term for “autumn”? If your language lacks a word for a basic element of worldview, it’s a good bet that particular idea is not a native concept. Of course, every living language is always changing; rvfo hakof may be analogous to the descriptive terms for days of the week coined by Mvskokes after European colonists imported their seven-day cycle.
Could it be that our agrarian forebears recognized only three seasons per year?
The dominant culture in North America would have you think that astronomical phenomena—solstices and equinoxes—are the only basis for seasonal distinctions. But many factors influence seasonal variation, and there are other ways to conceptualize the seasons.
Meteorological seasons are determined by weather conditions. In Sweden and Finland, for example, seasonal change is noted when the daily averaged temperature remains above or below a certain threshold for a week.
Ecological seasons are defined by the physiology of plants and animals as they respond to environmental variation over the course of a year. Some ecologists use six seasons to describe temperate climes, with the two additional seasons falling between winter and spring (pre-vernal) and between summer and fall (seritonal).
Many indigenous peoples around the world still observe their own traditional seasons. In Australia, various Aboriginal calendars have as few as two and as many as six named seasonal periods, depending on local climate and subsistence practices.
So there is nothing unusual, unnatural, or unscientific about a three-season calendar for Mvskoke country. And Muskogean oral tradition bears at least one compelling piece of evidence in support of this hypothesis.
A hundred years ago, anthropologist John R. Swanton visited the Koasati communities in Louisiana and Texas, transcribing dozens of oral narratives. This English-language collection of nature myths and trickster tales opens with a short story titled “The Ordering of the Months and Seasons,” a creation account in very condensed form.
“All things were made at the same time,” it begins. “The earth, sun, moon—all things—got ripe and were left to man.” The animals, however, took charge of organizing the calendar. “The creatures having assembled, any who liked a certain month took it and ran off,” then “threw it down on the ground as he ran and it started a new moon.” And so things went for the seasons as well. “When it was summer,” for example, “the Humming Bird said, ‘I will stay about and kiss the flowers.'” When all was said and done, “winter, spring, and summer were made together.”
Winter, spring, and summer—no sign of autumn, here or anywhere else in Swanton’s book of Creek, Hitchiti, Alabama, Koasati, and Natchez stories, just those three seasons preserved in the Mvskoke language since time immemorial: rvfo, tasahcē, and meskē. They demarcate seasonal boundaries ideally suited for an agricultural society, incorporating both astronomical and ecological intelligence.
Recovering this wisdom, thinking critically about the ways we mark time in space, can help us understand our environmental crisis and the industrial civilization that produced it.