Weekly Seven-Day Cycles
The idea of dividing the cycle of the moon into four seven-day weeks may have begun in Babylon. In its familiar modern form, it probably derives from a Jewish model, echoing the story of Creation as told in Genesis, in which God, having made the world in six days, rested on the seventh – and ordered humanity and their animals to do likewise. As a result, every week connects us to the beginning of time itself, as the days plot the round of our work and leisure, the recurrent rhythm of our existence.
Our Language and Beliefs
The weekday names depend on our language and our beliefs. The names that we give the weekdays in English are an inherited meditation on the cycles of time, as we observe the pattern of the sun, the moon and the planets circling above us – though the story they tell us is for English-speakers only, since nobody else’s week is quite the same as ours.
Days Named After Gods
Sunday, Monday – the week begins with the sun and the moon, whose separate movements mark the months and years. After them, come the days of the easily visible planets. In Romance languages, this is Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus – the sequence that the Romans followed and left behind.
In England, around the seventh century, the planets tethered to the gods of Rome were renamed for the equivalent northern gods, and it is their Anglo-Saxon names – Tiw, Woden, Thor, and Frige – that distinguish the days for English-speakers on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Saturday, the Anglo-Saxon gods are joined by Saturn, which retained its Latin name, making our week, like our language itself, a peculiar German-Latin hybrid.
Encompassing the different cycles of sun, moon and the five planets, every week thus implies not just a long span of many years, but also the company of gods and the vastness of space itself. In the names of our days is the entire solar system – the time-space continuum as it was known in the ancient Mediterranean world and transmitted to the north of Europe. The turn of the week is – in English – a concise cosmological history, in which we still live every day with the gods of our ancestors inhabiting an ancient, but stable structure of time.
Living With the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples
Background on Neil MacGregor