A couple of months back I did a post on the months of the year in Anglo-Saxon England, and I thought it might be fun to do another post on the same theme, but this time on the days of the week.
Many of us probably know is that the names of the days of our week – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday – are based on the names of gods, and come to us from way back in history (and if you were paying attention in school you might guess there is at least some Roman connection to all this).
At least that is what I knew, at any rate. But what about the Anglo-Saxons? How did they name their days?
First of all, we should probably take a slight step back and talk about why we have seven days in a week. Because that has not been the case for all people throughout time and across the world. Just like people had various ways of determining how many months in a year, the same was true for calculating how many weeks in a month and how many days in a week. Years, months, and days can be tied to astronomical events – the passage of the sun or moon through the sky. But a week has no such astronomical significance.
However, a lunar month has approximately 28 days, which can be nicely divided in four sections of 7 each, corresponding to each phase of the moon, which have seven days. There was seven heavenly bodies known by the ancients (five planets plus the sun and moon). For all these reasons (and others) the number seven has always been an important number for many cultures.
So it’s not surprising that the seven-day week comes to us from ancient times. The Sumerians in the 21st century B.C. developed it, and it was adopted by the Babylonians, who in turn (possibly) influenced the Jews (the days of Creation in Genesis number seven), as well as the Romans. But the Romans didn’t start to use a seven-day week until the first century. Up until that point they observed an eight-day week. It was Constantine, in 321 AD, who made the seven-day week official across the Roman Empire. He also decreed that Sunday would be the first day of the week, not Saturday as the Romans observed. This was to honour the resurrection of Jesus, which occurred on a Sunday.
The Babylonians named the days of the week after the five planetary bodies known to them, plus the sun and moon. The Romans took this idea and named the seven days after their gods (who in turn were represented by the planets), so Monday was Dies Lunei (Moon), Tuesday – Dies Martis (Mars), Wednesday – Dies Mercurii (Mercury), and so on. You can still see a direct correspondence to these names for the days of the week in the languages which derive directly from Latin, ie French, Italian and Spanish. So in French, Monday is Lundi, Tuesday is Mardi, Wednesday is Macredi, and so on.
But those of us who speak English have different weekday names. And that’s because ours hearken back to the Anglo-Saxons.
The Germanic and Norse tribes who were the ancestors of the ones who migrated to England in the fourth and fifth centuries, took the idea of the seven-day week from the Romans, as well as the idea of naming those days after the gods. However, in their case they used the names of their Anglo-Saxon gods. So, for example, the Roman name for Friday was Dies Veneris (the day of Venus). Venus was the god of beauty, love, and fertility. The Anglo-Saxons named the sixth day of the week after their god of beauty, love, and fertility, whose name was Frigg.
So, in Anglo-Saxon England, the days were named as follows (note: daeg means day in Old English):
Sunday – Sunnandæg. This is a Germanic interpretation of the Latin Dies Solis (the Roman’s name for Sunday), which means “Sun’s Day”. But they are referring to a different god than the Roman one. The Germanic people personified the sun as a god named Sunna, or Sól.
Monday – Mōnandæg, Named after the god Mani (Sól’s brother), represented by the moon.
Tuesday – Tīwesdæg. Named after the god Tiw or Tyr, who is equivalent to the Roman god Mars, the god of war.
Wednesday – Wōdnesdæg. Woden was the ruler of the gods in the Germanic/Norse pantheon (also known as Odin). The seventh-century Anglo-Saxon kings made sure their lineages traced back to Woden, even if they were Christian kings. Woden cast a long shadow on the Anglo-Saxons.
Thursday – Þūnresdæg. Thunor’s Day. Thunor was the Germanic god of thunder and strength, related to the Norse god Thor. .
Friday – Frīgedæg. Named after the wife of Woden/Odin, who was called Frigg or Freya (they could also be two separate gods, scholars disagree on this).
Saturday – Sæturnesdæg. Interestingly enough, the Anglo-Saxons did not assign any of their gods to this day. They simply used the Roman name for this day, which was named after the Roman god, Saturn.
One of the most obvious influences on English-speaking people from the Anglo-Saxons is that some of the words we use most often, that being the names of days of the week, come directly from them. You can get a sense of this when you see the written Old English, but have a listen to this very short clip of someone saying these words in Old English.
Fascinating, no? Of course there are quite a few other words that come to us from Old English (Anglo-Saxon), but these ones certainly sound quite a lot like the original ones, don’t they?
It’s amazing to me that despite the fact that many of us know very little about the Anglo-Saxons, we still are influenced by them in more ways than we think, none more evident than the names of the days of the week.
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For more posts on Anglo-Saxon life, check out the links below: