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History and origin of Yennayer

It’s the time of the year to celebrate Yennayer, the Amazigh New Year, and we would like to take this opportunity to present to you and shed light on this ancient celebration, which the founding roots lie in the North African agrarian tradition. You will find above the video part 1 of 2, but you can read in this article the complete text of the two videos (part 2 coming soon) including the history of Yennayer, from the origins to the present day. Don’t hesitate to check out the sources with links at the bottom of the page (we hope that you are comfortably seated, because this will be a real journey through time!).

Mosaic of the Four Seasons, found at the ancient Roman town of Acholla in today’s Boutria, Tunisia, 3rd century AD. Picture by Dennis Jarvis.

Yennayer is the name of the first month of the year of the Amazigh calendar, which also gives its name to the celebration of Yennayer held on the first day of the year of the agrarian calendar occurring at the same time than the winter solstice celebrated by the North of Africa populations since many centuries, or even millennia. This event, marking the separation between two solar cycles, celebrates the transition from the short black days (oussen iberkanen) to the long white days (oussen imellalen).

Yennayer is observed in almost all parts of North Africa between January 12 and 14, but note that there is still a debate regarding when to celebrate it. This confusion lies in the basis of the modern Amazigh calendar that we will discuss in this article.

The etymology of the word Yennayer

We can find two explanations for the etymology of the word Yennayer, a term considered pan-North African:

1st theory
The first explanation would be that, for some people, Yennayer would derive from the root of two Amazigh words: the word yan which means « first » or « one », and ayyur which means « the moon » and also the « month ». According to this first theory, Yennayer would therefore be translated either by « the first moon » or by « the first month », but this remains inconclusive because not sufficiently documented.

2nd theory
The second explanation tells us that the word Yennayer would come from the word Ianuarius, which is the month of January in Latin. As Henri Genevois mentioned, the Latin names of the months, adapted to the local dialects, were preserved in North Africa, both in Tamazight and in Arabic. Months in Tamazight and in Latin:

Yanāyr (Ianuarius), Fūrār (Februarius), Maġras (Martius), Yabrīr (Aprilis), Mayū (Maîus), Yūnyū (Junius), Yūlyū (Julius), Ġušt (Augustus), Šūtambaṛ (September), Utūbaṛ (Otober), Nūnbaṛ (November), Ḏūǧanbaṛ (December).

Amazigh agrarian calendar

It’s supposed, by some researchers, that the Amazighs, practicing agriculture since the Neolithic era, would have probably used since the Antiquity a calendar based on the shift of the seasons and the different vegetation cycles, as people used to develop sacred rites linked to their way of life and the nature of their environment. The researcher and documentalist Djamel Eddine Mechehed, for example, would be among those who support the possibility that the Amazighs would have used an agrarian calendar prior to the Julian calendar. This agrarian calendar was a solar calendar which would be close to the Gregorian (western) calendar, having a division into four seasons, just like the Mesopotamian calendar, or the Celtic calendar, without forgetting that there were exchanges of knowledge with the Egyptians during the antique period that could also have transmitted their calendar.

Amazigh agrarian calendar, after Djamel-Eddine Mechehed.

Having studied the seasonal rhythms of the Algerian farmers, the French ethnologist and historian Jean Servier, “distinguishes in folkways two types of calendars, one very old, whose landmarks are determined by the state of the vegetation and the revolutions of the moon [and the other one] more recent, is the Julian calendar which was adopted by all the farmers of North Africa because it was more convenient regarding the major stages of the annual cycle of the vegetation. « (M. Gast and J. Delheur, 1992)

Numidian vases, 2nd and 3rd centuries BC found in the ancient Roman city of Tiddis (in Constantine, Algeria): checkerboard-like triangles of plowed land with solar, plants and fertility symbols.

Being an essential part of the daily life of the Amazigh people, the murals, tattoos, tapestries, pottery, etc., have displayed sacred ancestral patterns since millenia representing nature and their way of life, cycles of vegetation and the seasons, as well as the fertility of the earth and of men.

Representation of a dish from Maatkas (Great Kabylia, Algeria) of the last century with an agrarian wheel which symbolizes the annual revolution of the seasons and the cycle of human life, united in the same cosmic destiny (after J. B. Moreau).
Representation of a pottery from Djemila (Lesser Kabylia) of the last century representing in pendant the lands of the 4 seasons (from left to right): summer, spring, winter, autumn (after J. B. Moreau).

The Guanches of the Canary Islands are also said to have used a calendar, but there is little information about such ancient calendar systems. In his work “Historia de las Siete Islas de Canaria”, the 17th century Canarian physicist and historian Tomas Arias Marin de Cuba tells how the Canarians counted their year, called Acano, in sun (or day), and the celebrations that they held after the harvest.

Now, to fully understand Yennayer’s foundation, we’ll need to take a look at the Julian calendar and the Gregorian (new style or western) calendar.

Julian calendar

Previous to the Julian calendar, the Roman republican calendar had 355 days instead of the 365 days of a solar year, and for this reason, the Romans added a thirteenth month every two years which had 22 to 23 days, but this substitution has often been used for political purposes to lengthen or shorten the tenure of a consul. It also happened that this thirteenth month was neglected during major crises that the Roman Republic was facing.

In 46 BC, Julius Caesar decided to update the republican calendar with the help of the astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria. The new calendar, partially inspired by the Egyptian calendar, was named the Julian calendar, and came into effect as early as 45 BC.

The interesting facts regarding the Julian calendar are that:

  • It keeps the traditional twelve months of the republican calendar;
  • But it has 365 days instead of 355 days, as well as a leap year every 4 years where a day is added in February;
  • Also, the months Ianuarius, Sextilis and December became 31-day months.
Fragment of a Roman calendar from the time of Emperor Augustus I; the days are designated by the letters A to H (period of eight days). The letter N designates an inauspicious day, the F designates an auspicious day and the C (comitial) during which the comitia, general assemblies of the people, could be convened.

After the death of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony renamed the month of Quintilis, Julius, in his tribute. Augustus I, first Roman emperor and successor of Julius Caesar, will rework the Julian calendar by fixing the misinterpretation of leap years by the pontiffs who added a day to the month of February every 3 years instead of every 4 years. In 8 BC, the Roman Senate decided to pay tribute to Augustus by renaming the month of Sextilis, Augustus, which is the month of August. This rectification of the Julian calendar was adopted throughout the Roman Empire, as well as in North Africa following the Roman rule.

There are a good number of treatises and scientific works studying the Julian calendar dating back to the Muslim period, used in particular for agriculture because of its importance as a solar calendar, unlike the Hijri (or Islamic) calendar which is a lunar calendar that has ten-day lag each year, which does not respect the seasons of farming. “The Julian calendar was [therefore] adopted by all farmers in North Africa because it provided a convenient condition in which to fit the main stages of the annual cycle of vegetation. « (Jugurtha Hanachi, 2016)

As a matter of fact, many Amazighs and scholars of al-Andalus from all faiths were interested in the Julian calendar, such as the bishop and Mozarabic scholar Recemundus (Rabî ibn Zyad) (الربيع بن زياد الحارثي) who wrote “The Calendar of Córdoba” or Kitab al-Anwa in 961 AD; this was the first mention of the Julian calendar among the Muslims. Inspired by this calendar, like several other Muslim agronomists of al-Andalus, the agronomist Zakariya Ibn al Awan (أبو زكريا بن العوام) wrote the Kitab el Filaha or “Book on Agriculture” in 1175 AD, which led to “a “real scientific revolution” in the agrarian field” (Yidir Plantade, 2009). We can also name the astronomer Sāyyed ‘Abd al-Rāḥmān al-Akḥdārī (السيد عبد الرحمن الأخضري) of Biskra (in Algeria) who wrote a treatise entirely devoted to the Julian calendar in the 16th century AD, which will serve as a reference for all North African scholars.

The reform of Pope Gregory XIII

The Julian calendar has one more day every 128 years and 3 more days every 400 years compared to the solar cycle. In the 16th century AD, there was 10 days missing in time, which prompted Pope Gregory XIII to fix this in order to harmonize the holiday dates. He then created the Gregorian calendar in October 1582 (new style or western calendar used today), which is more precise than the Julian calendar. In October 1582, the date of October 4 switched to October 15.
North Africa will not adopt the Gregorian calendar until the European colonization because, as a Christian calendar, it was considered heretical.

Lunario Novo, Secondo la Nuova Riforma della Correttione del l’Anno Riformato da N.S. Gregorio XIII, printed in Rome by Vincenzo Accolti in 1582, one of the first printed editions of the new calendar. Picture by Aloysius Lilius.

The modern Amazigh calendar

The modern Amazigh calendar is a calendar of North African agrarian traditions, practiced prior to the Roman calendar, which are combined with the construction of the months of the Julian calendar. It was thought out and created by the late Chaoui Amazigh activist, Ammar Negadi. The first Amazigh calendar was published in 1980 (or in 2930 of the Amazigh year) by the association Tediut n’Aghrif Amazigh (Union du Peuple Amazigh or UPA) founded by Negadi. By this initiative, the latter wanted, first, to give the Amazigh people a calendar specific to them, and his second motivation was the choice of a significant historical event, as he wanted to include the Amazighs among one of the oldest known and living people in the world. The historical event chosen as a reference for the modern Amazigh calendar was the ascension to the throne of Egypt of Shoshenq I (Shashank, Sheshonk, Sheshonq…), descendant of the Libyan tribe of the Meshwesh, around 950 BC, who also founded the 22nd Dynasty of Egypt.

First Amazigh calendar by the late Ammar Negadi in 1980 (2930).

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is still a debate regarding the celebration day of Yennayer: January 12th, the 13th or the 14th? For example, in Algeria, the Kabyle people celebrate it on January 12, while the Chaoui cultural movement in the Aurès and Tunisia would support the date of January 14. In Morocco, Libya and the Canary Islands, it is rather the date of January 13 that is most often used.

If you remember, the modern Amazigh calendar, being based on the Julian calendar, has one-day difference compared to the Gregorian calendar every 128 years, and 3-day lag every 400 years. It’s for this reason that, with some calculations, Yennayer would have a lag of 13 days (1+13 = January 14th) with today’s (Gregorian) calendar, according to some specialists, and Yennayer would therefore be on January 14.
Knowing this, by removing the day lags, we know that the Gregorian calendar is the most accurate today; so, Yennayer would actually fall on… January 1st quite simply! We can say that we continue nowadays to celebrate Yennayer between January 12 and 14 mostly for traditional reasons, and as a symbol of the Amazigh identity, but the question is, are we going to change the date of Yennayer celebration every 128 or 400 years?

The origin of Yennayer celebrations

According to some researchers, the confirmed celebration origin of Yennayer comes from the Kalends of January (Calendae Ianuariae), which is the celebration of the Roman’s New Year, the 1st Ianuarius or January 1st of the Julian calendar, which occurs today on January 14 of the western or Gregorian calendar. The term Ianuarius would be dedicated to the god Janus, major god of the Roman pantheon associated with the beginning, the end of cycle, the choices, and the door threshold. According to Dr. Karim Ouaras, he would be called rabi g imnaren in Kabylia, meaning the god of thresholds. Janus was revered for bringing prosperity and inspiring good choices for the New Year. According to the menology Menologium rusticum (calendar of the monthly list of Christian holidays), the goddess Juno was the titular deity of the month of January, and according to Robert Schilling, Juno is involved with Janus in the Kalends, as a kind of collaboration in order to facilitate the transition from month to month.

Moreover, in Kabylia (Algeria), Yennayer is called ixef useggwas or aqeṛṛu useggwas which means the head of the year, or tabburt useggwas which means the door of the year. The latter is a term which, according to Jean Servier, is used to qualify each period of time between two seasons, but for Henri Genevois, this name would rather identify as « the beginning of the fall plowing and sowing from which the future crops will emerge. »
The authors Mathea Gaudry (1929), Germaine Tillion (2000), and Gustave Mercier (1896) mentioned that the Chaouis (in Algeria) call Yennayer Ass n ferâoun (the day of Pharaoh), because it would also be the Pharaoh’s birthday, which would be either a reference to Shoshenq I, or an Islamic tradition of the Crossing of the Red Sea celebrating the death of the Pharaoh who fell into the sea.

Mosaic showing the months of the year and the Four Seasons, found at the ancient Roman city of Thysdrus, today’s El Jem, Tunisia, 3rd century AD. Picture by Ad Meskens.
Month of January (Ianuarius) on the mosaic found in the ancient Roman city of Thysdrus, in today’s El Jem, Tunisia, 3rd century AD. Picture by Ad Meskens.

There is evidence of the celebration of the Kalends of January in North Africa since the Roman occupation. One of the oldest pieces of evidence is a mosaic of a wall calendar with the Four Seasons and the months, which was found at the site of ancient Roman city Thysdrus, in today’s El Jem, Tunisia, dating between 222 and 235 AD (two pictures above). On this mosaic, we can see on the part representing the month of Ianuarius (January) two men hugging each other, as well as a cake and leftover fruits in the background symbolizing the celebration of the New Year. The wealth of Roman North Africa was based on farming, and the Four Seasons were a perfect subject for showing the yields of agriculture.

Roman mosaic of the Four Seasons, 2nd century AD, found in Ain Beida near Timgad (Algeria), today at the Musée National des Antiquités et des Arts Islamiques d’Alger.
Algerian stamps from 1977 depicting a Roman mosaic of the Four Seasons of the 2nd century AD found at Ain Beida near Timgad (Algeria). Picture on Stamp World.

During the Roman Christian period, the Latinized Amazigh philosopher and theologian Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus (or Tertullian) was the first to clearly mention this practice in North Africa in his work “On Idolatry” in 212 AD, and to condemn at the same time its celebration in Carthage because of its pagan origins. We can also name the Bishop of Hippo, Saint Augustine, another great historical Amazigh figure, who also condemned this celebration considered pagan in a sermon he delivered in 397 AD. This was the last Latin African source to mention the Kalends of January.

During the Muslim period, the celebration of the Kalends of January was known as qalendas in the Middle Ages. We can find in a manuscript of the Maliki Muslim doctor, Abu l-Hasan al-Qabisi (أبو الحسن علي بن محمد القابسي) from Kairouan (in present-day Tunisia), dating between 935 and 1012 AD, an excerpt in which he denounces the celebration of the Kalends, as well as other Christian holidays. This reference is a strong indication of the perpetuation of the celebration of the Kalends of January in some North African regions at this period, as the author Yidir Plantade asserts in these words: “In all the medieval Mediterranean, we have no evidence of the use of the word « Yannayr » to designate the Latin month of January but in one and only place: Muslim Andalusia [because] Visigothic Andalusia is much more deeply Latinized than the dying Byzantine North Africa at the same time. [This shows] that medieval Andalusia was the main source of the reintroduction of the Julian calendar in North Africa as well as of the very name of Yennayer. »

As a matter of fact, the great poet of al-Andalus, Muhammad Ibn Quzman (محمد بن عبد الملك بن قزمان), also referred to Eid al Yannayr to evoke the celebrations of January 1st in some of his poems in the beginning of the 12th century AD. Also, the diplomat of al-Andalus, Hassan al-Wazzan (حسن ابن محمد الوزان الغرناطي), said Leo Africanus, mentioned his testimony of the New Year’s feast held in Fez, Morocco, which he called ennuyer in the 15th century AD.
As Yidir Plantade mentioned, here you will notice the « Irony of history: while during Antiquity Christian preachers enjoined their flock to stay away from the » pagan « New Year, in the Middle Ages it was the turn of Muslim preachers to forbid the faithful to participate in this celebration that they qualified as « Christian ». »

What we keep in mind here is what Jeannine Drouin says well in her study, « Les calendriers berbères », published in 2000: « Societies, whatever the Islamized area, have integrated, adapted, mixed the old and the new practices. The sacred pagan and the sacred religious have adapted and blended into each other, as a protective and apotropaic necessity [to avert evil and bad luck]. »

Traditional celebration of Yennayer in North Africa

Yennayer has been celebrated since ancient times by North African people. The folklore, which is extremely preservative, knew among other things to preserve this tradition which has undergone many changes over the course of history. Although the traditions associated with Yennayer are different depending on the period of time and the regions, they all have in common the fact that they participate in social practices and invite to share what the earth has offered, and not only among the Berber-speaking communities.
It is said that it’s good that the undertaken tasks are completed that day. Very often, a large traditional meal or imensi n yennayer is prepared varying according to the harvest and the regions (couscous with meat, pancakes, fritters, etc.), and different rites are practiced during one or more days, such as dancing, singing, masked carnivals, etc., predicting a happy new year or to ward off bad luck. We will further develop these Yennayer rites in a future article.

This celebration is considered « as an ode to nature and to the nourishing earth which places the New Year under happy auspices » as the teacher-researcher Dr. Karim Ouaras mentioned, because this event which celebrates the New Year, the good harvest and abundance, strongly symbolizes the value transmission ​​of preservation and gratitude towards nature (fauna and flora).


As Dr. Ouaras said in a lecture at “La semaine du Patrimoine Amazigh” in 2018 in Oran (Algeria): “If Yennayer has survived the vicissitudes of history by crossing several millennia, it’s because it’s of major importance for the Amazigh societies of North Africa, who still celebrate it. » As we have seen, several researchers agree in saying that the celebration of Yennayer, linked to the ancient Amazigh agrarian rituals, existed long before Shoshenq I, while other scholars focus on the Roman origin.

Whatever your opinion on this matter, we should remember that Yennayer symbolizes three major cultural keys to the Amazigh people celebrating the rhythm of the seasons of the farming life:

– A fundamental civilizational attribute of these folkways inherited from our ancestors who deeply respected nature.
– A precious sociohistorical impact inviting to convivial, festive and sharing moments.
– And a strong symbol of identity of the twentieth century through the creation and use of the modern Amazigh calendar, which establishes itself as an integral part of a rich cultural heritage celebrating solidarity.

Aseggwas ighudan, happy Amazigh New Year y’all. The Amazigh people are already in 2972 this year. Our Instagram account, with which the Tamazgha History adventure began in January 2017, is already celebrating its 5-year anniversary. We would like to thank everyone who have supported us over these years, rich in discoveries and encounters. Tanmirt attas!


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