This image is an illustration from Frank Stockton Dobbins’ Gods and Devils of Mankind, published in 1897. On the back wall are the Sun, the Moon, “Tuisco” (Tyr), and Seater (intended to be a god of time; other sources claim he’s Loki); in the foreground are Frigg, Thor (seated, with crown, a frequent depiction in certain southern Germanic contexts), and Odin.
This blog exists to trade off of and honor the fact that the fifth day of the Western week is Thursday, named for Thor, the Germanic god of thunder, lightning, storms, blessing, healing, and fertility. Perhaps, in this fifty-second weekly post, it’s time to review just where exactly “Thursday” comes from beyond just acknowledging that there’s a “Thor” in it.
The Roman historian Tacitus, in the late 1st century CE, remarks on how the Germanic peoples keep track of time:
They assemble, except in the case of a sudden emergency, on certain fixed days, either at new or at full moon; for this they consider the most auspicious season for the transaction of business. Instead of reckoning by days as we do, they reckon by nights, and in this manner fix both their ordinary and their legal appointments. Night they regard as bringing on day. Their freedom has this disadvantage, that they do not meet simultaneously or as they are bidden, but two or three days are wasted in the delays of assembling.
But while Tacitus makes intriguing observations on the Germanic understanding of days and how the moon is used to set dates for religious and cultural gatherings, he makes no mention of weeks. This custom was slowly adopted with increasing interaction between the Roman Empire and the Germanic tribes, but was most likely not universal until Christianity had thoroughly conquered the North several hundred years after the fall of Rome.
The week system that eventually made its way North was designed around the time of Tacitus, in the 1st to 3rd centuries, in the Roman Empire. Seven-day weeks replaced an older 9-day grouping, and the days were named for the major celestial objects, the sun, the moon, and the visible planets (Ceres, sometimes a planet and sometimes not, was discovered in 1801, Uranus was discovered in 1781, Neptune in 1846, and Pluto in 1930 – perhaps the naming scheme would have been different with a more comprehensive understanding of the solar system). The planets were named for major gods in Roman mythology, so the days became:
- dies Solis (Sunday, for Sol, the Sun);
- dies Lunae (Monday, for Luna, the Moon);
- dies Martis (Tuesday, for the planet Mars);
- dies Mercurii (Wednesday, for Mercury, the planet nearest the Sun);
- dies Iovis (Thursday, for Jupiter/Iuppiter, the largest planet in our solar system);
- dies Veneris (Friday, for Venus, Earth’s nearest neighbor);
- dies Saturni (Saturday, for Saturn, the famously ringed planet).
As this system was adopted for the Germanic peoples, the names of the planets, being based on Roman gods, were replaced with corresponding Germanic gods, a process called interpretation germanica. So here we get:
- dies Martis = Mars, god of war = Tiwaz/Tyr, god of war = Tuesday/Dienstag
- dies Mercurii = Mercury, guide of souls to the underworld = Odin/Woden, father of the battle-slain = Wodanesdag/Wednesday. Interestingly, Germanic cultures have adopted the practice of referring to Wednesday as Mittwoch or another version of “mid-week”.
- dies Iovis = Jupiter, chief god of sky and storm = Thor/Thunor = Thursday/Donnerstag
- dies Veneris = Venus, goddess of love and women = Frija/Frigg, goddess of women and love = Friday/Freitag
- dies Saturni = Saturn, god of wealth, renewal, liberation, and time. There is little evidence linking “Saturday” to any Germanic gods (arguments regarding Sæter are unconvincing), so it’s probably just Saturn adopted whole cloth. Several Germanic cultures today use “Samstag” for this day, which traces to the same root as Sabbath. There is some evidence this day was once called Laugardagr, which does bear a bit of resemblance to Loki/Loke/Lopt/etc., but given the lack of historical evidence for a Loki cult, it’s more likely just laug “bath/pool” dagr “day”.
I’ve not been able to track down any evidence that Germanic cultures, including the Vikings, gave any particular ritual or religious significance to these days in their configuration as part of a seven-day week. As in, no particular offerings given to Odin on Wednesday and Thor on Thursday, and that sort of thing. It’s entirely possible that such a thing happened but either the evidence doesn’t exist or it’s out there and I’ve just not found it yet.
But what is certainly true is an ongoing fact worth noting with respect to Thor. We already know that in Adam of Bremen’s account, Thor was treated as the chief god at the Temple at Uppsala, which was represented in a woodcut by Olaus Magnus and is an important part of our understanding of how the gods were worshipped. We’re also aware of many pendants taking the form of Thor’s hammer Mjölnir that were worn for protection, blessing, and perhaps as an inward sign of rebellion against Christianizing forces that had come to the North. We’re aware of Thor and Mjölnir having a key role in marriage and on grave stones, with runes asking Thor to bless the runes and thus consecrate the grave.
But we see in Tacitus’s 98 CE Germania using the interpretatio romana to equate Thor with Hercules, a demi-god, certainly, but one who is known to carry a club. He notes Odin, whom he labels as Mercury, consistent with the above, as the god the Germanic peoples worship above all the others.
Mercury is the deity whom they chiefly worship, and on certain days they deem it right to sacrifice to him even with human victims. Hercules and Mars they appease with more lawful offerings. Some of the Suevi also sacrifice to Isis.
Yet by the time the interpretatio germanica had been used to convert Roman days to Germanic days in a seven-day week, the god to whom Thor was equated was no longer Hercules, but Jupiter, king and most powerful of the Roman pantheon.
To some extent, the difference makes sense. Both gods are well known for throwing bolts of lightning and for being extremely powerful. Images of Jupiter typically show him seated, holding a staff and with a globe and/or eagle nearby. Images of Thor from the time when he was worshipped are rare, but descriptions include mention of Mjölnir, his chariot and goats, his belt and gauntlets, and so on. Thor is a more active god than the wise and kingly Jupiter.
What caused this change in our understanding of the interpretatio romana as it pertains to Thor? However the names of the days of the week worked, surely by the time of Adam of Bremen and his study in the 12th century we can be sure that Thor is seen by worshippers as the most beloved among the Germanic gods.
Right now, I don’t have a good answer to this question. Some theories include that the battles between the Northern European tribes and the Southern Romans, and later the Southern Christians, galvanized Germanic culture around the powerful warrior storm god Thor. Perhaps simply having a symbol, the hammer Mjölnir, which resembled the Christian cross/crucifix, helped Northerns galvanize their resistance behind the symbol of one god even as they loved them all.
I can’t say for sure right now. But in the end, it’s clear that Thor and the other Germanic gods who were brought into the seven-day week system have not only helped fulfill the original purpose of making that system palatable to Heimdall’s peoples, but have also found a way to live on for hundreds of years even as their religion was intentionally, systematically destroyed by invaders from the South. Through small tools like these were they able to preserve enough of their culture for us to learn about them hundreds of years after the last pagan fell.