Weekly Gods (The Myths Behind the Days of the Week)

Arkane Curiosities

The passage of weeks shape our lives in so many ways. But the story of how we settled on seven days and the names of the days dates back thousands of years. 

Why Seven Days?

The Babylonians had remarkably good astronomical knowledge. In addition to the sun and the moon, they knew about the five closest planets. Add those up and you get seven celestial bodies — one for each day of the week. 

Seven days also matched the cycles of the moon — the time it took to transition from one phase to the next. 

The names for the days of the week corresponded with different Babylonian gods, each associated with a planet. 

  • Sun: Shamash
  • Moon: Sin
  • Mars: Nergal
  • Mercury: Nabu
  • Jupiter: Marduk
  • Venus: Ishtar
  • Saturn: Ninurta

The Greek Gods Take Over the Week

As the Greek civilization grew to dominate the Mediterranean, they were influenced by the Babylonians. They, too, named two days after the sun and the moon, calling them day of the Sun (Hemera Helio) and day of the moon (Hemera Selenes). Hemera was the goddess who personified the day.

All the other days of the week were named for Greek gods, instead of the visible planets. 

  • Tuesday became hemera Areos after Ares, the merciless god of war 
  • Wednesday was named hemera Hermu for Hermes, the messenger for the gods
  • Thursday was hemera Dios or Zeus’ day, the king of the gods and the lord of sky and thunder
  • Friday was named hemera Aphrodites after Aphrodite, goddess of love
  • Saturday became hemera Khronu from Kronos, the lord of the Titans, and Zeus’s father

The Romans Rename Everything

The Romans were famous for taking what someone else had done and slapping their own name on it. They simply took the Greek gods and replaced them with the Latin name.

  • Tuesday became dies Martis (after Mars)
  • Wednesday became dies Mercurii (after Mercury)
  • Thursday became dies Jovis (after Jove, also called Jupiter)
  • Friday became dies Veneris (after Venus)
  • Saturday became dies Saturni (after Saturn). This was also a winter festival called Saturnalia, where enslaved people traded places with their masters for a few festive days

The Romans continued to honor the sun and the moon, making “dies Solis” (for Sunday) and “dies Lunae” (for Monday).

Same Days Different Gods

The folks living across the Rhine River had continual contact with the Romans and adopted many of their customs. When the Roman Empire collapsed, Germanic tribes spread out over Europe. They kept the same days of the week, simply swapping out their own Norse gods for the Roman counterparts. 

Sunday
In German, this started as sunnon-dagaz “day of the sun”. The Norse mythology called the Sun Sunna. As it migrated into English, it became Soneday.

Monday
The Germanic tribes preserved this as a moon day. The “mon” in Monday represents the Moon.

Tuesday
This day was named after the Norse god Tyr, a god of warriors and combat (the closest to the Roman Mars). Tyr’s name was sometimes spelled Tiw, giving us Tiwesday.

Wednesday
The Germanic tribes associated their chief god, Odin, with the messenger god Mercury (both traveled to earth to deliver wisdom). If it seems a strange leap from Odin to Wednesday, we need to understand he was also called Woden, giving us Wodnesday.

Thursday
Just as the Romans and Greeks honored the king of the gods, the German tribes did the same, but with Thor rather than Zeus. There were two names to this day. We have the literal thunresdæg for “thunder’s day” or thorsdagr for “Thor’s day”.

Friday
This marks the biggest shift from the Greek/Roman system and what we know in English. Instead of the goddess of love, they opted for Odin’s wife Frigg (or Freda). The day was known as frigedæg and later simply fridai.

Saturday
The Germanic tribes didn’t assign a god to this day of the week. Instead, they kept the Roman name of Saturni, shifting to sæterdæg and later saterday.

Every time you mark a date on your calendar, you’re actually honoring ancient gods and goddesses that go back thousands of years. 

Tim Kane

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The Joy and Sorrow of Mistletoe

I’m a huge fan of folklore and the history behind traditions. Here’s what I dug up on Mistletoe, everyone’s favorite kissing plant.

It turns out that Avengers fans will recognize their favorite villain in the mistletoe story. Yes, Loki is responsible for more mischief. But, we’re ahead of ourselves. First let’s go the the number two power in the Norse universe (and one that seems to be absent in the Marvel films): Frigga. Like Odin, she could also see the future, but was less doom and gloom about it.

800px-FriggSpinning

“Frigga Spinning the Clouds” by John Charles Dollman

She gave birth to her son, Balder, on the winter solstice. He, being the god of light and truth, fits the season well as the days slowly grow longer leading up to the summer solstice. However, she also received a dream that her son would die. She asked all manner of things in the world to swear an oath to never hurt Balder. This was easy because he was the popular type, with a sunny disposition. (Yes I know, you can hate me now.)

balder

The Marvel version of Balder

The one she passed up was mistletoe. Accounts vary. Some say that mistletoe was too young and immature. Another version says that is was too small and inconsequential. Needless to say, this turned into Balder’s Achilles Heel.

The gods, being the ones to push things to the limit, decided to test Balder’s invulnerability. They hurled all sorts of weapons at him, including Thor’s axes. None harmed him. Loki sidled up to Hod, the blind god of darkness. Loki had fashioned a dart (some versions say an arrow, but mistletoe is tiny, so I buy the dart version). He helped Hod aim and shot it toward Balder, striking the god right in heart.

balder_died

Balder being Killed by Hod and Loki

At this point the story splits into a happy ending and a sad one. Let’s do the sad one first.

Balder died and went to Niflheim. The goddess Hel promised to return Balder to life if every living thing shed a tear for him. Loki again twisted the knife by assuming the form of the giantess Thok. In this form, he refused to cry, dooming Balder to remain in Niflheim forever.

The gods saw through Loki’s deception. The trickster transformed to a salmon to escape. And he almost slipped away. Except his brother, Thor, nabbed him. Loki was then bound in a cave with venom dripping on his chest until Ragnarok.

Now the happy ending.

After being struck by the mistletoe dart, Frigga cried over her fallen son. She cried so much, that mistletoe took pity and formed milky white berries to represent her tears. Her crying also restored Balder to life. Frigga made the plant a symbol for love and she promised to bestow a kiss on any who passed under it.

You pick the ending. Either way, there’s a lot more to this tiny plant than a seasonal amusement.

Tim Kane