When Did People Start Naming Days of the Week?

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A Brief History

On February 6, 60 AD, in the Roman city of Pompeii, an unknown graffiti artist noted that the day was “dies Solis” (Sunday), the first known instance of being able to attach a date to a day of the week.  While this bit of graffito is the earliest recorded account of a day and date being matched up, people had been naming days of the week prior to this incident.  The Romans called Sunday “dies Solis” meaning day of the Sun.  Read on for more about what the names of each day of the week mean and where the name comes from.

Digging Deeper

In Hellenistic astrology, a practice founded by the Ancient Greeks and followed by the Egyptians and Romans (possibly first started by the even more ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians), the 7 planets each were assigned an hour of the day (hours did not mean then what they mean now) and each day was named after one of the planets on which the day started at the hour assigned to the planet.  If you are wondering about how they came up with 7 planets, those were just the observable heavenly bodies that could be seen with the naked eye, meaning Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury and the Moon.

Printed rendition of a geocentric cosmological model from Cosmographia, Antwerp, 1539

While historically Sunday is considered by the Jewish and Christian calendars as the first day of the week, the International Organization for Standardization ISO 8601 has declared Sunday as the seventh day of the week, obviously meaning Monday is the start of the new week.  Founded in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1947, The International Organization for Standardization is a multi-national organization created to standardize a variety of norms for the ease of communicating and doing business around the world.

Although most Christian religions celebrate Sunday as the day of rest and the sabbath, it is Saturday that is celebrated as the sabbath day by Jewish and Islamic followers, as well as some Christian religions.  Saturday derives its name from the Roman God Saturn, the same God that gives us the name of the planet.  Romans called the day between Friday and Sunday “Sāturni dies” meaning of course “Saturn’s Day.”  (Saturn was the pagan Romans’ god of agriculture.)  Modern Americans help honor the old Roman God and the Planet Saturn by playing college football on Saturdays.

Saturnus, Caravaggio, 16th century

Already you may think ahead and figure out that Monday is named for the Moon, a corruption of “Moon’s Day.”  Rather than using the Latin term (diēs Lūnae) for our English name for this day, we go back to the Old English “Mōnandæg” which became Middle English “Monenday” before being shortened to our familiar Monday.  Monday’s are one of the 2 traditional days in the United States for calling in sick to work or school.  (The other is Friday.)

Next on our list is Tuesday, and this time the name in English derives from the Vikings that once colonized parts of Great Britain.  Named after the Norse/Viking God of Single Combat, Tyr, Tuesday is an adaptation of the Old English “Tiwesdæg” which became the Middle English “Tewesday.”  When this author was a lad in elementary school, we called this day “Tuesday Toes Day” as we gleefully stomped on each other’s toes.  The early 1960’s were a violent time…  You might be tempted to assume at this point that we will discuss Mardi Gras, meaning “Fat Tuesday” in English, probably the most important Tuesday of the year, marking the day before Ash Wednesday which starts the season of Lent for Christians, but in our book not only is every Tuesday “Fat Tuesday,” every other day of the week is “Fat Whatever Day” as well.

A topless woman at a coffee house, Mardi Gras event in New Orleans, 2009.  Photograph by Infrogmation.

Wednesday was obviously created by the same jokers that came up with February, a day meant simply to confound spellers and pronouncers of this middle day of the week.  Also called “Hump Day” in honor of the Geico Camel, Wednesday derives its name from the  Old English “Wōdnesdæg” which evolved into the Middle English “Wednesdei,” both of which mean “Woden’s Day” after the old pagan Anglo god that itself was an adaptation of the Norse/Viking God Odin.  (Other languages such as French, Spanish and Italian name the day after the Roman God Mercury.)

Thursday evolved (in English) from the Old English “Þūnresdæg” and Middle English “thursday,” meaning “Thor’s Day” after the Norse/Viking God Thor, who retired and started a new career as a Marvel superhero, the only superhero we know of with a day named after him.  (Take that, Aquaman!)  In the Romance languages (those derived from Latin, not so called because of romantic inclinations) such as French, Italian and Spanish, the day gets its name from the Roman God Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of the Greek God Zeus.  We have officially proclaimed Thursday as the most boring day of the week.  Do you agree?

Painting depicting the Norse god Thunor (the Norse Thor), after whom Thursday is named, by Mårten Eskil Winge, 1872

Finally, we get to Friday, the day most people (at least those unfortunate enough to still be working or going to school) thank God for each week.  They even named a restaurant in honor of this special day.  Recognizing the importance of Friday, many employers allow employees to dress casually on Friday, and for many people Friday is also Payday, making the day each week a virtual unofficial holiday.  The modern English name for Friday comes from the Old English “Frīġedæġ”, meaning the “day of Frige,” referring to the Germanic (pre-Christian) Goddess Frigg.  In a little bit of a turnabout, the old Norse/Viking name for Friday derives from the Low German variety of “Freitag” where as the English version comes from the High German form for Friday.

As to the question posed in the title of this article, it seems the ancient Babylonians and the ancient Jews may have named days of the week when they invented a 7 day week back in we do not know what year.  Since the first written mention of Babylon dates back to around the 23rd Century BC, perhaps weekday names date back to then.  We really are not sure.  In any case, various civilizations did not necessarily use a 7 day week, as 8 day weeks and 10 day weeks are known to have been used.  Christian Roman Emperor Constantine made the seven day week official in AD 321, complete with names for the days, a date that can be used for the “official” start of naming the days of the week.  Unlike a Solar Day, a Lunar Month, or a Solar Year, the creation of a “week” is a totally artificial creation.  Too bad they did not go with the 10 day or longer week, so we could have really long vacations.  (Of course weekends would have to be increased as well.)

A gold multiple of “Unconquered Constantine” with Sol Invictus, struck in 313 AD. The use of Sol’s image stressed Constantine’s status as his father’s successor, appealed to the educated citizens of Gaul, and was considered less offensive than the traditional pagan pantheon to the Christians.

Question for students (and subscribers): Did you know where the names of the days of the week came from?  What is your favorite day of the week?  What is your least favorite day of the week?  What day would you rename, and what would you name it?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Keyser, William. THE DAYS OF THE WEEK. Harvey House Publishers, 1976.

MacCall, Frank, and Terry Bryce. How the Days of the Week Got Their Names. PublishAmerica, 2009.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of cameos in raised relief of the Olympic gods, is free and may be used by anyone for any purpose.  The seven gods depicted are the gods of the planets in correct order to their relationship to the seven days of the week.  From left to right they are: Diana the moon for Monday, Mars for Tuesday, Mercury for Wednesday, Jupiter for Thursday, Venus for Friday, Saturn for Saturday, and Apollo for Sunday.  If you wish to use this content, you do not need to request permission as long as you follow any licensing requirements mentioned on this page.  This file was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the Walters Art Museum as part of a cooperation project.  All artworks in the photographs are in public domain due to age.  The photographs of two-dimensional objects are also in the public domain.  This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.  Photographs of three-dimensional objects and all descriptions have been released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License and the GNU Free Documentation License.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.