As the Roman Empire expanded north, it came into more contact (and conflict) with the Germanic sphere of influence. Though the two cultures clashed, they became heavily influential on one another. This mix and mutual influence birthed a hybrid culture divided solely by language – while the Romans took their pantheon from the Greeks, the Germanic gods seemed to share similarities with the Roman gods. The names of these Germanic gods survive in the way we perceive time in the English language. Ancient astrology dictated observation of seven celestial bodies: the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, which were in turn translated into the seven days of the week. When the Germanic, Teutonic, Frankish, and Nordic peoples observed this culture in the Romans, it was interpreted into their own languages and culture.
Sunday: Day of The Sun, Not a Germanic God
Though today Sunday is observed as the seventh day of the week, we can speculate based on a number of European languages that it was originally observed as the first day of the week. As previously stated, ancient astrology holds the Sun as the first celestial body. As Europe Christianized, the Sun, life-giver to the Earth, was equated with the Christian God. The spread of Christianity through Europe helped solidify Sunday as the first of the seven-day-cycle. Whether the worship specified on this day was Christian or Pagan, it was always devoted to the Sun.
Etymologically speaking, Sunday is dies Solis in Latin, which translates to “Day of the Sun.” This original name for the day was incorporated by German speakers – it became sunnuntag in Old High German and sunnidagr in Old Norse. The latter two were evidently carried over into the English Sunday. The Romance languages (languages descended from “Roman”), on the other hand, arose after the Christianization and fall of the Roman Empire and adhere to very Christian terminology. Employing French as our exemplar of the five major Romance languages, the day is dubbed Dimanche – “the Day of the Lord.”
Monday: Furthering Pagan Planetary Worship
While Sunday is derived from historical worship of the Sun, Monday follows suit in being derived from historical worship of the moon. The Romans imported their name for Monday, dies Lunae (literally “Day of the Moon”), from their ancient Greek contemporaries. In Ancient Greek, Monday was called ἡμέρᾱ Σελήνης (“imera selinis” pronounced phonetically), which translates directly to dies Lunae in Latin, and “Day of the Moon” in English. In Modern Greek, however, Monday is known as Δευτέρα (“deftera” phonetically”), meaning “second” in English. Given the history of the Greek language, this is an example of how we know Sunday was originally the first of the seven days – Monday came to be called “second.”
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Germanic speakers imported the Latin dies Lunae and simply translated it directly to their tongue. In Old High German, the pronunciation became mānetag, and mánadagr in Old Norse. These dated pronunciations survive in the English Monday – a portmanteau of the words “moon” and “day.” Invoking French once more as our model for the Romance languages, Monday is called Lundi. The French term bears striking resemblance to the original Latin dies Lunae, both of whom directly also translate to “Day of the Moon.”
As ancient cosmology was dominated by planetary worship, the subsequent culture was steeped into how people in this era perceived time. With the major celestial bodies accounted for, the remainder of the seven-day-cycle of the week becomes devoted to the outlying planets. It was the various cultures of Europe who labeled the planets and their accompanying deities, such as the Greek, Roman, and Germanic gods, that gave us the names we know today.
Tuesday: Day of War and Justice
In Latin, Tuesday was dies Martis, “the Day of Mars” after the Roman deity Mars, the namesake of the planet we know today. Mars was the Roman god of war. Keeping true to our exemplification of French for the Romance languages, Tuesday is Mardi in the French tongue, which sustains the survival of the literal Roman pronunciation. The Roman god’s name not only survives in the day but also in the name of the month which heralds the end of the winter solstice. The optimal time for the armies of antiquity to mobilize: March.
The Germanic god equated to Mars is Tyr. In accordance with the importation of Roman culture, dies Martis was translated by the Germanic peoples as the day of Tyr. In English, “Tyr’s day” morphed into what we know: Tuesday. Tyr’s name is spelled as such in Old Norse; in Old High German, the God’s name was spelled Ziu. Perhaps the debate between the pronunciation of the American “Tuesday” versus the British “tchewsday” (phonetically) stems much further into history than we think.
Wednesday: Day of The Wise Wanderer
The Romans referred to Wednesday as dies Mercurii, “the Day of Mercury,” after their god Mercury. Mercury as a deity presided over a vast number of phenomena and is often equated to the Germanic god Odin: the all-father. We know and spell Odin’s name this way mainly due to his omnipotence in Nordic Viking culture. In the broader Teutonic Pantheon, the chief Germanic god has his name spelled Wōden in Old Saxon, or Wuotan in Old High German.
In incorporating the literal Latin “day of Mercury” to Germanic culture, the terminology of the day became, in German, Wodenstag which translates as “Woden’s Day.” With time, this developed into the English Wednesday.
In French, Wednesday is known as Mercredi, carrying the Roman god into the modern Romance vernacular.
Thursday: Day of Thunder and Strength
In antiquity the Romans referred to what was Thursday as dies Jovis and devoted the day to their god Iove/Jove, also referred to as Jupiter. Jupiter presided over the Roman perception and understanding of the sky and lightning and is often equated to the Greek god Zeus. In the pre-Christian Roman mind, Jupiter reigned supreme over all of the Roman Pantheon. Jupiter’s name is carried into modern French among all the other Romance Languages. In French, the word for Thursday is Jeudi: “the Day of Jove/Jupiter.”
Which hammer-wielding god is the Germanic equivalent to Jupiter? The Germanic cognate led to the day being devoted to the Germanic god Thor. In Old Norse, the fifth day of the week was known as Þórsdagr (“thorsdagr” phonetically): Thor’s Day. With time, the words were blurred together and became the English Thursday. Thor’s name also survives in English in our word “thunder.” Etymologically, Thor presides over the history and pronunciation of the very natural phenomenon his divine force commands.
Friday: Day of Wisdom, Love, and Fertility
Historically, the Romans devoted the sixth day of their seven-day-cycle to their Goddess Venus. Scholars argue that Venus was modeled on the Greek Aphrodite. Both the Roman goddess and the Greek goddess preside over love, beauty, sex, and fertility. In Latin, what we know as Friday was known as dies Veneris – “the Day of Venus.” Thanks to Roman dominance and imposition on western Europe, the Romance languages carry Venus’ name to this day. The French refer to Friday as Vendredi in tandem with the name donned by their Roman predecessors.
The Germanic goddess equivalent of Venus is disputed. The two contestant goddesses are Freya and Frigg. While both goddesses preside over the same phenomena, technically equating them both to the Roman Venus, the phonetic pronunciations of their names (and the days thereof) in Old Norse differ. In the Old Norse tongue, “Freya’s Day” would have been Freyjudagr while “Frigg’s Day” would have been Frjádagr. Though the goddesses are disputed, the cognate is sustained in the English term for Friday. The difference between the deities is not substantial etymologically speaking; perhaps the difference is similar to the Nordic God Odin and the Germanic god Wōden.
Saturday: Day of Plenty and A Roman God
The Roman god Saturn is commonly equated with the Greek Titan Chronos (also spelled Kronos or Cronus) due to his authority over the concept of time. In Roman mythology, Saturn also fathered a number of the high-ranking gods in the Roman Pantheon, further solidifying his parallel to the Greek Chronos. The seventh day of the seven-day-cycle for the Romans was devoted to Saturn. The day was known as dies Saturni – “the Day of Saturn.” In French, the day is known as Samedi and, as always, carries the ancient name into the modern Romance language speaker’s mind.
There is no Germanic god equivalent to Saturn. Germanic speakers likely borrowed the Roman term directly rather than juxtaposing their own deity on top of Roman fashion. For this reason, Saturday in English sustains significant cognizance and parallel to the original Roman terminology for the day. German speakers refer to the day as Samstag.
On the eastern borders of the Roman Empire, Greek speakers use the word Σάββατο (phonetically “savvato”) for Saturday, reminiscent of the Abrahamic term “sabbath,” and taken from the Hebrew שבת (“shabbat”). Evidently, the vast majority of the western world implements something similar to the original Hebrew, Latin or Greek terminology.
The Week of Germanic Gods
The cast of Germanic gods plays a significant role in the fashion we view time. As a Germanic language, English is directly descended from the languages spoken by the Germanic peoples from Angles, Saxony (who would converge in England as Anglo-Saxons), and the Scandinavians. Though English would come to be largely impressionable by Norman French speakers in the wake of the invasion of William the Conqueror from Normandy in 1066 CE, the core terminology (and days of the week) was sustained. When the ancients spoke of the immortality of the gods, did they mean these figures would be immortalized in language?