Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


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One for every day of the week

We still all-but-evoke the names of Woden, Thor, Tiw and Freya when we talk about the days of the week. The sun, moon and Saturn complete the seven-fold cycle.

Weeks represent one-quarter of each lunar cycle or 'month' – the name revealing the close association with the moon – and twelve months make up the solar year. In practice some juggling is needed to match up solar year of 364-and-a-bit days with the 28-and-a-bit days of the lunar cycle. Most religions base their calendar around the lunar cycle – Christianity is no exception as Easter is determined in this way, which in turn influences the dates of Lent, Whitsun and many other holy days. And over the millennia there have been various attempts at leap months and leap days to keep solar and lunar cycles approximately in sync.

Given all this fundamental astronomy, little surprise that the names of week days in most European languages reflect the major planets plus the sun and moon. However, as those planets are almost always closely associated with deities, the astronomy and 'theology' seemingly become intermingled. We need to tread carefully, but the path is clear enough, as Bill Griffiths established some years ago (Griffiths 1996).

Germanic day-names are clearly vernacular equivalents to the established planet names. What is not at all clear is whether they were established among Germanic tribes prior to the settlement in England. Or even whether they predate conversion to Christianity. As Griffiths put it:

It is not impossible that the Church sought out vernacular equivalents for the sake of calendar convenience… It is indeed the existence of Old English forms at all of those gods' names that provides the main evidence of their assumed worship: but the equation of Tiw to Mars and Woden to Mercury is problematic. In later texts it is Woden/Odin who is portrayed as a god of war. Are Þunor (thunder) and frig (love) any more than common noun equivalents for Jupiter and Venus? – 'Thunder-day' and 'Love-day'? Is the equivalence at the level of gods, or planets, or of convenient words?
(Griffiths 1996).

Two things we do know. There is no trace of the such names for days in Celtic languages, so they do not predate Anglo-Settlement settlement. There is also no evidence that they existed prior to the coming of the Church. This is of course a tad circular because no literature survives which can be confidently dated to before the clergy brought literacy back to Britain.

We know that Romans identification of foreign gods with their own – the interpretatio Romana – as part of the process of absorbing them in existing state-sponsored cults. This was essentially politically-motivated rather than a religious exercise. Popular writers and rather too many scholars have happily invented a corresponding interpretatio Romana whereby, the Germans themselves identified their gods with those of Rome. It sounds unlikely. While a few more Romanised Germans may indeed have felt such an inclination, they would not have influenced the whole language of the region. That much influence was only possible once Christian administration – a direct successor to the imperial Roman régime – took over the reigns.

The only evidence for it is the fact that at some point the Germans began to call the days of the week by Germanic names instead of Roman ones, a few entries in early medieval glossaries, and the prior fact of the interpretatio Romana used as justification for the idea that the same thing could happen in reverse.

More importantly, the supposed associations between Woden and Mercury and Tiw and Mars simply don't hold up to scrutiny. Anyone who was familiar with Woden and Tiw before the process of conversion would not have made such mistakes. However a later Christian cleric, looking for a neat and tidy fix to a tricky translation into the vernacular, could easily have made the wonky correlations.

Or was it wonky? Was the Christian cleric blameless? Was he actually seeking nouns for the 'qualities' of days, rather than alluding to deities? After all, many of the Old English words for natural phenomena are cognate with the names of deities. Such 'qualities' were indeed shared with specific Roman deities – and my hypothetical cleric would have been well aware of those. St Augustine writes of altars to Victoria, Virtus, Fides, Fortuna – and the inimical Pavor (who lives on the English word 'phobia'). The origins of these associations go back to early Greek times, when words such as 'fear' and 'love' developed into the names of deities. The main evidence against my 'quality'-seeking cleric is that many of the later prohibitions against paganism specifically rail against people who take Thursdays or Fridays as holidays – and here the sense of 'holiday' is its original one, 'holy day'. Rather a lot of folk were seemingly 'keeping the Sabbath', so to speak, on days associated with Thor and Freya.

In the complex way that Christianity influenced pagan practice, it just may be that this is a pagan practice created by the presence of Christians. Think about it. Apart from the Roman administration, which used the seven-day week throughout the empire, we have no evidence of seven-day weeks being significant before the conversion. The lunar month and its subdivision, the fortnight, are all we have evidence for. The missionaries come along and re-introduce the seven-day cycle, expecting the faithful to worship the Son on Son Day (and the homophone is surely not coincidence… ). Those who have yet to see the light could well have thought, well if all the converts get a holiday once a week, we'll have a day off too. Except we'll do it on a different day. Oh, and didn't that priest say something about Woden's day, Thunnor's day and Freya's day? Sounds like it's one of those days we should have as our holiday…

Purely speculative. But if part-way true, it's interesting that Woden's Day did not have many takers… Cue repeat of my early suggestions that he was too much the trickster to be one of the peoples' primary gods. Or, if he was one of the deities favoured by the élite, then of course they were the people singled out by missionaries for early conversion. Neither did Tiw's Day. Did Tiw ever really make it over from the Germanic homelands and settle down in Britain? The evidence, as ever, is scant. Richard North concludes that he didn't. The apparent lack of a 'domestic' Tiw does seem to support Griffiths' suggestion that the whole interpretatio Germana is an import, at least to Britain.

(Alby Stone shared with me his unpublished critique of the interpretatio Germana. My thinking about Odin/Woden has been challenged by the published writings of Stephen Pollington and personal emails from him. My grateful thanks to them both. Neither will agree with everything I have written here, however!)


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013


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