Naming the days – the heathen origins of English words for days of the week

By , October 7, 2009 2:39 am

Pagan gods, symbolism, and the days of the week

The names for the different days of the week in English are of ancient, and entirely heathen, origin. When we talk of Monday, Thursday or Saturday, we are talking of the days of different Gods or elements.

Some countries and languages renamed the days after Christianity took hold – for example, in Russian, “Monday” was renamed to be “the day after Sunday”, rather than acknowledging that awful, pre-Christian, moon-adoration.

Not English, though. It stuck thoroughly to the moon, and Roman and Saxon Gods.

Roman Latin and Church Latin

Throughout this post, when I’ve referred to the Latin words for a day of the week, I mean the Roman Latin words.

The Church didn’t approve of all these pagan days, and therefore medieval Latin names for the days of the week were different, and duller, mostly “first day, second day” and so forth.

The child that is born on the Sabbath day, is bonny and blithe, and good and gay

The origin of “Sunday” is as straight-forward as it appears – it is the day of the sun.  English is far from alone in using this – in Latin, Sunday was dies solis, and in Old English, the word was Sunnandæg, both meaning, “day of the sun”.

Sunday has often also been called “the Sabbath”, or “the Lord’s Day”, particularly in medieval times.

Monday’s child is fair of face

“Monday” is the day of the moon – from the Old English m?nandæg and m?ndæg, both meaning “Moon Day”. This followed a long Indo-European notion of calling the day after the moon – in Latin, for example, the day is dies lunae, or “day of the moon”.

Tuesday’s child is full of grace

The Norse god Tyr (Tiw) from a 1750s Icelandic illustration

The Norse god Tyr (Tiw) from a 1750s Icelandic illustration

English departs from Latin (and many other European languages)  in naming this day of the week – in Latin, it was Martis dies, the day of Mars, a Roman god.

In English, however, “Tuesday” is the day of the Saxon god Tiw, known in Norse languages as Tyr.

The Old English word was tiwesdæg , and we still celebrate this Saxon god of war and single combat weekly, on his day.

At one time, Tiw seems to have been more important in the collection of Norse and Saxon gods than Odin and Thor, but became less significant over time – effectively he was demoted and down-graded, by about 400 AD. In late Icelandic legend, he became the son of Odin.

There are places in England which are probably also named after Tiw, such as Tuesley and Dewsbury.

Wednesday’s child is full of woe

A 12th century Swedish tapestry, probably showing Odin, Thor and Freyja

A 12th century Swedish tapestry, probably showing Odin, Thor and Freyja

Wednesday is another Anglo-Saxon’s god’s day – this time, the day of Woden. In Latin, Wednesday was dies Mercurii, the god Mercury’s day, and that is reflected in Romance languages such as French.

Woden, who replaced Tiw as head honcho in the god spectrum, is related to the Norse idea of Odin, but isn’t quite the same.

Woden was, like Odin, the god who carried away the dead, but he also lead the Wild Hunt (among many others who sometimes lead the Wild Hunt, a belief which continued for centuries after England became Christian). For more detailed information on the legends of the Wild Hunt, see this article.

As well as being a god, he was said to have been an ancient King.  Anglo-Saxon Kings claimed descent from Woden, as part of their claim to power.

Woden-the-historic-King was supposed to have had four sons, each of whom founded one of the four main Anglo-Saxon Royal Houses – Kent, Wessex, Mercia, and East Anglia.

Woden’s name also survives in English place names, such as Wednesfield, Wensley, and Wednesbury.

Thursday’s child has far to go

Drawing of a 4.6 cm gold-plated silver Mjolnir pendant found in Sweden (image is in the public domain)

Drawing of a gold-plated Mjöllnir pendant found in Sweden (image is in the public domain)

Thursday is another Anglo-Saxon god’s memorial day, this time Thor, who together with Odin / Woden, replaced Tiw in the Anglo-Saxon patheon of gods during the Dark Ages.

The Old English word Þunresdæg is the root, as Þunor was the Old English name for the god, Thor.

As in Tuesday and Wednesday, the Latin name for Thursday was different. In Roman times, Thursday was Iovis Dies or “Jupiter’s day”, and Romance languages have followed this root, on the whole, such as the French word, Jeudi.

Thor was, among other attributes, the god of thunder, and the very word, “thunder” derives from the god’s name.

Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir, is a magical weapon used particularly for fighting giants,  which returns to its owner after being thrown, and creates lightening bolts.  Mjöllnir is frequently found depicted in both Norse and Anglo-Saxon art and jewellery.

That Thor and Woden were among the most important Anglo-Saxon gods can be seen from an oath of baptism into Christianity. This was recited to and then by those Saxons converting from paganism to the Church. In Old English, the oath is:

ec forsacho allum dioboles uuercum and uuordum, Thunaer ende Uuöden ende Saxnote ende allum them unholdum the hira genötas sint

which, in modern English, is:

I forsake all the words and works of the devil, Thunear [Thor], Woden and Saxnot, and all those fiends who are their associates

There are lots of places in England named after Thor, such as Thundersley, in Essex, Thurstaston, near Liverpool, and also places such as Thurso, in Scotland.

Friday’s child is loving and giving

A 5th century token, found in Germany, thought to show Frigg

A 5th century token, found in Germany, thought to show Frigg

Friday is named after yet another Anglo-Saxon god, or in this case, goddess, Frige. She is also known in other Germanic languages as Frigg, or Frija.

She was the goddess of love, and appears to combine two different romantic and love goddesses from Norse and Scandinavian gods, Freyja and Frigg.

In Roman Latin, Friday, dies Veneris, was the day of the planet Venus, and once again, languages such as French have followed this root.

Saturday’s child works hard for his living

Saturday is the only day  of the English week named after  a Roman god. Dies Saturni means “Saturn’s Day”.

The old English word, from which modern English derives, was Sæternesdæg.

The planet Saturn was also named after the Roman god Saturnus, who was the god of  both agriculture / farming, and justice.

Saturday was the first day in the Roman week.

20 Responses to “Naming the days – the heathen origins of English words for days of the week”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Loup Dargent. Loup Dargent said: Naming the days_ the heathen origins of English words… http://ff.im/-9lRb3 [...]

  2. ZuzannaM says:

    I am impressed with the fascinating mythology about the birth of a child on specific day of the week. Great analytical discovery in this article ~ Thank you!

  3. Thank you for explaining all this in such a short space. Very interesting!

  4. [...] History and traditions of England » Naming the days – the heathen … [...]

  5. Lauren says:

    I was just reading about this in one my classes a month ago. Very interesting to find about the origins. Excellently presented piece.

  6. SEO Blog says:

    This is the most interesting thing i think : Dies Saturni means “Saturn’s Day”.

  7. Phil says:

    You don’t mention the link between the Roman day names and their heathen equivalents. For example, Tiw equating to Mars in their aspect as gods of war, Woden equating to Mercury in their aspects as guides of the dead etc. In fact the old English names of the week are closely aligned to the Roman (and consequently French, Italian etc) ones if you understand this connection between them.

    • Blog author says:

      Yes, that is undoubtedly right. What I don’t know is how the naming of the Saxon and Norse days came into being, although the link to the Roman ideas must be part of it.

  8. Paul Lear says:

    A very interesting post, I’ve never really thought of how the days of the week titles came about.

    I’ll have to find out which day I was born on, as I’m not really sure.

    Paul.

  9. Prodnose says:

    Interesting post! But the sabbath was still referred to as “the Lord’s Day” within living memory, in Scotland. Liked the pictures!

  10. kerry says:

    I always wondered where these names come from thanks

  11. Pether says:

    Sunday also comes from a Norse god.
    Sunna/Sol.

    But since the name of the Sun/Sol comes from this god you are half correct.

  12. Scott says:

    Cool blog, man! Thanks for the post!

  13. blabla says:

    this is crap!

  14. Jack Vermicelli says:

    “The Old English word was tiwesdæg , and we still celebrate this Saxon god of war and single combat weekly, on his day.”

    What does this mean?

    • Blog author says:

      What is not clear?

      • Thor Weberson says:

        I believe you meant that we “still celebrate….” in the sense that we simply retain the name “Tuesday” …. it seems that Mr. Vermicelliinfers from your statement in the article that. we celibrate the Saxon’s God of war day in the same sense that we observe holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah (even Halloween. Rather than “honoring” it by retaining a certain name of a weekday.

        Great article, BTW!

        T.W.

  15. Luyanda says:

    Author: I think the information you gave here is very relevant, yet you ere in a point, The Sabbath Day was never the first day of the week, look at History, for instance the Laodecean council of AD300-320, The Roman Church decided to Honour , what is called “Dies Domini” as the NEW Sabbath, that is SUNdae, replacing then the OLD Sabbath, SATURdae, This also rejecting the practice of the JEWS ( Hebrews)-,”Christ murders” as they were viewed by the church,You can read also, The Two Babylons by Alex. Hislop. Hope this helps.

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