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On the days of the week

I began reading Daniel Boorstin's The Discoverers this morning. (I've been feeling like I need to back away from the web thing just a little.) It's interesting; I hope to survive its entire 700-plus pages (including notes).

Boorstin's first topic is the calendar. I've wondered (idly, of course) why it is that a week should have seven days, and the answers are interesting. But what's more interesting is that there's more than one — several distinct, arbitrary factors all indicate the same resolution.

The best-known, of course, is from the bible, in which God rested on the seventh day. It turns out that there is evidence of an (ultimately arbitrary) reason why it was the seventh (analyzing the bible as a text, of course): The Babylonians, who long held the Jews in captivity, distinguished the seventh, 14th, 19th and 21st days of the month, on which, according to Boorstin, "specific activities were forbidden to the king." The word "Sabbath," moreover, is derived from the Babylonian "Sabattu."

But there is strong evidence of another, independent reason for the adoption of a seven-day week. The days of the week are named after the "planets" (including the sun and the moon, but not the earth) known to the Romans: the sun (Sunday), the moon (Monday), Mars (Tuesday), Mercury (Wednesday), Jupiter (Thursday), Venus (Friday) and Saturn (Saturday). (The semblances between the names are closer in the Romance languages, and other factors have influenced the names now used in English.) The Romans also had a method for calculating which planet "governed" a given hour of the day; and each day of the week was named after the planet that governed its first hour.

Boorstin passes over this coincidence without remark. He does explain that the Romans considered Saturn's Day "a day of evil omen when all tasks were ill-starred, a day when battles should not be fought, nor journeys begun," which would conveniently suggest an obvious reason for observing the Sabbath then. And, given that the lunar cycle is 28 days, the Babylonian's dividing it into smaller, seven-day cycles seems reasonable enough (and it seems that smaller cycles of days have been attractive throughout human history). But does the compatibility of the two cycles owe everything to the happy coincidence that the Romans could only see seven of the heavenly bodies in the solar system?

It seems almost too much to ask. (And yet, too little, too — just imagine our luck if fate had settled on an eight-day week, with three-day weekends instead of two....)

February 1, 2002 3:37 PM

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