World Building Question: What Day Is It?


Subtitle: Is It Friday Yet?

Most of the time periods we track on earth make sense.  Years are based on how long it takes the earth to go around the sun.  Months originated with moon cycles.  Days are based on the rising and setting of the sun.  These are all observable periods of time, and showed up in isolated cultures.  That doesn’t mean that I won’t talk about years and months while reverse world building the earth, but they’re not what I’m talking about in this post.  Here I want to focus on that period that falls between months and days, and is far more arbitrary and interesting.  We’re talking about weeks.

Weeks are strange.  They’re arbitrary seven day chunks that bridge across the ends and beginnings of months and years.  A year is made up of fifty-two of them, with one or two days left over.  Most months are made up of just over four of them.  It would be more apparently logical to consider a week to be five days, after all that divides evenly into the 365 days of a year (yes yes, leap years, that’s for another day).  We saw from talking about the number of hours in a day that the ancients tended towards base twelve counting, with sixty as a significant number, so we might reasonably expect a twelve day week.  But we have seven.

Medieval Lithuanian calendar with 9-day week.

Looking at the seven day week is already getting ahead of ourselves, as it takes something for granted.  Why have a week at all?  I’ve been looking into that question, and have yet to find a satisfying answer to it.  The week appears to be entirely an invention of contrivance.  They appeared in several cultures because it was helpful to have a period of time longer than a day but shorter than a month, and because it’s nice to have a way to break a calendar into columns.  They ranged in length from three days in ancient Basque tradition to ten days in ancient Egypt.  Sometimes they evenly divided months, sometimes they didn’t.

The standardization on a seven day week world wide is tied to the same reasons why this is the year 2012 and why our calendar is named after a Pope.  It all has to do with the strength of the Christian tradition when it made sense to standardize such things.  To sum up: today we have a seven day week because the early Christians had a seven day week, because they used the same origin stories as the Jews, who likely got their idea of a seven day week from the Babylonians.  So where did the Babylonians get seven days from?  Lunar cycles.  Look at a calendar that shows moon phases, and you’ll see for the most part they line up in a single row.  This doesn’t exactly work, so the Babylonians tended to follow three seven day weeks with an eight or nine day week to keep things in phase with the moon.  Judaism standardized seven days to every week in the Genesis creation story, the earliest culture I could find that used seven days for every week.

Seven took awhile to take hold.  On the right is a calendar from medieval Lithuania with a nine day week.  During the French Revolution, at the same time they were playing with decimal time, they also briefly observed a ten day week.  As recently as the 20th Century in the Soviet Union five and six day weeks were implemented.  So it’s only been since the 1940s that all major world powers have agreed on a seven day week, and even then there’s disagreement about what day a week starts on.

So now we’ve got a week, but that doesn’t answer our opening question.  What day is it?  We’ve got handy labels at the top of the columns on our calendars, where do the names come from?  Well…it depends on where your language came from.

If you’re speaking a Romance language, then the days of the week come from the seven classical planets.  Thus they days of the week were named, in order, for the Sun, Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn.  Five of these seven are still prevalent in Spanish: Lunes, Martes, Miercoles, Jueves, and Viernes.  The weekend has been renamed to reflect Jewish and Christian tradition, with Saturday named for the Jewish Sabbath (Sabado), and Sunday named God’s Day (Domingo).  This renaming of the weekend is common in the romance languages.

Not a recommended way to celebrate Thor's Days.

The Germanic languages, English included, largely did the opposite.  Our weekends are still given to Saturn and the Sun.  Monday is still the Moon’s day.  The rest of the names reflect the Norse influence on the Germanic tongues, with days belonging to the gods Tiw, Wodan, Thor, and Frig.  These days of the week represent the largest influence that Norse mythology still holds over modern culture, so prevalent that we might not always remember these origins.

One more question while I’m talking about weeks: Is it the weekend yet?  We have the fifth commandment to thank for that.  Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, a proscription against working on the day that God rested after creating the world.  We get two days instead of one because Jewish tradition has a Saturday sabbath, Christian tradition holds to Sunday.

To think, if they agreed on this issue, we’d possibly have a six-day workweek.  So three cheers for theological disagreements.

Weekends are not uniform across cultures.  In most of the western world they fall on Saturday and Sunday, because those are the days that several major industrial powers shut down.  However in Islamic nations, where a majority of the population holds Friday as a holy day, Thursday-Friday or Friday-Saturday weekends are more common, and some observe a six-day workweek with only Friday taken off.  The oddest outlier is the tiny nation of Brunei which has a split weekend, taking Friday and Sunday off, but working Saturday.

Time to bring this all back and look at this from a world building perspective.  Here on my fictional planet called “Earth” there has long been an agreement that a subdivision of time between the day and the month is logical.  They call these “weeks.”  Different cultures have experimented with different length weeks as recently as 70 years ago, but the calendar that all societies now use is based on seven days.  This is due to the creation stories of one religion, even though the names of the days largely come from another religion.  They work for five or six of these seven days with the others meant for meditation and spiritualism, though they can’t agree on which day(s) these are, and many don’t bother with observing either.

So should your world or culture have weeks?  Does it need weeks?  It depends on how long periods of time are observed, and the nature of the society.  They’re, in large part, an artifact of keeping physical calendars.  If you have them, the questions to ask: How long are they?  Why are they that long?  It could be astronomically significant, it could evenly subdivide a longer period of time, it could be religiously significant (though religious significance is often reverse engineered), or it might be completely arbitrary.

Coming up in the future of this series: What year is it?  When is lunch?  Where am I? And who are you?  Yes, these are sounding more and more like the cliched questions of an amnesiac.  I’m enjoying this series, as it gives me an excuse to research little bits and pieces of life that are so culturally engrained that we don’t consider they had origins and that different cultures disagree.

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  1. avatar

    #1 by Day Al-Mohamed on March 26, 2012 - 4:40 pm

    Brunei isn’t alone. I grew up in Bahrain and there for most of my education (up until highschool) I had Friday and Sunday off. I rather liked it. :) I remember being so unhappy about the switch to Thursday-Friday weekends. And then the switch again upon moving to the United States and getting used to Saturday-Sunday.

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