Word Stories - January 8, 2024 - 3 min

The Week That Inherited the Earth

When the ancient Romans took over the Greek world, they adopted the Hellenistic system of naming the days of the week. Each day was named for a major heavenly body—which was also the name of a god associated with that body. Since the invention of the telescope was still a long way off, though, people only knew about the five planets readily visible with the naked eye: Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. Adding the Sun and the Moon to this handful of heavenly lights provided enough names for the Romans to implement a seven-day week.

Because the Romans were efficient colonizers, they merged the old Greek gods with Roman gods (associating Mars with Ares, Mercury with Hermes, etc.). When they “civilized” the tribes of Europe, the system got tweaked again to incorporate local gods (Thor for Jupiter, Freya for Venus, etc). This habit of “translating” god to god is called the interpretatio romana (the “Roman interpretation”), and this month’s Word Stories instalment traces this winding evolution that gave us our modern names for the days of the week.

Sunday

People with a 5-day work week tend to think of Sunday as the last day of the weekend, but traditionally speaking it’s the first day of the week, and some traditionalists like the Quakers still insist on calling it “First Day”. In the 7-day Hellenistic Roman system, this day was associated with the divine sun: the Greek Hēliou hēmera and the derivative Latin dies Solis both mean “day of the sun (god)”. In the Romance languages, the cosmic lordship associated with the divine sun helped inspire the name dies dominicus (“day of the [Christian] Lord”) and thereby derivatives like the Spanish domingo and the French dimanche. In the Teutonic world, by contrast, the name dies solis was adopted quite literally as sunnōn dag (“day of the sun”), creating a Germanic root for variants like the modern German Sontag, the Dutch zontag, and the English Sunday.

Monday

In the 7-day Hellenistic Roman system, Monday was associated with the divine moon: the Greek hēmera Selēnēs and the derivative Latin dies Lunae both literally just mean “day of the moon (god)”. The association survives in most Romance languages through the Latin variant lunis dies (“day of the moon”) that lies behind words like the Italian lunedi and the French lundi. In the Teutonic world, the Latin name dies lunae was translated quite literally as mānini dag (“day of the moon”), a name that survives today in the English form Monday and related derivatives like the German Montag and the Frisian moandei.

Tuesday

In ancient Rome, Tuesday was associated with gods of war: the Greek hēmera Areōs literally means “the day of (the war god) Ares” and the derivative Latin dies Martis accordingly means “the day of Mars” in honour of the Romans’ own god of war. The Latin variant Martis dies can still be glimpsed in Romance forms like the Italian martedì and the French mardi. In the Teutonic world, though, Tiw was well established as the quintessential god of war, and so dies Martis was rendered as Tīwas dag (“Tiw’s day”). This is the derivative name that survives today in Germanic forms like the Frisian tiisdei, the Swedish tistag and the English Tuesday.

Wednesday

In the Roman system, Wednesday was associated with messenger gods: the Greek hēmera Hermou literally means “the day of Hermes” and the derivative Latin dies Mercurii accordingly means “the day of Mercury” in honour of the Romans’ own messenger god. This Roman revision can still be seen at work in Romance language forms connected to Mercury like the French mercredi. When the Romans arrived in Germanic territories, the locals didn’t have a god that looked much like Mercury, so “the day of Mercury” was associated instead with Wotan/Odin—the great Teutonic god associated with divine communication in the form of runes and poetic ecstasy. The local name that caught on was therefore Wōdanas dag (“Wotan’s day”), which survives today in Germanic forms like the Dutch woenstag, the German form Wodenstag, and the English Wednesday.

Thursday

The ancient Greeks and Romans associated Thursday with gods of thunder: the Greek hēmera Dios literally means “the day of Zeus” and the derivative Latin dies Iovis accordingly means “the day of Jove/Jupiter” in honour of the Romans’ own thundering father god. The Roman shift of attention to Jove is what gave rise to Romance language derivatives like the Italian giovedi and the French jeudi. In Germanic territories, though, the god of thunder was definitely Thur/Thor, so the day of thundering Zeus and Jove became Þunras dag (“day of the thunder god”), and the association with the Norse thunder god survives today in Germanic forms like the German Donnerstag (“thunder’s day”), the Danish torsdag (“Thor’s day”) and the English Thursday (“the day of Thor/Thur”).

Friday

In ancient Rome, Friday was associated with a goddess of love: the Greek hēmera Aphroditēs literally means “the day of Aphrodite” (to whom we owe the word aphrodisiac), and the derivative Latin dies Veneris accordingly means “the day of Venus” in honour of the Romans’ own goddess of love. This Latin name gave rise to further Romance language derivations like the Italian venerdì and the French vendredi. In the Teutonic world, the goddess most closely associated with love and sex was Freya/Frigg, so dies Veneris became instead Frījā dag (“Frigg’s day”). This is the form of the name that survives today in Germanic descendants like the Dutch vrijdag, the German Freitag and the English Friday.

Saturday

For the Greeks and Romans, Saturday was associated with old harvest gods: the Greek hēmera Kronou literally means “the day of (the Titan and harvest god) Cronus”, and the derivative Latin dies Saturni accordingly means “the day of Saturn” in honour of his Roman mythological counterpart. The Romance languages dropped this traditional connection with Saturn and instead affirmed Saturday’s link with the Jewish and early Christian “Sabbath”, in forms like the Italian sabato. The Teutonic world, on the other hand, maintained the Roman connection with Saturn quite literally with the name Sāturnas dag (the “day of Saturn”), and this is the form that gave rise to modern Germanic variations like the Dutch zaterdag, the Frisian saterdei and the English Saturday.

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