The crowning glory of the year is upon us

2009-04-30 00:00

IT'S autumn. But in a sub-continent noted for short, sharp transitions between seasons you have to be quick to spot the signs. Often they are absences.

Just when did those aerobatic scavengers, the Yellow-billed Kites, stop patrolling our roads and fly north?

You can only tell that they've gone because the Pied Crows, tumbling clowns of the skies, have confidently reasserted their presence.

Autumn in this part of the world can also be confusing, contradicted by the festivals, religious and otherwise, held at this time of the year.

The Christian feast of Easter celebrating the resurrection of Jesus (overlaying an earlier pagan spring festival) loses much of its seasonal symbolism in the southern hemisphere when life is in retreat.

Even the months obfuscate. Their names are derived from Greek and Roman mythology, mirroring spring up north.

March is named after Mars, the Roman God of War and was originally the first month of the year, the traditional time for the resumption of hostilities.

April is Aphrodite's month, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, while May belongs to Maia, a Roman goddess of spring.

A better reflection of seasonal change is found in the Zulu calendar. This is a lunar calendar and the months are dated from the appearance of the new moon. Consequently the months are 28 days long and there are 13 in the year although not everyone agrees when exactly they begin and end.

We are currently in the ninth month, uMbasa, that begins with new moon in March (although some have it beginning at the end of February). The name is derived from the verb basa, to kindle a fire.

"The general impression is that this is because of the approaching chills of winter," writes Adrian Koopman in his indispensable book Zulu Names.

One authority calls it "the fire-kindling moon signifying the approach of the winter season".

However, as Koopman points out, in KwaZulu-Natal, February and March can be the hottest time of the year.

"I certainly prefer the interpretation of my colleague Msawakhe Hlengwa who sees the fires being lit to roast the first mealies," says Koopman, "especially the fires lit by the herd boys who have stolen mealies from the gardens and field to roast."

Nobody seems to quite agree on what the name of the 10th month, uNgulazibuya, means. One source says that the latter part of the word derives from isibuya, threshing ground, which would tie in with harvest time.

The 11th month, uNhlaba, starting late in April, sees everyone in agreement - it comes from inhlaba, aloe. But, hang on, aloes don't flower until June or July.

"It is possible that global warming or some other kind of climatic change has affected the flowering period of aloe plants," suggests Koopman.

"That uMbasa, occurring in early March, is said to refer to the onset of cold winter winds, suggests that winter now occurs a month or two later than it did in earlier years."

Festivals, the names of months - Roman, Greek or Zulu - are simply labels we have added.

Drop them all and enjoy the season.

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