As Neil Degrasse Tyson posted on Twitter on January 1, 2017:
To all on the Gregorian Calendar, Happy New Year! A day that’s not astronomically significant…in any way…at all…whatsoever.
Our calendar is a fascinating monument to civilizations past. The names of the months and the days of the week are quickly learned by any child, but behind those names are stories and meanings we don’t even consider today. Old gods and ceremonies of sacrifice otherwise forgotten for millennia still live on today in the same place where one might inscribe appointment reminders. The days and months of our 21st century calendar are populated by hobgoblins of ancient deities and bizarre customs long gone, today simply pronounced differently, with different emphasis on different syllables or using different vowels, while the week itself stands as an archaic tribute to the solar system.
First of all, any examination of the week we observe today in Western society is difficult to fathom without first considering its Roman origins some 20 centuries ago. Essentially, it was the solar system gave us the days of the week. The seven days of the week on the Roman calendar honored gods of the Roman pantheon; particularly, those seven most active celestial bodies that could be observed in the sky, the seven “wandering stars” visible to the naked eye that darted around the otherwise static skies. Hence, the days of the week reflected the astronomy of the skies, much as the zodiac played a role in mapping divisions of the year.
- dies Solis (our Sunday) — Named for the Sun
- dies Lunae (our Monday) — named for the moon
- dies Martis (our Tuesday) — named for Mars
- dies Mercurii (our Wednesday) — named for Mercury
- dies Iovis (our Thursday) — named for Jove (colloquial form of Jupiter)
- dies Veneris (our Friday) — named for Venus
- dies Saturni (our Saturday) — named for Saturn
It is important to note that these names remain largely in tact in the Romance languages of today. Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese and Romanian still retain the roots of these ancient names, altered only by time and geography — those two titanic forces that turn one word into many similar words… and the fact that the name of Solis was gradually retired in favor of a Judeo-Christian Dominicus or “Day of the Lord,” or in French, Dimanche, “God’s day;” though the English version of the calendar retains the Solis-Sun connection.
The English version of the week that we use today exposes deep and far-reaching Scandinavian/Germanic roots, not surprising in that English is ultimately a Germanic language. Borrowed from the Roman template, it evidently emerged out of an era before the Latin version exchanged Solis with Dominicus. This Germanic week replaces many of the distinctly Roman names with their corresponding deities from Norse and Northern European mythology. For example, our “Friday” is a derivation of “Frigg’s day,” Frigg being the Norse counterpart to Roman Venus; likewise, in the German/English version of the week, the thunder-tossing Jove is dropped in favor of the thunder-throwing Thor. One result of this conversion from Roman mythology to Norse mythology is that the former association with the visible bodies of the solar system became more oblique. The German/English week today is akin to a half-fallen monument, its original configuration only visible in visiting its predecessor. Today our week is a hodgepodge of four Norse gods, one Roman god/planet and the sun and the moon.
- Sunday — Sun’s day
- Monday — Moon’s day
- Tuesday — Tyr’s day. Tyr was the Norse god of war (Norse equivalent of Mars)
- Wednesday — Woden’s day, named for Odin (or Woden, lead Norse god)
- Thursday — Thor’s day
- Friday — Frigg’s day, Norse goddess of love. The only day of the week in both Norse or Roman mythology overtly named for a female
- Saturday — Named for Saturn, this is the only day in English to retain its Roman origin
Being Wrong Four Months of the Year…
Why are there 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour? Why are there 12 months in a year and 24 hours in a day? Actually, all of these seemingly unrelated numbers are related. Our modern measurement of time traces its origins some 5000 years ago to Sumeria, which commonly used a sexagesimal system for math. Its base-60 system for counting was built upon the duodecimal (base-12), in that 60 is divisible by 12. Hence a day is divided into two 12 hour cycles and there are 12 inches in a foot. In the words of Wikipedia: “The importance of 12 has been attributed to the number of lunar cycles in a year, and also to the fact that humans have 12 finger bones (phalange) on one hand (three on each of four fingers).” (- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duodecimal) The hand can be used as a “human abacus”… the 12 jointed segments of the 4 fingers can be counted upon by the thumb, with the 5 fingers of the other hand keeping track of turnover. Multiply 12 by your 5 fingers and 60 is a logical break point.
A year is based on the sun, but our month is based on the cycle of the moon, even today the similarity between the two words proves that the moon is the “sine qua non” (“without which there is none”) to the month. A lunar cycle lasts 29.53 days. Twelve lunar cycles equates to 354 days, meaning the the lunar calendar loses 11 days a year in comparison to the solar year.
The calendar we use today is a truly bizarre collective of archaic anachronisms and frankly… incorrect math. Historically speaking, January’s position as the first month of the year is actually a pretty new concept. Even as late as the Julian calendar, March was viewed as the official beginning of the year. Our current Gregorian calendar was adopted by Catholic Europe upon its creation in 1582 but found itself subject to a much more gradual acceptance throughout Protestant Europe; it was not adopted by the English-speaking world until 1752. It was this current Gregorian calendar that established January as the uncontested start of the year, but in so doing it left a peculiar “glitch in the machinery,” in that September (literally, “seventh month”) is now our ninth, October (“eighth month”) is now the tenth, and so on. The last four months of the year are simply factually inaccurate. One third of the year is just bad math.
During the middle ages, Charlemagne reinvented the twelve-month cycle with a host of entirely new names. While his agricultural-based theme lasted almost a thousand years, no one finds Witumanoth (“wood month”) heading the September page today. Even when reduced to month names that are nothing more than abstractions and inconsequential numbers, the leftover Roman calendar has proven to have more staying power than Charlemagne’s.
January — Ianuarius, named abstractly after the Latin term for a door, or more specifically, Ianus (Janus), the Roman god of doorways/gateways. It must be understood that January and February were late additions to the Roman calendar; and as such, their position was shuffled around in early calendars. Sometimes they ended the year, sometimes they began the year, and in some instances February actually preceded January, so that their order in relation to one another was reversed. The Julian calendar essentially treated the two months as prologue, ushering in the year that would officially begin with March. Look at any old newspaper printed in England or America before 1752 and it will identify the year at the top as “previous year/current year” (for example: February 1, 1732/33) until March 25, at which point it finally leaves behind any reference to the previous year. Charlemagne’s calendar renamed January, appropriately, Wintarmanoth (“winter month”).
February — Februarius, named for the ceremonies of purification and rituals of sacrifice which occupied the second half of the month. That’s right, we actually have a month named after sacrifice… but it’s the shortest month, if that makes any difference. Really, this is not as odd as it might seem at first flush, as a slightly different custom of purification and sacrifice known as Lent would later fill the vacuum left behind by those earlier pagan customs. Charlemagne declared the month Hornung, and while this word does not exist today it may be some variation on “mud month” or “antler-shedding month,” or simply “bastardized” month, perhaps because it is a shorter cycle.
March — Martius, named for the Roman god of war. In case you’re keeping track, he does have a day in the Latin week, too. A Tuesday in March is just a double-dose of Mars. For Charlemagne this was “Lent month,” Lentzinmanoth.
April — Aprilis, named for…? April is interesting, because its etymology and any association is unclear. Aphrodite? The Latin verb (aperire, apertus) “to open?” The origin of April seems to have been a mystery to scholars and writers even 20 centuries ago, so any chance of uncovering it today is unlikely. The Roman senate briefly renamed it Neronius in honor of Nero; Charlemagne decided it was Ostarmanoth (“Easter month”), but as we all know, Easter isn’t always in April; it likes to hide… like one of its little eggs.
May — Maius, seems to have been named for the Greek goddess Maia, eldest of the seven Pleiades and mother of Hermes. According to Wikipedia: “In ancient Roman religion and myth, Maia embodied the concept of growth, as her name was thought to be related to the comparative adjective maius, maior, ‘larger, greater’.” Ovid suggested a secondary association, named for maiores, or Month of the Elders, or Month of Ancestors. Charlemagne’s calendar regarded May as Wonnemanoth (“joy month”). Trivia: May is the only month to not share its days with any other month in the year.
June — Iunius, named for Juno, wife of Jupiter. As in with the case of May, Ovid suggests a secondary association, named for iuniores, or Month of the Young, to contrast with the previous month. Whether named for Juno or for youth, it’s still more exciting than Charlemagne’s choice of Brachmanoth (“plowing month”).
July — Originally known as Quintilis (“fifth”), it was renamed by the Roman Senate for Julius Caesar, in honor of his birth month. Charlemagne’s calendar celebrated it as Heuvimanoth (“hay month”).
August — Originally known as Sextilis (“sixth”), it was renamed in honor of Augustus. One may be grateful that the following emperor Tiberius opted not to continue this tradition, or the remainder of the year would have been renamed by the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. And there were still another 140 emperors to come after that… For Charlemagne, August was Aranmanoth (“reaping month”).
September — September (“septem“=”seven”). After Tiberius rejected the Senate’s attempt to rename it for him, Caligula and Domitian renamed the month Germanicus; despite the efforts of two different emperors the change didn’t stick. And so the seventh month today remains the ninth.
October — October (“octo“=”eight”). Charlemagne regarded it as Windumemanoth (“vintage month,” or to explain better, “month of wine”). For the record, a month of wine would make Halloween a lot scarier.
November — November (“novem“=”nine”). Charlemagne considered it Herbistmanoth (“harvest month”).
December — December (“decem“=”ten”). Like a strange accounting error, our current twelve month year ends with something called the Tenth. Charlemagne deemed it Heilagmanoth (“holy month”).
And that makes twelve months. So why I am still writing? Well, truth be told, the year still had one more surprise to offer…. There was another month, a lost month, and it remains today, even if most of it is hiding just out of our sight.
Mercedonius — The thirteenth month, also known as the “mensis Intercalaris.” This was a month that was only occasionally implemented on the Roman calendar following February, to even out the days of the year when and if necessary. A phantom month, it was imposed arbitrarily and was finally discontinued altogether with the introduction of the Julian Calendar. But here’s the thing… the thirteenth month is not entirely gone. It’s still out there. Today, one vestige of Mercedonius remains… in our elusive February 29.
For more information on the calendars of different cultures: