Did you know that there have been three-day, four-day, five-day, six-day, eight-day, nine-day, ten-day, 12-day, 13-day, 19-day, and 20-day weeks as well as our own seven-day week? Have you ever stopped to consider where the idea of the week came from?
Eviatar Zerubavel did, and in 1985 he published the first edition of The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week. This was one of the books Maya left behind on her bookshelf when she left this world, and it’s an eye-opening one!
Eviatar says “the seven-day cycle was originally associated not only with the seven days of the Creation, but also with the seven so-called ‘Planets’.” Figure 1 in his book is a detailed list of all the names of the planetary days in many of the languages of the world.
But we know this already. We know it from three of the more obvious names in our English language: Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, for Saturn, the sun, and the moon. Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Venus were the namesakes of our four other days of the week.
Saturn, the sun, the moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter and Venus were called the “wandering planets” by ancient Babylonians, also known as Chaldeans, as they developed astronomy. “That each of those seven planets (generally conceived as deities) affects human fortune in its own distinctive way is originally a Babylonian idea,” says Eviatar. At one time the word, Chaldean, was synonymous with the word, astrologer.
The Jewish week was also seven days, but one of these days was more important than the other. The Jewish week was built around the idea of the Sabbath, the day god rested. And some argue that the Sabbath was originally the seventh day of the year and observed only once a year in commemoration of the Creation.
As a result, it was the Egyptians who first instituted a continuous seven-day week throughout the year. And in doing so they were the also first people to create a continuous weekly cycle that was entirely independent of the lunar cycle. This was possibly a result of being sun-worshipers.
Says Eviatar, “It is interesting to note that the rise of the Sabbath cult within Judaism coincided with the withdrawal from worshiping the celestial bodies, and particularly the moon. In other words, the dissociation of the week from a natural cycle such as the waxing and waning of the moon can be seen as part of a general movement toward introducing a supernatural deity. Not being personified in any particular natural force, the Jewish god was to be regarded as untouched by nature in any way….” (p 11)
He continues, “Only by being based on an entirely artificial mathematical rhythm could the Sabbath observance become totally independent of the lunar or any other natural cycle. A continuous seven-day cycle that runs throughout history paying no attention whatsoever to the moon and its phases is a distinctively Jewish invention. Moreover, the disassociation of the seven-day week from nature has been one of the most significant contributions of Judaism to civilization.”
Christianity, along with the Roman conquests, continued the march away from astrological time based on the natural cycles of the heavenly bodies. Thus, while the day is based on the earth, and the month on the moon, and the year on the sun, the week has no natural thing to mark its passing. The week as we know it is a “human-made” construction, which as I mentioned at the start of this discussion, has been almost as variable as the number of days in a month.
So where did the other types of weeks around the world come from? They came mainly from the need for a market-day cycle, a day or days set aside from others for selling things to everyone within walking or riding distance.
Later on, with the rise of the industrial revolution, they came from the need for a common workweek. In several parts of the book Eviatar traces the idea of the workweek, including the early 20th-century Russian experiment with a five-day workweek (Nepreryvka).
Eviatar’s book prompted me to wonder why the continuous-cycle week was so important to modern civilization. I think it’s because the week allows people to track time in a very repetitious (and boring!) way.
That’s why some of our holidays are so difficult to plan for. They fall on a yearly (solar) calendar day rather than on the same day of the week every year. Jesus Christ’s birthday and our own birthdays are examples of this.
There’s a kind of “emotive dissonance,” involved in trying to figure out when a birthday falls within a month. This is true of any other event that doesn’t repeat on a specific day of the week each year or each month.
Because of that discombobulation, the effect of religious and personal holidays based on the specific day of the month or of the month and year is to take us outside of ordinary normal “weekly” time and into a more ancient way of reckoning time.
The circular continuity of modern days of the week dulls us to the preciousness of each day of our lives. There will always be another Monday, we think, or another Friday, we hope!
Circular conception of short periods of time encourages routines rather than celebrations of solstices, equinoxes and other significant days of the year. The Judeo-Christian religious leaders find this helpful. So do employers. In short, the week is a way one part of humanity controls another part to accomplish its ends.
As a creative person I found I needed to step outside of the traditional seven-day week to “be myself.” I became self-employed not because I could not work for others or with others, but because I could not work within the confines of the traditional workweek. To meet my life’s purpose, I needed to travel back to the “Promised Land” where I could write at will, while working during a time of my own choosing in service of my clients.
In my opinion, the abandonment of the week, for however brief a time, is also necessary to reach a truly “spiritual” or “playful” state in life. In one of Eviatar’s discussions about different calendars in the world, he says, “As a matter of fact, the 260-day divinatory calendar (along with the traditional solar calendar) has been preserved to this day in many parts of rural Mexico and Guatemala, and particularly among the Highland Maya, “daykeepers” are still being consulted regularly about the most propitious days for getting married, going on trips, building houses, and launching business enterprises.”
I say long live the daykeepers! And may Maya’s Daykeeper Journal make all your days be propitious ones this coming year!