The Days of the Week
In Hebrew, the days of the week are simply numbered, except
for the 7th, which is the Sabbath (Shabbat). In Arabic,
the days of the week are also numbered, and the 7th day is still the Sabbath
(asSabt), but the 6th day is now alJum'ah,
the day of "gathering" (jum'), whenMuslims
pray at the mosque (jmi'). In ModernGreek, the days are also
numbered, and the 7th is still the Sabbath (Savvato), but the
1st day is now Kyriak, the Lord's day. Interestingly, the 6th
day in Greek is Paraskeu, the "Preparation." This
is actually the Jewish term, as preparation is made on the 6th day for the Sabbath
-- preserved in a language today almost entirely ofChristians,
but formerly of manyJews in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.
While the Eastern Mediterranean languages reflect variations on a simple numbering
of the days of the week, the languages of Western Europe all (except Portuguese)
reflect names based on the names of the naked eye planets, which included the
Sun and the Moon, either in a Latin version or a corresponding Germanic version.
The 1st day in Latin is named after the Sun (Solis dies), but
Christians also consider that the Lord's day (Dominicus dies),
as in Greek. The 2nd day is named after the Moon (Lunae dies).
The 3rd day is named after Mars (Martis dies). The 4th day
is named after Mercury (Mercurii dies). The 5th day is named
after Jupiter, or Jove (Jovis dies). The 6th day is named after
Venus (Veneris dies). And the 7th day is named after Saturn
(Saturni dies), though it can still be called the Sabbath (Sabbatum
or Sabbati dies).
The Latin names of the Planets were simple translations of the Greek names,
which in turn were translations of the Babylonian names, which go back to the
Sumerians. The Egyptians had different assignments. Some interpretation was
required for the Greek, and even for the Babylonian, translations, however.
Nergal, for instance, was the god of war but also of pestilence and, especially,
the Underworld -- overlapping with the Greek Hades. While Kronos was the father
of Zeus, Ninurta was the son of Enlil. The Babylonians replaced the Sumerian
national gods Enlil and Enki with the patron god of Babylon, Marduk, and his
son, Nab -- though Marduk was actually taken to be the son of Enki (called "Ea"
in Babylonian). Ninurta, an obscure god inherited by the Babylonians, may have
been identified with Saturn, the slowest moving planet, because, at least in
one story, he was identified with the turtle. [ note]
The Germanic version of the Latin day names has some correspondences and some
differences. In English, the 1st, 2nd, and 7th days are still named after the
Sun, Moon, and Saturn, respectively. The 6th day, Friday, looks
like the name (Fria or Freya) of a Germanic love goddess, which would correspond
to Venus (fri-, as in "friend," is a cognate of philein,
"to love," in Greek), though the day is also said to be named after
the goddess Frigg, who is also a goddess of love, and of the hearth (which would
be Vesta rather than Venus in Rome). The 5th day, Thursday,
named after Jupiter, who is a thunder god, in Latin, is named after a Germanic
thunder god, well known as "Thor" in Norse mythology. Tuesday
is named after Tiw, a god of law, but also said to be a god of war, which would
match up to Mars. Wednesday is named after the king of the
gods, who was Wotan in ancient German and Odin in Norse mythology. This has
no obvious correspondence to Mercury, though Odin as a god of wisdom might suggest
the role of Mercury in association with learning, and in Late Antiquity with
The curious thing about the Latin names, clearly using the planets, is that
the ancient order of the planets, rising from the Earth to
the Fixed Stars, can be read off by starting with Monday and jumping every
other day for two weeks: Monday (Moon), Wednesday (Mercury), Friday
(Venus), Sunday (Sun), Tuesday (Mars), Thursday (Jupiter), and Saturday (Saturn).
One is left with the impression that the names were assigned in a kind of code,
so that the Sun would come first in the week, but then the true order of the
planets could be read off nevertheless. Saturn comes both at the end of the
week and at the end of planets. The day that many people consider to the the
1st day of the week, Monday, is the first planet and does begin the sequence
While it is common to explain this peculiar sequence as going back to the Babylonian
assignment of the planets to different hours of the day (e.g. David Ewing Duncan,
Calendar, p. 47), I am suspicious that such an astrological mechanism
actually does not go back all the way to the Babylonians. I
have not found this explanation in critical sources about the Babylonians but
largely in popular accounts which give no references and seem to assume that
everything in astrology is originally Babylonian. We even have the testimony
of Anna Comnena (1083-1153), who probably had access to texts that are now lost,
that astrology didn't exist in Greek/Hellenistic times at all:
The art of divination is a rather recent discovery, unknown to the ancient
world. In the time of Eudoxus [c.408-355 BC], the distinguished astronomer,
the rules for it did not exist, and Plato had no knowledge of the science; even
Manetho the astrologer [c.280 BC] had no accurate information on the subject.
In their attempts to prophesy they lacked the horoscope and the fixing of cardinal
points; they did not know how to observe the position of the stars at one's
nativity and all the other things that the inventor of this system has bequeathed
to posterity, things intelligible to the devotees of such nonsense. I myself
once dabbled a little in the art, not in order to make use of any such knowledge
(Heaven forbid!) but so that being better informed about its futile jargon I
might confound the experts. [The Alexiad of Anna Comnena, translated
by E.R.A. Sewter, Penguin Classics, 1969, pp.193-194]
The astrological account, especially, has two historical problems: (1) the
Babylonians used a 12 hour day, not a 24 hour day (cf. Georges Roux Ancient
Iraq [Penguin, 1992], p. 364), and (2) the sequence of the planets was based,
as Duncan says, on their "correct cosmological order," but the "correct"
order of the planets was still a subject of dispute among the Greeks for some
time. The whole idea that there was an ascending sequence of planets up through
the "spheres" of the heavens is probably entirely an artifact of Greek
astronomy -- Pythagoras's "harmony of the spheres." Babylonian astronomy,
like Egyptian, saw the sky as one dimensional, not three dimensional. My suspicion,
therefore, is that numbering of the days is Middle Eastern and that the assignment
of the planets to the days, as part of a larger development of astrology, is
Hellenistic or, as Comnena says, even later. It definitely antedates Constantine's
official introduction of the seven day week, given Duncan's example of a graffito
diagram from Pompeii (p. 47), shown at right, which traces the sequence of days
within a heptagon, around which the planets are listed in their celestial sequence,
as this had been agreed upon by that time.
The convention, becoming more common, to start calendar weeks on Monday, is
a result of the Western European names, especially the German ones, which do
not call Saturday the Sabbath -- or do not do so anymore in a recognizable way.
Since Christians, especially Protestants, think of Sunday as the "Sabbath,"
the tendency is to number it as the 7th, rather than as the 1st, day. Familiarity
with Greek or Arabic, or several Romance languages, however, would inform one
that Saturday remained the Sabbath, as in Hebrew, even for Christians and Muslims.
The chart at right illustrates the two week period that counts off the classic
ascending order of the planets, from left to right. It gives the names of the
planets, in light blue, the names of the metals that alchemy
associated with each of the planets (in roughly the appropriate color), the
symbols for the planets and metals used in alchemy and still
in astronomy, and the names of the days of the week, from top to bottom, in
Latin, Welsh, French, Spanish, Italian, English, and German. The Welsh names
are of great interest, since Welsh is the remaining language
of Roman Britain. It preserves the Latin names of the planets
more faithfully than even the Romance languages, which are actually descended
from Latin, as Welsh is not.
The name of Saturday in Spanish and Italian is clearly derived from Sabbatum.
The French name, Samedi, has the same origin. In Old French
it was Sambedi, from Vulgar Latin Sambati dies.
There are many cases where a b has become an m
in "Sabbath," including Romanian Sambata, Hungarian
Szombat, and even Persian Shambe (written Shanbe).
In French, we have the interesting development that the final t
has become confused with the -di (for dies)
ending of all the other days of the week. The German name of Saturday, Samstag
then looks like nothing less than a transformation of the French name into German,
with German Tag, "day," subsituted for the -di
element, and a genitive -s added to the root. In German,
however, the -s may not be a genitive but a remnant of the
final t, since the word in Old High German was Sambaz
tac (compare English that, ending in t,
with German das, ending in s). In the oldest
attested Germanic language, Gothic, Saturday was Sabbato dags [Winfred
P. Lehmann, A Gothic Etymological Dictionary, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1986,
German has otherwise dispensed with the traditional names of Wednesday altogether.
Mittwoch would be "Midweek" in English
The gender of Dominius has remained masculine in Spanish and
French but turned feminine in Italian. This may be because dies was
occasionally used in the feminine in Latin, which ended up getting generalized
in Italian. The vowels have gotten a bit scrambled in French Dimanche.
Welsh and Italian show parallel use of g's for the glides
w/v and y/j, since Welsh reproduces Veneris
as Gwener and Italian Jovis dies as Giovedi.
It is Welsh and English, curiously, that emerge without the use of either religious
day name, neither Dominicus nor Sabbatum.
It must be something about Britain.
Copyright (c) 1999, 2000, 2002 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved
The Days of the Week, Note
I have experienced some frustration over the years assembling the Sumerian and
Babylonian names of the planets. Georges Roux (Ancient Iraq, Penguin,
1992), although very thorough about almost everything, is almost no help at
all. N.M. Swerdlow's The Babylonian Theory of the Planets (Princeton,
1998), although the kind of book that could be expected to tell the whole story,
actually doesn't give any Babylonian or Sumerian names for the planets. Only
David Ewing Duncan's Calendar (Avon, 1998 [ note]) gives the complete
list of Babylonian names (p. 45), but no Sumerian ones. Giving the Sumerian
equivalents of the Babylonian gods is then not always easy. I have not seen
Gugalanna as the Sumerian equivalent of Nergal anywhere except in Diane Wolkstein
and Samuel Noah Kramer's Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth (Harper
& Row, 1983). It is Wolkstein and Kramer who also mention the story of the
"Ninurta-Turtle" (p. 142). And then there is the awkward circumstance
that Marduk and Nab are not derived from Sumerian gods at all. Marduk, however,
pretty clearly replaces Enlil, and his son Nab has much the same function as
a patron of learning as Enki/Ea. "Patron of learning," indeed, is
the salient characteristic, since that seems to be the basis of the identification
of Nab with Hermes, and later of the identification of the Germanic Wotan with
Doubtless there are heavy duty sources that give the primary texts for all
the Babylonian and Sumerian planet names, but I have not really wanted to turn
this research into a full time job. That so many secondary sources fail to even
list the equivalents (I think Swerdlow's oversight is unforgivable) is peculiar
-- a peculiarity I can at least try to remedy.
Return to text
The Days of the Week,
David Ewing Duncan's Calendar [Avon, 1998]
The usefulness of Duncan's book is compromised by many, many errors, sometimes
egregious ones. His treatment of luni-solar calendars is a disaster. The Babylonians
did not use "seven years of thirteen months followed by
twelve years of twelve lunar months" [p. 14]. The years with thirteen months
were the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, & 19th of a cycle, which is an
even mathematical distribution, and a rule still used by the Jewish calendar,
which Duncan says "intercalates a month every three years...though this
system still leads to a gradual [!] drift that requires a second extra month
to be added now and then by Jewish elders" [p. 14]. Where in the world
did Duncan read this nonsense? What "Jewish elders" would that be?
The "Elders of Zion"? Very shocking. Duncan also says that the Metonic
year, with the Babylonian intercalation, runs "several hours fast"
[p. 14]. No. It is off a day in only 219 years, which is more accurate than
the Julian calendar (off a day in 128 years).This means it is only off a
tenth of an hour (6.5 minutes) every year. Also, the Metonic year is longer
than the tropical year (365.2467463 days against 365.2421988 days), which means
that it runs slow, not fast, a confusion Duncan also has with
the Julian calendar. Out of many other examples, just one more will do. Duncan
says that "the Julian calendar the conquistadors brought with them was
less precise" than the Mayan calendar they found [p. 18]. However, Duncan
then describes the Mayan/Aztec calendar, which was no more accurate than the
Egyptian calendar (a 365 day year) and considerably less accurate than the Julian.
Why didn't he notice the problem with his own description? It is very sad to
see a book published for popular consumption so confused and mistaken.
Athos A. Altomonte