Time, part 5: festivals and holidays

We are used to having weeks of seven days each, of which five are designated as ‘work days’ (even if not everyone is employed full-time) and two are set aside for rest and recuperation. If you work in retail, you may have to work on Saturdays, but most of us who work in offices and similar places can enjoy our leisure time during the weekend. At least, that’s the theory – all too often we tend to work more than 40 hours a week, either out of necessity or simply because we love what we do.

The seven-day week was invented by the Babylonians, perhaps as early as 700 BC. Babylonian astrologers named each of the days after the seven gods for whom the seven celestial bodies were named that can be observed with the naked eye: Shamash, Sin, Nergal, Nabu, Marduk, Ishtar, and Ninurta. This Babylonian system was eventually adopted by the Greeks in the Hellenistic period, spread across the ancient Near East, and was brough to the West by the Christians. However, it was not until the fourth century that there was a common seven-day rhythm dominating daily life.

The Romans originally used a week consisting of eight days, where every eighth day was market day. Soon, though, the Romans swapped their system for the Greco-Babylonian one. Babylonian gods were equated with their Greco-Roman counterparts: Shamash was the sun (Sunday), Sin the moon (Monday), Nergal was considered equal to Mars, Nabu to Mercury, Marduk to Jupiter, Venus to Ishtar, and finally Ninurta to Saturn.

Sunday was the first day of the week. The Babylonian celebrated a holy day every seventh day. The Hebrews probably derived their seven-day week from the Babylonians. In their system, too, the seventh day – the Sabbath (Saturday) – is a day of a rest and contemplation.

Weeks are one way to structure a month and it’s a convenient way to introduce one or more days on which people didn’t have to perform their regular duties, but could instead take time off to worship the gods and rest (though in ancient times, our modern notion of a ‘weekend’ would still have been strange). But what about the time before the invention of the week?

The Greeks of the Classical period and earlier did not possess regular weeks. Instead, there were numerous festivals, both large and small, which were organized on monthly and yearly bases. The largest of these were the Panhellenic festivals, such as the Olympic Games, which were organized every four years. But there were also a large number of smaller festivals, many of which local.

In fact, at a rough estimate, it is thought that perhaps a little under half of all days in the year were festival days, at least in Athens and probably elsewhere in Greece, too. Not everyone may have taken part in these festivals, but there was certainly enough opportunity for someone to take a break from work and instead spend a day taking part in a procession or another rite for one deity or another.

There were lots of different types of festivals. The simplest ones would have included a small procession to or from a temple, shrine, or sanctuary. Some of these confirmed territorial borders, such as the procession in Argos from the city centre to the Heraeum (sanctuary to Hera) at the edge of the Argive plain. Others were devoted to honour specific gods, such as the Carnea in Sparta (dedicated to Apollo) or, indeed, theatre festivals in Athens (devoted to Dionysus).

Most days of the month had a special significance: for example, the eighth day of the Athenian month was sacred to Poseidon, the god of the sea. In fact, the Greeks and other ancient peoples may not have had ‘weekends’ as we know them, but they still possessed a remarkable number of days that would qualify, at least some of the time, as holidays in our modern sense. In fact, the Ancients probably had more spare time than we do!

Further reading

  • L. Bruit Zaidman and P. Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City (1992).
  • Robert Garland, ‘Greek spectacles and festivals’, in: M. Grant and R. Kitzinger (eds), Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean: Greece & Rome, vol. 2 (1988), pp. 1143–1152.
  • Peter James and Nick Thorpe, Ancient Inventions (1994).
  • N. Robertson, Festivals and Legends: The Formation of Greek Cities in the Light of Public Ritual (1992).
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