Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Names of the Week

Why did I write a biography of a 13th-century Icelandic chieftain who was murdered cowering in his cellar? Tonight I'm giving a talk to a book club in Burlington, Vermont, and I know that's one of the questions they'll ask me. Here’s one answer:

Have you ever wondered why Hump Day was named “Wednesday”? Or where the names Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday come from? These days of the week were named for the ancient gods Woden (or Odin), Tyr, and Thor, and the goddess Frigg or Freyja.

If it weren’t for that 13th-century Icelandic chieftain, Snorri Sturluson, we wouldn’t know much about these old gods. In about 1220, to impress a teenage Norwegian king—the same king who, 20 years later, ordered him killed—Snorri wrote a book of Norse myths called the Edda. Along with a collection of mythological poems (also confusingly called the Edda), Snorri’s book contains almost everything we know about the gods we still honor each week with the names Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

Tuesday is named for Tyr, the one-handed god of war. According to Snorri, Tyr stuck his hand in the mouth of a giant wolf. He was guaranteeing the gods wouldn’t double-cross the wolf when they bound him with a leash made from six things: “the noise a cat makes when it moves, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird.” Of course, the gods were lying to the wolf. They had no intention of freeing him again. So he bit off Tyr’s hand. Tyr “is not called a peace-maker” now, says Snorri, in the translation by Jean Young.

Wednesday is named for Odin, "the highest and oldest of the gods," the one with the most names and the most stories. Odin owns the hall Valhalla. He directs the Valkyries, who chose the slain on the field of battle. He is the god of poets and storytellers, the god of beer and brewing. He has two ravens, Thought and Memory, that keep him apprised of the news. I've written about the God of Wednesday (obviously) a number of times on this blog.

See, for example, the story of Odin's eight-legged horse, Sleipnir, here: http://nancymariebrown.blogspot.com/2012/11/seven-norse-myths-we-wouldnt-have_21.html

Or the story of the mead of poetry, here: http://nancymariebrown.blogspot.com/2012/12/seven-norse-myths-we-wouldnt-have.html

As Snorri says, "It will be impossible for you to be called a well-informed person if you cannot relate some of these great events."

Thursday is named for Thor, strongest of the gods. Thor drives a chariot pulled by two goats. He has three magical objects: a belt of strength, a pair of iron gloves, and a hammer called Mjöllnir, or "Crusher." "The frost ogres and cliff giants know when it is raised aloft, and that is not surprising since he has cracked the skulls of many of their kith and kin."

Friday is named for Freyja (or maybe for Frigg, but Snorri doesn’t tell us much about Frigg). Freyja is "the most renowned of the goddesses." She drives a chariot drawn by two cats and enjoys love poems. She cries golden tears, wears expensive jewelry, and is not particularly faithful to her husband. "It is good to call on her for help in love affairs," Snorri says.

Why should we care about these old stories? In 1909, a translator called the two Eddas “the wellspring of Western culture.” That may be an exaggeration, but the Eddas are the source of much of our modern popular culture.

The Marvel comic character Thor—and the blockbuster movies about him—are obviously based on the Eddas.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were inspired by the Eddas—and so, of course, were Peter Jackson’s films, not to mention all the fantasy-themed movies, books, and games that feature wandering wizards, fair elves and werewolves, valkyrie-like women, magic swords and talismans, talking dragons and dwarf smiths, heroes that understand the speech of birds, or trolls that turn into stone.

The Gothic novel, too, has been traced back to the Eddas.

Their influence is even felt in “high” culture, stretching from Thomas Gray (better known for “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”) in the 1750s to our latest Nobel prizewinner, Alice Munro.

And, of course, the names of these gods are on our lips four days out of every week.

1 comment:

  1. Stumbled across this book in a small shop in the mountains of CA. I am enjoying it now that I'm home in NH. You do a good job of making medieval Icelandic history exciting and relevant.