Five and Seven

It is easy for us to bustle though our busy lives without pausing to reflect that much of our familiar and comfortable world was not created by us, but was, rather, bequeathed to us by those who lived and died long before we took our cue to strut briefly upon the stage. Here in Gotham one tends to take the city itself for granted, as if it were a given feature of the natural world; but if one stops to consider that every last brick, every nail, every floorboard, every window, every doorknob, every layer of paint in every one of the city’s innumerable structures, from the meanest toolshed to the loftiest tower, was carefully put in its place by some human hand, the scale of one’s indebtedness to those who went before us becomes almost ungraspable in its immensity. To these multitudes, almost all of them nameless, dead and forgotten, we owe nearly everything – our cities, our nations, our languages, our religions, our music, our literature, our science, our mathematics, our art, our culture, and even the very bodies that we inhabit. I think it is important to dwell on this astonishing fact every so often.

From my remarkable friend George Beke, who might best be described as a cultural archeologist, and who is a tireless and erudite scholar of the symbolic and esoteric artifacts of bygone times, comes an insight into one of the most familiar features of our common cultural framework – the days of the week.

In ancient times, the local celestial bodies were seven in number. For most of history astronomers arranged them in the following order, representing their apparent relative distance from Earth:

Moon
Mercury
Venus
Sun
Mars
Jupiter
Saturn

Another idea, extant since at least the time of the Pythagoreans, and thought to be an indication of an underlying order in the world, is the musical scale, divided into seven notes. The octave, a frequency ratio of 2 to 1 , is the purest of the harmonic relationships, but simplest after that is the interval known as the “fifth”, which describes a ratio of 3 to 2. To the Pythagoreans, knowledge of the abstract underpinning of harmonics and similar phenomena was considered a sacred insight into the hidden workings of Nature.

To illustrate these ideas in a familiar context, we can consider the Western representation of the scale. In its simplest form there are the seven notes do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, returning to do to complete the octave. The interval of the fifth is created by taking the starting note as “one”, and, counting as we go, stopping at the fifth note in the sequence:

do, re mi, fa, so.

If we wish to continue, we can repeat the process: so, la, ti, do, re. After seven cycles, we come right round the circle to do, four octaves higher.

Now let’s apply the same “cycle of fifths” to the sequence of the planets. Starting at Moon, we have:

Moon
Mercury
Venus
Sun
Mars

Then:
Mars
Jupiter
Saturn
Moon
Mercury

Mercury
Venus
Sun
Mars
Jupiter

Jupiter
Saturn
Moon
Mercury
Venus

Venus
Sun
Mars
Jupiter
Saturn

Saturn
Moon
Mercury
Venus
Sun

Sun
Mars
Jupiter
Saturn
Moon

Moon

Listing the names at the beginning of each cycle we have: Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Sun. Look familiar?

Moon = Monday
Mars = Tuesday (in French, Mardi)
Mercury = Wednesday (Wotan’s Day in Norse myth, Mercredi in French)
Jupiter = Thursday (Thor’s Day to the Norse, but Jove’s Day, aka Jeudi, in French)
Venus = Friday (Frigga’s Day to the Norse, but Vendredi to the French)
Saturn = Saturn’s Day, or Saturday
Sun = Sunday, of course!

We live and die almost entirely oblivious of our heritage. Nice work, George.

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