Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, WHAT?!

In my randomly systematic wanderings through Norwegian vocabulary I’ve finally got round to learning the days of the week. Not that I was completely unaware of them before, of course; but most of them are so similar to the English ones that they hardly need learning when it comes to understanding Norwegian. (There are a couple of exceptions. It’s easy to mix up tirsdag and torsdag, the words for Tuesday and Thursday; and lørdag, which looks as if it should mean “the Lord’s day”, i.e. Sunday, is actually Saturday.)

You probably know that several of the days of the week in English were originally named after Norse gods: Thursday, for example, is Thor’s Day. German calls it Donnerstag and French jeudi, both of which look very different, until you remember that Thor was the god of thunder and was considered equivalent to the Roman god Jupiter or Jove. Jeudi is a version of “Jove Day” and Donnerstag means “thunder’s day”. Similarly in Welsh it’s Dydd Iau, in which Iau looks to me suspiciously like another version of Jove. Thursday is “the day of the god of thunder” in a whole range of languages.  (Incidentally the rudimentary Latin I learnt at school included the exclamation Iupiter tonnans!,  “Thundering Jupiter!”)

Given my approach to learning Norwegian, it’s probably obvious that I wouldn’t be content with just learning the words. I wanted to look up their derivations, which I did using the Språkrådet / Oslo University online dictionary. Given where Norway is, I expected to find that the days were all named after Norse gods. Well here they are, with their approximate literal translations. (Where there are two versions, the first is bokmål and the second is nynorsk.)

What? Sun, moon, war god, chief god, thunder god, love goddess or mother goddess, and then laundry?

Well almost.  From the little information I’ve found online, @anitaleirfall’s reply to me on Twitter seems accurate (not that I doubted it):

It wasn’t really washday, then. It was bath night. But even so. Various heavenly bodies and beings and then . . . bath night.

My first instinct with this was to wonder whether “washing day” referred in fact to some kind of religious cleansing ritual. That might at least have some connection with the Norse gods, and make lørdag seem a bit more logical. And The Norwegian Wikipedia entry for lørdag does in fact make that suggestion, saying it was the traditional day for “rituelle vaskeseremonier“, and offers the nynorsk dictionary entry linked to above (for laurdag) as its source. The dictionary entry says only that there might be a link to religious washing.

So I don’t know whether any religious practice was behind this or not. Another explanation I came across seems at least as plausible: the days are named after the Norse versions of the appropriate Roman gods, but there wasn’t one equivalent to Saturn (after whom Saturday is named).

It does seem, though, that the Vikings had a reputation for having a bath on Saturdays, and that this was not universally regarded by non-Vikings as a normal thing to do. Here’s a wonderful quote which I discovered on The Viking Answer Lady’s site:

Perhaps the most telling comment comes from the pen of English cleric John of Wallingford, prior of St. Fridswides, who complained bitterly that the Viking Age men of the Danelaw combed their hair, took a bath on Saturday, and changed their woolen garments frequently, and that they performed these un-Christian and heathen acts in an attempt to seduce high-born English women:

It is reported in the chronicle attributed to John of Wallingford that the Danes, thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.

[See original page for the references.]

In other words, “They come over here and they steal our women by wearing clean clothes and having a bath every week!”

So whether the Saturday bath was religious or not, it was enough of a feature of Viking life to make an impression on  foreigners and to have a day of the week named after it.

One response to “Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, WHAT?!

  1. The weekly interrruption of divine weekdays by a bath night – and John of Wallingford’s objection to the Danes’ excessive fondness for the practice – doubly overturns my previous understanding of the saying
    “Cleanliness is next to godliness”.

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