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How the days of the week were named

Updated on July 10, 2012

We humans have to measure time somehow or other, If we were to arrange to meet in the middle of next week and just turn up when we happen to feel like it’s the middle of the week, we would never get together. So a standard has been set. That standard is based on the one thing common to us all, the movement of the sun and stars. A day is easy, that’s sunrise to sunset and a night is sunset to sunrise. Daylight and night-time vary at different times in the year but sunrise to sunrise is pretty constant so let’s call that, or variations on the theme, a day. By watching the movement of the Sun we can even divide the day up into more precise slices for even greater accuracy.

The seasons have always been of great importance to Human survival. The planting and harvesting of crops and the movement of animals coincide with the four seasons. When added together they equal the time it takes for the Earth to make a full circumference around the Sun. We call this a Year.

Another way of measuring the passing of time is to watch the moon. From the time there is no moon visible, through its growth to full and then fading to no moon again, is fairly constant. This period of time became known as a Month. It was noted that roughly three of these months encompass each season, an important consideration for our agrarian ancestors.

Life isn’t all work. Even for our ancestors who worked hard on the land there had to be time to relax. There had to be a way to make a time to gather together for worship, for play and for getting together just for the fun of it. What was needed was a way to make a time when people would not work, put aside their chores and do other things at the same time. That’s where the week comes in.

Plan of the city of Babylon, 600 BCE


In case you haven't got it yet

Around 1800 BCE The place to be was a city in Mesopotamia, or Iraq as we call most of it today. The City was Babylon, today there are only ruins though attempts have been made to rebuild the city. Back in the day it was wealthy, powerful and where it was all happening. It was happening in the sciences also. Modern astronomy had it’s origin with the astronomers of Babylon and they were the ones who came up with the notion of dividing the Moon cycle into four parts. The division isn’t exact but it’s close enough. They then decided to name the days in a seven day cycle after the heavenly bodies. Quite natural because, as previously noted, all other time calculations are based on what happens in the sky.

To the naked eye it seems that the stars move around in a fairly uniform manner except for seven heavenly bodies that appear to move independently from the others. It was the Greek astronomers, particularly Aristotle that came up with the idea that the Universe revolves around the Earth. The Babylonians had no such concept. They saw the heavens and the earth as one cosmology with the Earth moving in harmony with everything else. From that point of view these independent planetary bodies, counted by their apparent distance from the Earth, would appear to be: Moon, Mercury, Venus, Sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. The days of the week were named after these “Planets’ as the ancients called them. The other thing that the Babylonian astronomers did was to place philosophical and religious meanings to the movement of all heavenly bodies. So the order of the week days had more to do with their concept of the divine and the Gods they honored. So we have; Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn.

Saturday and Sunday are too much fun to sing about so we'll stop at Friday.

Most of the languages in the world follow this pattern of naming the days. The main exceptions to the naming rule are; Hebrew and English. In Hebrew the days of the week are numbered with Sun’s day being Yom rishon literally “First day” all the way to Venus’ day or Yom shishi “sixth day” Saturn’s day is called Yom Shabbat literally “Day of rest” What English did was to keep the Sun, Moon and Saturn as Sunday, Monday and Saturday The other four days were given the names of Anglo-Saxon Gods. Mars’ day was given to Tiw the God of war “Tuesday” Mercury was replaced by Wodan the all-father of the Gods known today as Odin, so we have “Wednesday”. Jupiter was given to Thor the God of thunder and lightning “Thursday” Venus was given to the wife of Odin Freja giving us Friday.

So unless you speak Hebrew or English you will be naming the days of the week in the same way as the Babylonians did about 4,000 years ago.


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    • iantoPF profile image

      Peter Freeman 5 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Thank you James, I appreciate your candor. I don't know either, though I agree that an all powerful God, by definition of the phrase, could create whatever He wished in whatever time frame He chose. Perhaps the seven days of Genesis were really seven segments, seven steps in creation as it were, though the reference to "The morning and the evening" is problematical to that notion.

      There have been a number of exceptions to the seven day week rule other than the French revolution. (That was nothing more than a secular rebellion to try and change the week from seven to ten days.) One such exception was in the pre-Islamic religion of the Arab tribes. Allah was the supreme deity with three daughters; Uzza, Manat and Al-Lat. There were 360 subordinate deities, one for every day of the year as it was counted then. They had no week, each day was named for it's deity. Then Mohammed came along and spoiled it all.

      It's an interesting study. Did the universe come into being out of nothing or is it a construct? Is the creator a being to be worshiped because he created the universe? or is there even more to this whole thing? It seems that one question opens up many more and they in turn lead to others. I, for one, enjoy the pursuit.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

      That is a good question and I do not know the answer. It would seem to me that an all powerful God could make it in 168 hours but I do not know that he did. What I am certain of is that he created it and something did not spring forth out of nothing all by itself. :-)

    • iantoPF profile image

      Peter Freeman 5 years ago from Pen-Bre, Cymru/Wales

      Hello James; Thank you for reading and commenting. I always enjoy your rejoinders and I appreciate the opportunity to discuss these subjects with intelligence.

      As is patently obvious I take a secular view of human development while you take a Christian based spiritual view. It is your view and I respect it, though I suspect we will never agree. I would argue that the Hebrew tribes adopted their creation story from the Babylonians and developed it when they achieved independence. You, I am sure, would argue that any similarity between Babylonian Myth and Hebrew scripture is because the Babylonians were influenced by the faith of the children of Judah.

      Two different points of view and two conflicting analyses of history. I must ask though; Do you really believe that the Universe was created in 168 hours?

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 5 years ago from Chicago

      I enjoyed your excellent article. It is cool to see the origins of the names for the days of the week. But I find your explanation as to why we even have a "week" wanting. A week is the measure of time we use that has no astronomical origin as do the year, month, and day. There is a profound reason for that and it is not because some Babylonian just dreamed it up out of the clear blue sky. It is because God created the universe in seven days. And have had seven day weeks ever since. (Excepting the French Revolution.)