People use a 7‑day week because they have been born into a world where this is customary. In other words, the 7‑day week has been received from earlier generations. It has a long history. When the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion early in the 4th Century CE the 7‑day week was officially associated with the Julian Calendar, and the association remained after the Julian Calendar was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar in the 16th Century CE.
The Christians received the 7‑day week from the Jews (in fact, the original Christians were Jews). The Jewish explanation for its use is that this was commanded by their god, named by them YHWH (using the Hebrew letters Yod-He-Vav-He). The Jewish Pentateuch (incorporated into the Old Testament of the Christian Bible) contains several injunctions attributed to YHWH which mention “a seventh day”, upon which no “work” is to be done.
Whether or not a 7‑day week was in use by the Jews at the time of Moses in the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE is highly debatable, since YHWH’s commands to Moses are not preserved in any contemporary records but only in documents which were composed around the middle of the first millennium BCE.
It is a mistake to believe that our 7-day week has its origins in the command of the biblical YHWH, since the 7‑day week is older than the Hebrews, having been used by the Sumerians and Babylonians. Kerry Farmer remarks that “Some Historians believe that around 2350 BC Sargon I, King of Akkad, having conquered Ur and the other cities of Sumeria, instituted a seven-day week, the first to be recorded.”
In many European languages the names of the days of the week are derived from the names of planets/gods. The table below (adapted from a web page by Dr Kelley Ross) gives the names for the planets/gods in various languages and the names of the corresponding day of the week in French and in English.
It is plausible to suppose that the association of planets and days of the week arose in prehistoric times as follows:
At some point in the evolution of humans, perhaps as far back as 100,000 years ago, they acquired sufficient intelligence to observe their environment and start to think about it. Obviously the night sky would have been of interest to early humans. The more intelligent among them would have observed that all of the luminous objects in the night sky maintained their positions relative to each other except for a few. Those that did not appeared to wander across the night sky (relative to the fixed stars), and thus eventually came to be called “wanderers”. (The English word “planet” is derived from the Greek “planetes”, which means exactly “wanderers”.)
Tens of thousands of years ago humans did not think of the physical world as we do today, and in particular did not have an idea of the Earth as a large spherical object within a vast 3-dimensional space in which other large spherical objects moved (a conception which became generally accepted only toward the end of the 17th Century, 200 years after Copernicus). For those early humans the nature of the luminous objects which they observed to wander along a band of the night sky, and the cause of their movement, was unknown. But since (by observation of the natural world) it was only living things which moved of themselves, it would be reasonable for early humans to assume that the wanderers, the planets, were living beings of some kind — beings of a very unusual nature, possessing something like what we might now call “divinity”.
In the chapter “The Planets” in his book Cosmos and Psyche Richard Tarnas writes:
The astrological tradition has long held that when astronomy was originally united with astrology, the ancients named the visible planets according to each one’s intrinsic archetypal character, that is, according to the mythic deity of which the planet was the visible manifestation. The earliest surviving Greek text that named all the known planets is the Platonist dialogue the Epinomis, which explicitly postulated a cosmic association between the planets and specific gods, speaking of them as cosmic powers and visible deities. Written in the fourth century BCE as an appendix to Plato’s last work, the Laws … the Epinomis affirmed the divinity of the planets and then went on to introduce the specific Greek name for each planet according to the deity which that planet was understood to be “sacred to” — Hermes, Aphrodite, Ares, Zeus, Kronos. These Greek gods were cited as corresponding to the equivalent Mesopotaman deities whose names had long been associated with the planets by the already ancient astrological tradition inherited from Babylonia. In turn, in later centuries these planets became known in Europe and the modern West by the names of their Roman equivalents: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.
Probably the planets were seen as divine beings long before the rise of Mesopotamian civilization, beings who were more than what the modern mind understands by the term “gods”. And obviously the Sun and the Moon belonged to their company. So how many such deities were there? As many as could be observed. In addition to the Sun and the Moon there were the five planets named above. If days somehow became associated with these gods then we have the basis for a period of seven days. If a particular deity was associated with each successive day then a cycle of seven days would arise.
It is plausible to suppose that the earliest calendars were simple tallies of days from one new moon to the next (where “new moon” means the reappearance of the moon after two or three days of invisibility). Bones with 29 and 30 scratches have been found which are at least 40,000 years old, suggesting (since a lunation is approximately 29.5 days) that the scratches were a record of days (or nights) in a lunation. This was probably the first attempt by humans to divide the sequence of days into periods. They would quickly have noted that four successive 7‑day periods were almost, but not quite the number of days from one new moon to the next. This might have given rise to a calendar (such as is known to have been used by the Sumerians and Babylonians) in which the days of a lunation (a “month”) were divided into four 7‑day periods beginning with a new moon, followed by one or two days (not part of any 7‑day period) until the next new moon.
But this does not account for the 7-day week, since a lunar month (29 or 30 days) might also have been divided into five 6-day ‘weeks’ or six 5-day ‘weeks’, with the final ‘week’ sometimes being shortened by a day.
The origin of the 7‑day week is sometimes attributed to dividing the 29 or 30 days of a lunation by four, to get a number close to seven. But a concept of division, which we find easily understandable, is not a concept that we can attribute to the earliest thinking humans. Counting and addition may have been the most advanced mathematical concepts for many thousands of years before the idea of division (as a numerical operation) was discovered.
On the basis of this explanation of the development of the idea of the week it is obvious why there are seven days in a week: This is the number of visible planets plus the Sun and the Moon.
If, instead of an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, there had been a planet, then there would have been six visible planets, not five, so the number of celestial entities would have been eight, not seven. In that case humans would have developed a week of eight days, not seven.
The planet Uranus was first observed by telescope in 1690 (by Flamsteed) but was recognized as a planet (by Herschel) only in 1781. Had the solar system formed in such a way that Uranus came close enough to Earth to be observable with the naked eye (actually it can be observed with a very acute naked eye, but only when it is closest to Earth and one knows where to look for it) then the number of celestial entities would have been eight, and we would have an 8-day week, as the Etruscans — and following them, the Romans — actually did (until it was supplanted sometime after the 1st Century by the 7-day week).
One might conclude that the fact that humans have long used a week of seven days is thus the result of accident, namely, that the solar system is the way it is, with five of the nine planets being sufficiently close to Earth to be visible with the naked eye.
That is certainly consistent with the modern view of the solar system, as part of a physical world consisting only of matter and energy, having evolved over billions of years under the influence of astrophysical laws (in particular that of gravitation) and random material interactions, a world devoid of consciousness and intelligence except insofar as these are (apparently miraculously) present in animals and humans. The idea that this view of the world is fundamentally mistaken is presented in the book by Richard Tarnas quoted above.
Whether or not this is so, the “sacredness” of the number seven, and the fact that there are seven days in a week, is due to the association of the seven celestial beings (the visible planets plus the Sun and the Moon) with deities in the minds of humans from probably an early stage in the development of intelligence up to the time of the advent of modern science.
But since we now know that there are in fact ten planets, including Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, a week of ten days might now be more appropriate. Such a week is part of the calendar known as the Archetypes Calendar.
Klaus Scharff presents a dissenting view:
I’m not convinced that a 7-day week has been established by accident, i.e., because the solar system is what it is, with five visible planets only, and could have been otherwise. Modern science would probably agree with that view, and your arguments are correct so far, but only if you assume that matter and energy is all that there is. But that’s wrong. Consciousness and Intelligence are the root of any universe. So I sympathize with a different point of view: the planetary arrangement of heavenly bodies is only a pointer to a profound structure of our cosmos (the author of Cosmos and Psyche would agree), so the cause for seven visible luminaries goes back in time, perhaps beyond the time of the creation of our 3-d universe. When discussing the mysteries of our universe the masters of the Kabbala refer to the holy number seven quite often. According to their mystical writings there are seven heavens and seven heavenly palaces. The holy Jewish book Bahir explains why our world is related to sevenness, all the way down. People of various cultures (not only the Jews) think likewise. Many temples of many different cultures around the world show us the importance of the number seven. Seven is a symbol for the pyramid as well. The pyramid has not only four triangles, it has also a square. 3 + 4 = 7. There are seven step pyramids in Mexico, seven step ziggurats of Mesopotamia. Think of the seven wonders of the world. The number seven is a holy number. Seven is one of the most important numbers in Esotericism. According to Arthur M. Young there are seven levels of evolution. According to Charles Muses there is a 7-dimensional Q-universe which is the master control center of our 3-d universe. So one might surmise that a 7-day week has been created because of the cosmic relevance of the number seven, and is not arbitrary. One might say that a seven-day week is older then mankind. Of course, the jealous god of the Old Testament asked his people to accept his command about one day of rest and six days of hardship, i.e., work. But his command is not arbitrary, not by simply willing it or by accident, no, it probably shows respect to a cosmic life force that is higher then any human god.
Note added by Peter Meyer, 2012-06-19:
William Irwin Thompson, in his book The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, reminds us of other instances of the number seven in our cultural history. In the Sumerian myth of “Inanna’s Descent into the Nether World” at first “she is ceremonially robed with all her power, the seven divine laws … [but] in hell seven judges at each of the seven gates take one of these divine laws away from her. The number mysticism would seem to indicate that there is an esoteric dimension to the myth, the dimension of initiation. As with the opening of the seven seals in the book of Revelation of St. John, we are dealing not merely with the physical body, but with the subtle body as well.” And, of course, in the doctrine of Indian kundalini yoga there are seven cakras, each of which is opened as the kundalini ascends the central sushumna channel.
Yet, it can be argued, all of these instances of seven derive from the fact that there are seven celestial objects which move in the sky, because this was the first instance of seven known to all early humans — it was the first instance of a number which could be seen and known by all.
There may be three mountains which can be seen together (such as the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau in Switzerland) but these cannot be seen by everyone. There were no other sets of objects in the natural world of early man which could be known by all men (unless one divides the celestial objects into two large ones and five star-like ones) and this set happens to have seven members. So seven was the first number to have a universal and mysterious significance, which it thus retained when humans began to invent myths to explain their world.
While this is true, it could also be claimed, as Klaus Scharff has done, that seven existed before the first humans became aware of the seven celestial objects which move in the sky, and that the fact that there are seven wandering celestal objects visible is not just due to chance collisions of material particles during the development of the solar system, but is a consequence of seven having a supra-temporal existence, a view which, of course, will not be entertained by anyone who believes that reality consists only of what can be perceived by the outer senses.
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