Friday, December 17, 2021

The Gods, the Planets, and the Days of the Week

The Roman gods of the days of the week, starting with Diana the Moon Goddess (Monday)

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 8 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

Listen to the audio of this article!

The Chinese system of naming the days of the week is very sensible. It counts the days in order from 1-6, starting with Monday. But why isn't Sunday Number 7? It's easy to see that Sunday is Sun Day: It uses the Chinese symbol for the sun, 日, instead of a number. This tells us that the ancient Chinese seven-day week shares Babylonian roots with the western week.

Now, as for the days' names in English: just as Sunday is the Sun's Day, it's easy to see that Monday is "Moon Day" and Saturday is "Saturn's Day." But what about the other four days?

You may notice that Sun, Moon, and Saturn are things we see in the sky. In fact, the ancient Babylonians named seven visible "planets": the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn.  (They were a little wrong, of course; only the last five are "planets." The Sun is a star, and the Moon is a satellite of the Earth. But we'll forgive them--they didn't have telescopes!) Uranus, Neptune, and the former planet Pluto were not discovered until the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries respectively.

In fact, these words name not only days and planets, but also gods.

"Sun" and "Moon" are good Germanic words. The Romans called the Sun "Sol" and the Moon "Luna": these names survive in the adjectives "solar" and "lunar." But "sun" comes from the German "Sunne," the name of the Sun goddess in Germanic (or "Norse") mythology. And the German word for "Moon" actually came from the word "Mani," the name of the Norse Moon goddess. Saturn is the name of the sixth planet and its god in both English and German, and nearly the same in Latin (Saturnus).

With the other four days, we have to do some "comparative mythology."

Mars is the Roman god of war. His equivalent in German mythology was a god named Tyr. In Old English this became Tiw, so the day was Tiwes' Day--Tuesday. Notice that in Latin-derived languages, the name reveals its connection to Mars: in French, it's Mardi (think of "Mardi Gras"--Fat Tuesday!), and in Spanish, Martes.

Mercury was a messenger god. Unfortunately, things get a little confused here for English speakers. Wednesday is "Woden's Day," but the god Wodin (or Odin) is not a messenger: he's the king of the gods. Perhaps the confusion came because stories of Odin often include birds used as messengers. The French say Mercredi, and the Spanish Miercoles: both sound like "Mercury."

Thursday is more straightforward: Thor of the Germanic peoples is a thunder god with a bad temper, much like the hotheaded Roman Jupiter or Greek Zeus. (Though, in Greco-Roman mythology, he is the king of the gods.) The French call this Jeudi, and the Spanish say Jueves, both keeping the ju- sound of Jupiter.

Finally, everybody loves Friday! And that's fitting, because the Germanic goddess Frigg (also called Freya) is the goddess of love and fertility, like the Roman Venus. Friday is Frigg's Day. (Incidentally, she was the wife of Odin.) In French, this is Vendredi, and in Spanish, Viernes.

And so the Norse gods are hiding in the names of most of our days in English!

Visible (from left): Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn;
not visible to the ancients: Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.
Not shown: The Earth's Moon.


Which of the seven days: (Correct answers are in the first comment below).

  1. doesn't have a number in Chinese?
  2. is named for a god of war?
  3. would be Number 4 in Chinese?
  4. is named for the Norse king of gods?
  5. has a name in other languages related to the word "lunar"?
  6. is named for a Norse god parallel to Jupiter (Zeus)?
  7. is named for Odin's wife?
  8. is named for a god with virtually the same name in three languages?
  9. is named for a guy who used birds as messengers?
  10. is named for a star, not a planet?
  11. is named for someone named "Tyr"?
  12. is named for the love goddess?
  13. is named for a goddess named "Mani"?
  14. is named for a guy with a hammer?

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. What system do the modern Chinese mostly use to name the days of the week?
  2. What culture gave us (and the ancient Chinese) the system of naming the seven weekdays for planets?
  3. What are the so-called "Seven Visible Planets" after which the days of the week are named?
  4. Which modern languages (among others) use names for the weekdays that are very near those of the Roman gods?
  5. Aside from the Greco-Roman gods' names, what culture's mythology contributed names to the English days of the week?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Why do you think the modern week has exactly seven days (even when just numbers are used)?
  2. Why do you think people named planets (and weekdays) for gods?
  3. Four (or five) cultures are mentioned in this article: the Babylonians, the Chinese, the Romans (and the Greeks), and the Norse. What other connections do you know of between these cultures?

1 comment:


    Practice: 1. Sunday; 2. Tuesday; 3. Saturday; 4. Wednesday; 5. Monday; 6. Thursday; 7. Friday; 8. Saturday; 9. Wednesday; 10. Sunday; 11. Tuesday; 12. Friday; 13. Monday; 14. Thursday

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)
    1. The modern Chinese mostly name the days of the week using numbers.
    2. The Babylonians gave us (and the ancient Chinese) the system of naming the seven weekdays for planets.
    3. The "Seven Visible Planets" are: the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn.
    4. French and Spanish (among others) use names for the weekdays that are very near those of the Roman gods.
    5. Some of the names of weekdays in English come from the Norse culture.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").