Numbers, Planets and One-armed Deities

Posted on 3 May 2011


Thor's Battle Against the Ettins (1872) by Mårten Eskil Winge

Thor battled against the Ettins...

You use them every day of your life, but did you know that every time you write in your diary, look at a calendar, arrange a date or look at a timeable, you’re opening up a world of numbers, mythology, celestial bodies and deities?

This week I was on the Tube when I saw a poster for a new movie about that mightiest of Germanic gods: Thor.

Beyond wondering whether or not the film would be worth going to the cinema to watch, two things popped into my mind… (1) The title would look wonderful with its original thorn (Þórr), and (2) wow, it’s Thursday. You’ll see what’s behind that second reaction later.

When you learn a language, one of the first things you come across – along with how you feel, what your hobbies are, and how many siblings you happen to have been landed with – is the days of the weeks.

If you’ve learnt a few languages – you might have seen a few similarities, and there certainly are some.

A mixture of mythology, numbers and astrology – and a divergence over which day of the week is the first one…

Let’s start with the Latin group, and turn to French – many of you will have learnt these at school: lundi, mardi, mercredi, jeudi, vendredi, samedi, dimanche.

Starting with Monday – from moon day, we have the same in French:

  • lundi – from lune (moon).

As with most Romance languages (but not Portuguese – as I’ll talk about later), the series continues in a similarly astrological vein:

  • mardi – Mars; mercredi Mercury; jeudi – Jupiter; vendredi – Venus

From the top, clockwise: the Sun, Venus, Mercury, the Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Mars.

Originally, they were all to do with heavenly luminaries – first attested around 170 AD in astrologer Vettius Valens’ Anthologiarum.

They were the Sun, the Moon, Ares, Hermes, Zeus, Aphrodite and Cronos – corresponding to seven ‘naked-eye’ celestial objects, given in the heptagram given to the right.

Traditionally, it starts with Saturn – the furthest – on the Sabbath.

Later, the Romance languages took the Latinate versions of these planetary deities.

Saturday – samedi – which in many other languages, including English, is associated with Saturn – in French is linked with the Sabbath – the seventh day (as the week for this group starts on a Sunday).

Sunday, in French, has also moved away from the astrological route (many languages have it associated with the Sun – as with Sunday) and instead takes a religious route: the day of the Lord – dimanche (< dominicus).

And it’s not just Latin-based languages that named their days of the week after celestial objects.

In Japanese, as you’ll see, the first character corresponds to:

  • 日 Sun, 月 Moon, 火 Mars, 水 Mercury, 木 Jupiter, 金 Venus, 土 Saturn
  • 曜日 Nichiyōbi, 曜日 Getsuyōbi, 曜日 Kayōbi, 曜日 Suiyōbi, 曜日 Mokuyōbi,     金曜日 Kin’yōbi, 曜日 Doyōbi

Let’s turn to English and the Germanic group.

In English: Saturday, Sunday and Monday relate to deities or celestial objects – Saturn, Sun and Moon. But the remaining days are named after gods – but not the Roman ones, the Germanic group has superimposed their own gods over them.

  • Tuesday: from Old English Tīwesdæg – from Tiw or Týr, the one-handed god of single combat from Norse mythology.

"Tuesday" was named after Týr or Tiw - the one-handed god of courage and strategy

  • Wednesday: from Old English Wōdnesdæg – from Anglo-Saxon god Wodan or Odan (Óðinn) – loosely based on Mercury, as both were “leaders of souls” in both of the mythologies, and, according to a number of sources, both are associated with “poetic and musical inspiration”. However, Icelandic Miðviku and German Mittwoch go for a more obvious “midweek day” – much like the Slavonic language changes their pattern on Wednesday to call for a midweek (среда, sreda…).
  • Thursday: from Old English Þūnresdæg – from Þunor, now Thor – god of thunder (þunor was also Old English for ‘thunder’) – Germanic equivalent of Jupiter.
  • Friday: from Old English Frīgedæg – day of Anglo-Saxon goddess Fríge – or in today’s English – Freya – the Norse Venus (Friggjarstjarna = Venus/Fríge’s star).

So technically, starting with the Sun day or the Lord’s day – all of these languages start their weeks on Sundays, with some of them ending on their seventh day, Saturday, with a version of the Sabbath.

Following Ecclesiastical Latin, Portuguese and derivative cultures also start their week on a lordly Sunday (domingo), end on a the Sabbath (sábado) – but then simply count the number of feiras (“holy days” – like with jour férié in French, meaning “bank holiday”) between them. Sunday is latently counted as the first holy day (which would technically be “primeira-feira”) but is superseded by the Lord, and then Monday to Friday’s feiras are named numerically:

  • segunda-feira (2), terça-feira (3), quarta-feira (4), quinta-feira (5), sexta-feira (6)

You might think this is a simple system, but actually for me it was quite difficult as, although weeks in the UK traditionally start on a Sunday, most people think about the start of the week as Monday – the start of the working week, following on from two days of not doing very much.

When learning Portuguese, Monday does not synch automatically to “second-fayre” in my head!

But Portuguese is certainly not alone. Hebrew, Greek, Georgian, Arabic, Icelandic, Vietnamese and many others also follow this numbering system, starting the week on a Sunday.

Other language also use a similar ordinal system, but start either on Saturday (such as Swahili) or Monday – possibly the more progressive of looking at things – which a lot more examples, including all of the Slavonic languages. Here’s the Russian:

  • Monday – понедельник (1st work day = “after no work day”)
  • Tuesday – вторник (2nd)
  • Wednesday – среда (middle – “3” as Slavonic cultures often count things in fives)
  • Thursday – четверг (4th)
  • Friday – пятница (5th)
  • Saturday – суббота (Sabbath)
  • Sunday – воскресенье (Resurrection)*

*I should admit that most Slavonic languages here have something like “no work day” (niedziela – Polish) instead of “Resurrection”.

Other languages which consider Monday as day one are: Estonian, Hungarian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Chinese, Mongolian, Georgian and Greek.

Going back to the opening part of this blog about why was I glad it was Thursday: well, now you might have guessed. It was because I noticed the Thor film on a Thursday. Now all I have to do is go back and graffiti on that thorn… 😉

So there – a veritable goldmine of interesting historical and linguistics babblings about things we take for granted every day of the week.

The months are interesting too, but let’s return to them another time. All I’ll say is that Ukrainian has a name for a month based on when its worms are most active…