Seven Days a Week

Hi blog.

I won’t be making excuses for my lack of blogging, except to say that the sun is setting earlier and earlier, the temperature is steadily decreasing (except for those wild weeks of roller coaster weather – a maximum of 19 degrees on day, 27℃ the next before plummeting to 14 degrees the following day) and I have a persistent cold.  Yuck.

One of the interesting aspects of teaching English is etymology.  I’m often asked questions about English that one would not normally think about.  Take the days of the week.

The Japanese weekdays, starting from Sunday, are Nichiyobi (日曜日), Getsuyobi (月曜日), Kayobi (火曜日), Suiyobi (水曜日), Mokuyobi (木曜日), Kinyobi (金曜日) and Doyobi (土曜日).  As you can see, the names appear to be purely arbitrary, much like the English system.

What interested me when I first started learning Japanese was that the first two days are respectively named after the sun and the moon, just like in English, but there seemed to be no correlation between the names of the remaining five days.  The first kanji of these names mean “fire”, “water”, “wood” (or “tree”), “metal” (literally “gold”), and “earth” (as in “soil”), and many Japanese people take these meaning literally – some flash cards for Japanese primary schools include a picture of the element as a visual hint.

An example of a commercial set of flashcards. Note the ideograms in the weekdays.

An example of a commercial set of flashcards. Note the ideograms in the weekdays.  These are also typical in that the months are illustrated in a combination of American and Japanese notions.

What many Japanese people fail to realise is that the five elements come from the ancient Chinese system of Wu Xing, and that the names actually are abbreviations of the five visible planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (although their order in the week day doesn’t correlate to their order from the sun).  Nor are they aware that this system was brought to China, possibly via India, in the fourth and eighth centuries.

The Japanese were quick to adopt the seven day week, but it then fell into disuse in daily life in Japan until the late nineteenth century, but was maintained separately for astrological purposes.

Under the Hellenic model, the days of the week were named after the sun, the moon, and the Roman/Greek deities Mars/Ares, Mercury/Hermes, Jupiter/Zeus, Venus/Aphrodite and Saturn/Kronos.  While this was the system that was adopted in China, it is largely an imitation of an even older system developed in Mesopotamia (and possibly even earlier in Egypt).

The Babylonians named the “seven classical planets” (the seven non-fixed celestial bodies – the sun, the moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury and Saturn) for their seven primary gods and goddesses.  Furthermore, they calculated a seven day cycle and dedicated a day to each of these deities.

The classical Greeks copied this system but substituted the names of gods and goddesses of their pantheon.  The Romans, admirers of classical Greek civilization, also adopted this system.  For the Romans, whose pantheon almost seamlessly overlapped that of the Greeks, imitating this was a simple process.  We get most of our planetary names in English from Rome.

As the Roman Empire spread west, attempts were made to adopt the Norse/Germanic gods into the seven day week. However, unlike the gods of Greece, the Teutonic pantheon did not smoothly overlap the Roman one.  Norse and Germanic gods were often instead chosen for their attributes.  So, while Zeus and Jupiter were the kings of the Greek and Roman pantheon, their ability to cast lightning bolts was matched to Thor’s hammer – Thor is also the origin of the word “thunder” in several languages.  Odin, the king of the Norse/Germanic pantheon, took the place of the messenger Hermes or Apollo.  The war god Mars’ place was filled by the the war god Tyr.  Venus’ position was filled by either Freyja or Frige (although some believe that these were a single goddess).  For some reasons, however, Saturn seems to have not been replaced.  Many sources state this was due to no major Norse/Germanic god having similar attributes to Saturn, while others claim this is a false etymology, and that

“… the gods were reduced to the rank of demons by the introduction of Christianity, Loki was confounded with Saturn, who had also been shorn of his divine attributes, and both were considered the prototypes of Satan. The last day of the week, which was held sacred to Loki, was known in the Norse as Laugardag, or wash-day, but in English it was changed to Saturday, and was said to owe its name not to Saturn but to Sataere, the thief in ambush, and the Teutonic god of agriculture, who is supposed to be merely another personification of Loki.” (Myths of the Norsemen, by H. A. Guerber, p.229)

The Old English name for Tyr was Tiw (“Tiw’s day” → Tuesday) and Odin was rendered as Woden (“Woden’s day” → Wednesday).   Thor was Þunor in Old English – (“Þunor’s day” → Thursday).  The Anglo-Saxon Frig or Frige seems to be the equivalent of Freyja and/or Frigg (“Frige’s day” → Friday).  Added to this was “Satrun’s day” or possibly “Sataere’s day” (→ Saturday).  With the addition of  “Day of the Sun” (→ Sunday) and the “Day of the Moon” (→ Monday), we have a seven day week in English.

In short, the Japanese weekday names and the English weekday names can be traced back to the same source!



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