Names of Days and Months Explained

Otis Adams

Long before physicists took on the baffling subject of time, our ancestors recognized the paramount sovereignty it held over all things. So, how better to mark the passage of time than by using the names of, or references to, the gods?

Today, people will go to see a Thor movie on a Thursday without ever noticing a connection. You can ask a person with a January birthday about Janus and they’ll think you’re referring to the lady who works in the office. Personally, if I see B.C. after a date, I think about Indiana Jones before remembering it stands for "before Christ".

There is something offensive, or at least humbling, about us in our modern world still using the white flag of mythology to name a concept. Meteorologists never reference the mood of the gods when providing the seven-day forecast because we now have a broad understanding of weather patterns. Medical doctors no longer recommend a burnt sacrifice as a cure for what ails you because the light of science has shone brightly on that corner of our ignorance.

Time is different. It’s a mysterious force that lords over everything and yet escapes understanding. It’s just accepted and named after gods in that ancient human tradition of eloquently admitting that we don’t know.

Days

The Roman calendar acted as the template other regions followed, sometimes replacing the names of Roman gods with local ones.

The Roman Week
Sun Day
Moon Day
Mars Day
Mercury Day
Jove Day
Venus Day
Saturn Day

Though Jupiter (Jove) and Venus will have to settle for the planets which carry their names, the French and Spanish continued to honor Mars and Mercury in their day planners. Mars day (Tuesday) became mardi in French and martes in Spanish while Mercury day (Wednesday) became mercredi in French and miercoles in Spanish.

Before the English were converted to Christianity, starting in the 500’s, they worshipped Norse gods. This called for a local adaptation to the Roman week.

Mars day became Tyr’s day.

Mercury day became Odin’s day.

Jove day became Thor’s day.

Venus day became Frigg’s day.

What survives today is a seven-day week named after celestial bodies or invented characters once worshipped.

Our Modern Week
Sunday — the sun
Monday — the moon
Tuesday — Tyr, the Norse god of war
Wednesday — Odin, the Norse king of the gods
Thursday — Thor, son of Odin and slayer of giants
Friday — Frigg, Odin’s wife and Balder’s mother
Saturday — Saturn, the Roman god of sowing

Months

While old religions loom large in the names of our days, the months are not always marked by the legacy of forgotten faiths.

February, for instance, is named for the ancient Roman festival called Februalia or Februa, during which everyone would take a bath. April is from the Latin aperire which means to open — as with all the flowers which bloom in April. July and August were named after Roman rulers and lame old September, October, November, and December are just named for the Roman numbers 7, 8, 9, and 10.

Still, this leaves plenty of room for old gods.

January is named for Janus, the Roman spirit of doors. After going googly-eyed over the nymph Camasene, he fathered Tiberinus after whom the Tiber River is named. Janus is often pictured with a face on both sides of his head as he peers both into the future and the past.

March is named after Mars, arguably the most popular of all the Roman gods. Though he lost his day in the English speaking world, he still holds claim over a month, planet, and candy bar. Mars is something like Thor’s counterpart in Roman mythology as he is second only to Jupiter. Though he eventually became known as the god of war, the original perception of this character is lost to history.

May is named in honor of Maia. This one gets a bit muddled for the old reason of newer faiths borrowing from older ones. There was a Maia in Greek mythology and later in Roman mythology, the latter somewhat merging the former with their own character.

June was named for Juno. She was the queen of the gods in the ancient Roman religion and modeled after the Greek’s Hera. She could be called the goddess of women as she was most involved with all things feminine.

Eras

Figuring out when to start counting years was always a bit of a nuisance. Sometimes it was based upon the founding of a city or a ruler’s time in power. Imagine using this system today. Consider the math involved in figuring out how old someone would be if they were born in the second year of Reagan’s presidency.

After Rome’s fall, Christians of the Dark Ages co-opted many Roman traditions as part of Christianity, but chose a few in which they could distance themselves.

Sixth century monks began calculating, as best they could, how many years had passed since the birth of Jesus. Once they settled on their best guess, they began adding A.D. after the year. This stands for the Latin anno domini, or “in the year of our Lord”.

It took two or three centuries for the monk’s system to catch on and gain popular use in Europe. In the 700–800’s it started showing up in England and in the late 800’s made it to Italy and France.

B.C., or before Christ, took a little longer to join the vernacular. A.C. would have won out if the French Jesuit Denis Petau had his way as he thought ante Christum was a better option in the 1600’s.

The monk’s agenda of Christianizing the passage of years was briefly threatened in 1583 when Joseph Justus Scaliger proposed the Julian period. This system sought to step outside the confines of the various systems which relate to a ruler or religious figure in favor of a numbering of consecutive days over a nearly 8,000 year span. Though the monk’s eventually won popular culture in the west, this system remains in use by astronomers today.

“Before Christ” might first have been used by Isaac Newton who wrote the phrase in his chronology “A Short Chronicle From the First Memory of Things in Europe, to the Conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great”.

Much of the use of A.D. and B.C. is thanks to scholars who were trying to reconcile what was taught by the church with a growing fossil record. Using this system allowed them to immediately date something with reference to Biblical events. To their chagrin, it became increasingly difficult to squeeze everything into the 6,000 year history of the world then allowed by the church.

One problem with this system arose when modern historians reached the conclusion that Jesus was probably born around six years before Christ.

Common era, or C.E., began to be used in the 1700’s as a secular alternative to A.D. Today, C.E. and B.C.E. (before common era) are used in academia and among non-Christian communities and regions of the world.

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Author of Lavatory Reader #1: This Road, now available on Amazon. New Twitter @OtisAdamsWrites. Otis Adams is an award-winning writer with three books under his belt and two dozen awards boxed up in his closet for his screenplays and short fiction. He writes regularly on Medium.com and can be contacted at pithbooks@gmail.com.

Columbia, MO
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