92

It amazes me that despite centuries of religion dominating almost every aspect of life in Britain or at the very least exerting a great deal of influence on the public and private sphere, the English language has managed to retain its non-Christian names of the week (with Tuesday through Friday directly referencing the Norse gods and goddess Tyr, Odin, Thor and Frigg, Saturday - Saturn and Sunday and Monday the sun and moon respectively, with the moon personified as a deity).

Was there no effort to replace them? Was there a time when a different system was used?

Note that I'm not asking about the etymology of the names of the week like this question does.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Feb 16 '18 at 12:16
159

Background

When in ca. 100 CE Plutarch wrote a treatise entitled Why are the days named after the planets reckoned in a different order from the actual order?, it can be deduced that

  1. in Rome the seven-day week had supplanted the eight-day week based on market days,
  2. it was commonly understood the seven days were named for the classical planets in a geocentric universe, i.e., not directly after the deities after whom they were named, and
  3. the days were not sequenced in their astronomical order: Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Sun, Venus, Mercury, Moon.

Plutarch's treatise is no longer extant, but we do know the answer: the order follows the astrological planetary hours. Each day of the week is named for the planet ruling its first hour.

The rest is pure arithmetic. Twenty-four hours ruled by seven planets leaves a remainder of three, so beginning with the day of the Sun, the next day is three planets to the right in the list, the Moon's day, and so on.

When after increased contact with the Roman Empire Germanic tribes adopted and adapted the seven-day week, they remythologized the names into more local deities. Whether this twist on the interpretatio germanica included Sunna, a sun goddess, feminine because the Germanic word for sun is that grammatical gender, or was simply a translation of the Latin cannot be determined. Appparently there was no readily available deity to corresponding to Saturn/Chronos, so his name remained for Saturday.

All this occurred long before West Germanic literacy and can only be inferred from Old Saxon, Old High German, and Old English.

...meanwhile in sixth century Portugal

For its own use, the Latin church had adopted the simple numbers of Genesis 1, except the first day was the Lord's day, Dominica, Monday–Friday bore numbers 2–6, and Saturday was the biblical sabbatum. This would not have been so much a reaction to pagan names as it was to assure a distinctly Christian shape to the week, beginning with the prime celebration of the Lord's Day.

The Eastern Church followed a similar pattern, adding Παρασκευή (Paraskeví) for Friday, the "Day of Preparation" for the Jewish Sabbath, on which Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. This "five numbers and the Bible" scheme is still how Greeks name the days of the week, and it influenced Slavic names as well. (Not all names: Monday, e.g., Slovak pondelok, means literally "day after no work," which should be universally adopted.)

In sixth century Portugal, St. Martin of Braga (ca. 520–580) objected to the daily dose of paganism in secular Latin and Romance languages, insisting that not only the days of the week be renamed according to ecclesiastical nomenclature, but that the planets be renamed as well. In the latter endeavor he failed to convince, but to this day, if you're in Lisbon and want to do something on Tuesday, you do it on "Thirdday": terça-feira.

...and now to seventh century England

Sources written in Old English begin to appear in the seventh century, at roughly the same time as Anglo-Saxon Britain was being christianized. These two cultural phenomena are, of course, connected, with much of Old English literature written under the aegis of the Church. Scholars have struggled for centuries to characterize the belief system, if indeed there was one, of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons, but place names suggest veneration, if not an organized cult, for Woden, Þunor, Tiw, and Frig, i.e., our Wednesday, Thursday, Tuesday, and Friday deities. There is no extant literature from Anglo-Saxon pagans themselves, and what remnants appear are often blended with folklore. Various early kings even claimed Woden or Thor as original ancestors without any concomitant claim of their divinity.

The absence of such sources — plus a relative wealth of sermons and other occasional works in Old English — does, however, make answering your question easier: while there are sources condemning veneration of trees or watercourses as pagan practices, there were no churchmen demanding that the days of the week be renamed according to the Christian numbering. So the Venerable Bede could muse in the eighth century — without the slightest polemic — about the Germanic and presumed pagan origin of the name for the supreme feast of the Christian liturgical year: Easter.

...and a thousand years later

To find an Anglophone equivalent of Martin of Braga, you have to wait for George Fox and the seventeenth century Quakers, who not only numbered the days of the week to avoid any reference to Germanic paganism, but also the months, especially those named for Roman deities or emperors. One Quaker writer enlivened that polemic in 1751, when England finally relented to switching to that "popish" innovation, the Gregorian calendar. This practice continues today, at least in formal contexts, for some more conservative Quaker groups.

  • 16
    Wonderful answer. I'm not only upvoting it, but sharing it on the History site's chat. – T.E.D. Feb 15 '18 at 19:03
  • 1
    As as tiny nitpick, I think that Frey is more commonly associated with who Friday is named after than Frigg. Apart from this minor thing, I really enjoyed reading this answer, very educational. – eirikdaude Feb 16 '18 at 11:43
  • 12
    "...meanwhile in sixth century Portugal" best subheading ever – Fattie Feb 16 '18 at 19:08
  • 10
    One fascinating aside - In Japanese and other Eastern languages, the names of the days of the week also match the names of the heavenly bodies in the exactly the same pattern, and for the same reason. E.g., a literal translation of the Japanese word(s) for Monday, 月曜日 (getsu-youbi), would be "Moon day". More information here: cjvlang.com/Dow/dowjpn.html – Todd Wilcox Feb 17 '18 at 3:36
  • 3
    My favorite part of this answer was being reminded that English Catholics used to be accused of all manner of 'popery' and 'popish' behavior. Its too bad that the term 'Catholic' caught on in the English language; as one of those Catholics, I find the accusational association with the Pope to be hilarious. Sounds like good grounds for another question. – kingledion Feb 17 '18 at 15:03
16

In answer to your question "was there no effort to replace" the names of the days of the week, yes there was.

George Fox (1624 - 1691), a Dissenter who preached in England, Europe and America, had a conscience about the origin of the names as you point out. He refers in his Journal to 'the first day' instead of Sunday and so on and also refers to months by number rather than name.

The practice gained some following in his lifetime and thereafter, those who advocate it referring to Psalm 16:4 :

Their sorrows shall be multiplied that hasten after another god: their drink offerings of blood will I not offer, nor take up their names into my lips.

I know of a number of Christians who, today, still follow this practice.

  • 3
    It is interesting to note that although Hebrew uses "the first day" etc, Yiddish, in use almost exclusively by practicing Jews, also uses the names derived from pagan roots. There are some who use the Hebrew terms while speaking Yiddish, so the awareness and effort to respond appropriately is present for some, but by and large people just use those names unaware or unable to change the habit. – GetzelR Feb 15 '18 at 14:48
  • 2
    @GetzelR remember that Yiddish is "High German with some Hebrew". Thus, it's quite understandable for them to use pagan names. – RonJohn Feb 16 '18 at 5:25
  • 1
    It's rooted in High German, which is definitely where those names came from, but it differs to the point where a speaker of one would not understand a speaker of the other. The use of these day-names is not one of these differences, which is surprising due to Yiddish speakers being almost exclusively practicing Jews, who have something of an allergy to paganism. You'd expect the "some Hebrew" to have extended to this case, or for some Yiddish construction to be employed, but that is not the case. – GetzelR Feb 16 '18 at 14:37
  • "it differs to the point where a speaker of one would not understand a speaker of the other". Not much more than Hochdeutsch and Alemannisch differ; and the latter is definitely recognized as a variety of German. – Martin Bonner Feb 19 '18 at 9:55
0

How did English retain its non-Christian names of the week? It can be explained quite simply: inertia. Language is a utility of the people and is not as easily subjugated by those who wield rules as is commerce regulated by those who wield swords. Another example of this inertia is presented by the word sunrise. We know full well in modern times that the sun does not rise or set and yet sunrise sunset persist despite all polemics.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.