Although religions have come and gone since the days of the ancient world and the Middle Ages, belief systems from those eras have left a lasting influence on labels’ given to the days of the week in the English language. As the British Isles were invaded by various peoples such as the Romans, Germanic tribes (ie. the Anglo-Saxons), and Nordic Vikings and settlers, it is natural that these cultures played a role in providing names for the days of the English week.
Sunday is exactly what it sounds like. It is the Sun’s day, or the Day of the Sun. This day’s name had an origin in ancient Rome, and was in honor of the Roman sun-god, Sol—later Sol Invictus (the Unconquerable or Undying Sun). Before the Roman emperor, Constantine (r. 312/324-337), eventually transitioned to Christianity, he had been a devout member of the cult of Sol Invictus, and he was the Roman ruler that instituted that Sunday should be a day of rest, doing so via an edict in the year 321. Constantine’s decision was recounted by the Codex Justinianus, which stated, “On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed” (Codex Justinianus, III.12.2).
After the Sun, the second most noticeable object in the sky is the Moon, and that is exactly what the next day of the week, Monday, is labeled after. Like the sun, the moon was also viewed as a divine entity by several cultures that influenced Britain. To the Greeks, the goddess, Selene, was the moon incarnate, and the Roman lunar deity was Luna. Norse mythology, similarly, had a moon god named Mani, and his name influenced an Old Norse day, called manandagr. Along similar Germanic lines, the Old English name for the day of the moon was mōndæg or mōnandæg, and the Old English labels eventually evolved into the modern Monday.
For the origin of Tuesday, we must return to Germanic and Norse religions, as will be the case for most the following days of the week. Tuesday comes from the Old English spelling of the god, Tiw or Tiu, an equivalent of the enigmatic Norse war-god, Tyr. Therefore, Tyr’s Day in Old English was called tiwesdæg, which has evolved into the modern spelling of Tuesday.
Wednesday pays homage to the mighty Germanic god, Woden, Wodan, or Wotan, who often (but not necessarily always) was deemed to be the high-god of the Germanic deities. Reckoned in terms of Norse mythology, his parallel would be the powerful god, Odin. The day, simply put, is Woden’s Day (wodnesdæg in Old English). The name has since evolved to Wednesday.
Thursday, too, is a day that is named after a Germanic-Norse god, and due to the advent of Marvel Studios films, his name should be quite familiar to most audiences. The modern English Thursday derived from the Old English þurresdæg, which references the god, Þórr—commonly known in English script as Thor. Therefore, Thursday is Thor’s Day, the day of the hammer-wielding lightning deity.
Deciphering Friday is slightly more complicated than unraveling the meaning of the other days named after Germanic-Norse entities. Instead of the male gods, Friday contrastingly received its name from the ranks of the goddesses. The problem, however, is that two contenders vied to be the day’s patron goddess. Nevertheless, a winner did emerge. In second place for ownership of Friday was Freyja (also spelled Freya), a powerful goddess of love and fertility, who also had some jurisdiction over battles and death. From her, some early variants of Friday were proposed and tried out, such as Freyjudagr. Yet, in terms of the English language, it was a goddess named Frigg, wife of the aforementioned high-god Odin, who clinched victory over the name of Friday in the English language. Friday derives from the Old English frigedæg, which means Frigg’s Day.
For Saturday, we must leave the Germanic-Norse gods behind and return to the days of the ancient Greco-Roman world. This day of the week was presided over by the Greek Titan-god, Cronus, in ancient Greece. Rome, followed suit, positioning its equivalent god, Saturn, over the same day. Roman troops and settlers brought Saturn’s Day to the British Isles and the English language, where it has remained ever since. Instead of attaching a new Germanic-Norse name to the day, Roman Saturn and his day were preserved in the Old English language as sæterdæg or sæternesdæg, which has evolved into Saturday.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (cropped section of a Norse scene [Idunn and the Apples of Immortality], by Ernst Alpers (German, active Hannover, Germany about 1867), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Getty Museum).
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.