A new year has started to surround us, full of days and weeks and months, which got me wondering and then researching about how people arrange such things.
Days, months and years in most languages and cultures are measures of astronomical doings, such as the earth’s rotation, its orbit around the sun or the changing appearance of the moon.
The rotation of the earth, as measured by people watching the sun seem to go up, over and down, and seasons, measured by changing temperatures and growth behavior of plants, are obvious.
But the idea of seven earth rotations being a week seems to be an odd and awkward number, yet almost every culture seems to use it.
The seven-day week has been traced back to the astronomy-happy ancient Babylonians, whose city developed around 2300 B. C. about an hour’s drive down the Euphrates River from Baghdad, modern capital of Iraq.
It was King Sargon of Akkadia who popularized the seven-day week. He’s mentioned in chapter 20 of the Old Testament book of Isaiah. His Assyrian army captured the city of Ashdod, which caused the prophet Isaiah to go around naked for three years. (Honest. You can look it up.)
Sargon was fond of the number seven because there were seven well-established lights in the sky, visible to the naked eye: the sun, the moon and five planets. They didn’t have telescopes.
When Judaism came along with a seven-day creation story, that further established the length of a week
Our modern months began when Julius Caesar's astronomers complained that 10 months of 30 days eachdidn’t work well with the 12 moon cycles they observed. So he decreed 12 months in a year, and invented a leap year, to synchronize with the seasons.
January and February were added to the calendar, and the original fifth and sixth months were later renamed July and August in honor of Julius Caesar and his successor Augustus.
Folks were always messing with the names and order of months in the old days. But here’s what we have now.
January was named for Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. February comes from februa, the name of a Roman purification custom, a sort of Spring cleaning.
March was named for Mars, the Roman god of war. One source says that was because it was the earliest weather good enough to start a war.
April comes from a Roman word for “second,” aprilis; it was the second month in Rome for a while. May honors the Greek goddess Maia, who dealt with Springtime. June comes from Juno, wife of the Roman god Jupiter and the goddess of marriage and childbirth.
The Roman name July honored Julius Caesar starting in 44 B. C., right after he was assassinated. August came from the emperor Augustus, Julius’s nephew.
September, October, November and December just meant seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth, which months they were until the Romans monkeyed around with the calendar again.
How the days were named is an equally confused subject that won’t fit in this column. Maybe on another day.
Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.
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