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Where Did the Week Come From?

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The Artificial Seven Days

Our lives are regulated by time and structured to fit into a seven-day cycle that is entirely man-made and artificial.

The Week Is a Babylonian Invention

Ancient Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) was where the vibrant Babylonian civilization developed 4,000 years ago.

Among the many gifts to the world of the Babylonians are geometry, the plough, codified laws, and astronomy. They observed that the Moon went through four phases—full, waning half, new, and waxing half—and that each phase lasted seven days. The timing was not exact, but close enough to build a week around as long as leap days were added every so often.

In addition, the number seven had great significance in Babylonian mysticism.

The Babylonian culture was dominant in the Near East for hundreds of years so the concept of the seven-day week was picked up by others such as Jews, Greeks, Romans, and Christians. Alexander the Great took the idea to India and from there it likely migrated to China.

Before long, the entire globe was operating on the artificial construct of the seven-day week. Indeed, writer Witold Rybczynski noted in the Atlantic magazine in 1991 that “Seven days is not natural because no natural phenomenon occurs every seven days.”

The phases of the Moon.

The phases of the Moon.

Day Named After Gods

The Romans named the days of the week after the seven observable celestial bodies and the gods with which they were associated. Where Romance languages are spoken those names have stuck.

Names of Days of the Week in Romance Lanuages

EnglishLatinItalianSpanishFrench

Monday

dies Lunae

Lunedì

Lunes

Lundi

Tuesday

dies Martis

Martedì

Martes

Mardi

Wednesday

dies Mercurii

Mercoledì

Miércoles

Mercredi

Thursday

dies Iovis

Giovedì

Jueves

Jeudi

Friday

dies Veneris

Venerdì

Viernes

Vendredi

Saturday

dies Saturni

Sabato

Sábado

Samedi

Sunday

dies Solis

Domenica

Domingo

Dimanche

The English language has kept the Roman god names for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, but decided to switch to German or Nordic gods for the rest of the week. So:

  • Tuesday is from Tiu's Day and relates to the Norse god Tyr who was a god of the sky and war;
  • Wednesday is Woden's Day or Odin's Day. Woden/Odin was the god of many things including war, poetry, and magic;
  • Thursday is Thor's Day, the god of thunder in Norse legend; and,
  • Friday, Freya's Day, is named after the Teutonic goddess of beauty, love, and fecundity.

The Weekend

There's a scene in the TV series Downton Abbey in which the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by Maggie Smith) asks naively “What is a weekend?”

The concept of the weekend may not have penetrated the consciousness of Lady Grantham who, as a person of wealth and leisure, had never done a day of work in her life. It is an idea that is relatively new.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution that began in the late 18th century, everybody worked six or seven days a week. But, Christians were instructed in Exodus 20:9 to labour for six days but to keep the seventh day holy as the Sabbath.

No doubt the industrialists grudgingly allowed their mill and mine workers to take Sunday off to worship with might and main. Of course, some workers skipped church and, so the BBC tells us, “took advantage of an opportunity to kick their heels up and live the high life for 24 hours, [and] found being perky for work on Monday mornings a bit of a problem.” Absenteeism became an issue, leading to what became known as Saint Monday.

So, Saturday was reduced to a half day, leaving the evening for carousing and Sunday for nursing the inevitable hangover. It worked and staff were more inclined to show up on Monday with brighter eyes and bushier tails.

Soon, it became clear that cranking up a factory's machinery for a few hours on Saturday morning was not efficient, so the five-day work week made its entrance.

In the United States, the two-day weekend came about to accommodate the religious needs of Jewish employees for whom Saturday (Shabbat) is a holy day when work must not be done. This practice was started by a mill in New England in 1908 and spread to the rest of the country.

In 1926, Henry Ford adopted the two-day weekend for all his workers. The concept was officially adopted in America in 1932 as an attempt to reduce unemployment during the Great Depression.

Blessed be the weekend.

Blessed be the weekend.

The Week During COVID-19

Since early 2020, the lives and schedules and millions of people were disrupted COVID-19. Lockdowns, working from home, shuttered schools and colleges left many disorganized; the regularity of their lives had been so destroyed that many lose track of what day it was.

History professor David Henkin writes in Aeon about “the ubiquitous memes that called all days ‘blursday’ or renamed the weekly cycle as ‘thisday, thatday, otherday, someday, yesterday, today and nextday’, the collapse of the week quickly became a comic cliché.”

Working from home, sometimes still in pajamas, caused an obscuring mist to descend on the clear distinctions between the office and home. Absent the daily commute and other cues that structure our time caused the days of the week to blend into one another. Without the anchor of a known and unchangeable schedule many people experienced a feeling of disorientation.

Mirjam Stieger is with the Lifespan Developmental Psychology Laboratory at Brandeis University, in Massachusetts. She told the BBC that “It’s likely that these unprecedented times shaped people’s personality traits to a certain degree as people were forced to leave their comfort zone and their daily routine.”

Bonus Factoids

  • The international standard is that Monday is the first day of a week. Perfidious Canada and the United States take the view that Sunday is when a week begins.
  • The Tiv people, who live in Nigeria, have regulated their weeks into five-day market cycles.
  • In 1929, the Soviet Union created its Eternal Calendar in which the week had five days. People worked four days and then had one day off, but not everybody was on the same schedule. The idea was to keep factories running all the time so as to increase productivity. It was a failure because without down time for maintenance machinery broke down and with the disrupted work times family life was ruined. The experiment ended in 1931 with a move to the six-day week. In 1940, the Soviet Union returned to the seven-day week.

Sources


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor