THE belief in lucky and unlucky days appears to have been first taught by the magicians of ancient Chaldea, and we learn from history that similar notions affected every detail of primitive Babylonian life, thousands of years before Christ. Reference to an "unlucky month" is to be found in a list of deprecatory incantations contained in a document from the library of the royal palace at Nineveh. This document is written in the Accadian dialect of the Turanian language, which was akin to that spoken in the region of the lower Euphrates; a language already obsolete and unintelligible to the Assyrians of the seventh century B. C. Certain days were called Dies Egyptiaci, because they were thought to have been pronounced unluck by the astrologers of ancient Egypt.
In that country the unlucky days were, however, fewer in number than the fortunate ones, and they also differed in the degree of their ill-luck. Thus, while some were markedly ominous, others merely threatened misfortune, and still others were of mixed augury, partly good and partly evil. There were certain days upon which absolute idleness was enjoined upon the people, when they were expected to sit quietly at home, indulging in dolce far niente.
The poet Hesiod, who is believed to have flourished about one thousand years B. C., in the third book of his poem, "Works and Days," which is indeed a kind of metrical almanac, distinguishes lucky days from others, and gives advice to farmers regarding the most favorable days for the various operations of agriculture. Thus he recommends the eleventh of the month as excellent for reaping corn, and the twelfth for shearing sheep. But the thirteenth was an unlucky day for sowing, though favorable for planting. The fifth of each month was an especially unfortunate day, while the thirtieth was the most propitious of all.
Some of the most intelligent and learned Greeks were very punctilious in their observance of Egyptian days. The philosopher Proclus (A.D. 412-480) was said to be even more scrupulous in this regard than the Egyptians themselves. And Plotinus (A. D. 204-270), another eminent Grecian philosopher, believed with the astrologers of a later day, that the positions of the planets in the heavens exerted an influence over human affairs.
In an ancient calendar of the year 334, in the reign of Constantine the Great, twenty-six Egyptian days were designated. At an early period, however, the church authorities forbade the superstitious observance of these days.
Some of the most eminent early writers of the Christian Church, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Chrysostom, were earnest in their denunciation of the prevalent custom of regulating the affairs of life by reference to the supposed omens of the calendar. The fourth council of Carthage, in 398, censured such practices; and the synod of Rouen, in the reign of Clovis, anathematized those who placed faith in such relics of paganism.
We learn on the authority of Marco Polo that the Brahmins of the province of Laristan, in southern Persia, in the thirteenth century, were extremely punctilious in their choice of suitable days for the performance of any business matters. This famous traveler wrote that a Brahmin who contemplated making a purchase, for example, would measure the length of his own shadow in the early morning sunlight, and if the shadow were of the proper length, as officially prescribed for that day, he would proceed to make the purchase; otherwise he would wait until the shadow conformed in length to a predetermined standard for that day of the week.
The Latin historian, Rolandino (1200-76), in the third book of his "Chronicle," describes an undertaking which resulted disastrously because, as was alleged, it was rashly begun on an "Egyptian day." There is frequent mention of these days in many ancient manuscripts in the Ambrosian Library at Milan.
In a so-called "Book of Precedents," printed in 1616, fifty-three days are specified as being "such as the Egyptians noted to be dangerous to begin or take anything in hand, or to take a journey or any such thing." An ancient manuscript mentions twenty-eight days in the year "which were revealed by the Angel Gabriel to good Joseph, which ever have been remarked to be very fortunayte dayes either to let blood, cure wounds, use marchandizes, sow seed, build houses, or take journees."
Astrologers formerly specified particular days when it was dangerous for physicians to bleed patients; and especially to be avoided were the first Monday in April, on which day Cain was born and his brother Abel slain; the first Monday in August, the alleged anniversary of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; and the last Monday in December, which was the reputed birthday of Judas Iscariot.
In Mason's "Anatomic of Sorcerie" (1612), the prevailing notions on this subject were characterized as vain speculations of the astrologers, having neither foundation in God's word nor yet natural reason to support them, but being grounded only upon the superstitious imagination of men. A work of 1620, entitled "Melton's Astrologaster," says that the Christian faith is violated when, like a pagan and apostate, any man "doth observe those days which are called Egyptiaci, or the calends of January, or any month, day, time, or year, either to travel, marry or do anything in." And the learned Sir Thomas Browne, in his "Pseudodoxia Epidemica," published in 1658, declaimed in quaint but forcible language against the frivolity of such doctrines.