Ancient philosophers were enthralled by the mathematical relationships they found in nature, and believed that numbers underlay every aspect of reality. HILDI HAWKINS explains how certain numbers then acquired their own symbolic 'personality'
THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL arithmetical operation is tallying: the
matching one for one of one set of objects with another or with marks in
the dust, or pebbles, or
knots in a string in order to compare quantities.
The next step is to give names to numbers and to match objects against these
in sequence - that is, to count. Some peoples, such as certain New Guineans
and Brazilian Indians, have no names for numbers beyond three. And the number
words that do exist may vary according to the type of object being counted.
(This survives in modern English: we speak of a brace of gamebirds, pistols
or dogs, but of nothing else.) It must have been a magical moment when the
abstract nature of number was realised: the idea that three trees, three
people, or even a collection of three different things all had one thing
in common: their 'threeness'.
The power of this abstract idea must have been apparent very
early. Number seemed somehow to underlie reality: all collections of three
objects were united by their 'threeness'. At a very deep level, perhaps they
were the same. It is small wonder that the mysterious power of the concept
of number inspired a powerful tradition of mystical thought that still colours
the way we think about numbers. The tradition comes to us from the medieval
Christian Church, which in turn drew its inspiration from two major intellectual
traditions, Greek Pythagoreanism and
The school of Pythagoras was a religious community
founded by the semi-legendary figure of Pythagoras
in the Greek colony of Croton, in southern Italy, around 530 BC. It was
dedicated to the study of geometry, mathematics and
astronomy, and to experimentation in music.
The Pythagorean school studied the variations in pitch produced by vibrating
strings of varying lengths, and is credited with the discovery that musical
intervals may be represented in terms of simple ratios of whole numbers.
It may have been the discovery of
nature of musical intervals that gave the Pythagoreans their idea that
number was the key to the Universe. Whatever the
origin of the belief, they clung to it fervently and bequeathed it to the
Like all Greeks, they thought of number geometrically. One was
a point, two a line, three a triangle, the first plane figure, and
four a tetrahedron (which
resembles a pyramid, but has a triangular
base), the first solid figure. These four numbers between them thus describe
the whole of space. The Pythagoreans venerated them in a symmetrical pattern
called the tetractys, and believed it was 'eternal nature's fountain
spring'. Number pervaded the Pythagoreans' entire cosmology. Creation was
seen as the division of primordial unity into parts.
Each number had a certain significance attached to it; broadly, the Pythagoreans
believed that the world was composed of a series of ten pairs of opposite
corresponding to oddness or evenness in numbers
male/female, and so on.
In Hebrew, as in Greek, numbers were represented by letters
of the alphabet, and this may well have stimulated gematria, the Jewish art
of turning names into numbers. This was done simply
by totalling the numbers that the letters stood for. The central idea of
gematria was that things referred to by words whose letters added up to the
same number were somehow the same; number expressed their true essence.
It was natural for early Christians to take up the numerological
ideas of the two dominant intellectual traditions - Greek and Jewish - that
surrounded them. The early symbol of the dove for Christ, for example, was
probably adopted because the Greek letters alpha and omega - 'I am Alpha
and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord' (Revelation 1:8)
- add to 801, the number of peristera, the Greek for 'dove'.
For the Christians, as for the Pythagoreans, goodness and maleness
were associated with the odd numbers. One stands for perfection, unity, God.
Two, as the first number to break away from that perfection, represents the
Devil. And since odd numbers dominate in addition (odd + even = odd), and
addition represents sexual union, odd numbers must
represent the male sex.
The Bible, early Christian theologians believed, provided
confirmation of the evil associated with two. For in the account of the Creation,
did not God neglect on the second day to find that his work was good? And
before the Flood, the unclean animals went into Noah's ark two by two, whereas
the clean animals went in by sevens. Modern numerologists are more generous
to the number two, preferring to emphasise its positive qualities, but it
nonetheless remains the least favoured of the numbers
(see page 1301).
Three is the first male number. One by itself although
perfect, is barren; two introduces a discord that can only be resolved
by adding the two numbers together to make three. It is this symbolism that
is behind the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; as the 19th-century French
magician Eliphas Levi put it: Were God only one, He would
never be creator or father. Were He two, there would be antagonism or
division in the infinite, which would mean the division also, or death, of
all possible things. He is therefore three for the creation by Himself and
in His image of the infinite multitude of beings and numbers.
The number of ill-luck
Five, on the other hand, is the number of male sexuality: it
is made up of two and three: the first feminine number added to the first
masculine number. Thus, in love, woman is given to man - and
Seven is a number rich in biblical associations. There are seven
deadly sins, seven Christian virtues, seven petitions in the Lord's prayer;
on the seventh day of the siege of Jericho, Joshua marched seven times round
the walls of the city and flattened them with a blast from seven trumpets;
and Pharaoh's dream which Joseph interpreted, involved seven fat and seven
lean cows, seven plump ears of corn and seven blighted ones. In folklore
too mystery attaches to the number seven, magical properties are
attributed to seventh sons and seventh sons of seventh sons. The power of
the number seven stretches far back in time: around 2500 BC the great Sumerian
king Lugulannemund built a temple in the city of Adab to the goddess Nintu,
with seven gates and seven doors, purified with the sacrifice of seven times
seven fatted oxen and sheep. One can only guess at the significance of this
frequent use of the number - but it seems that it is linked with
the phases of the
Moon, which take about 28 (=4 x 7) days to go through a complete cycle.
The ancients believed that the cycles of birth and death, growth and decay,
depend on the waxing and waning of the Moon.
The symbolism of the numbers eight and nine is connected with
human procreation: a woman's body has eight orifices, the eighth being the
one through which new life enters the world. Eight is thus the number of
worldly success. Nine is the number of completeness because a human child
is conceived, formed and born in nine months. A few numbers greater than
nine were regarded as having a special significance. Twelve, for instance,
is a number of completeness: there are 12 months in the year, 12 signs of
the zodiac, 12 tribes of Israel and, of course, 12 disciples Thirteen is
a number of excess - it goes one beyond a number of completeness. The fact
that there were 13 people at the Last Supper strengthens the uneasiness many
people still feel about the number. This feeling is so strong that, for instance,
when Queen Elizabeth II visited West Germany in 1965, the number of the platform
at Duisburg station from which her train left was changed from 13 to 12a.
Armed with these interpretations of numbers, the Christian
theologian had at his fingertips a powerful tool for unravelling the hidden
meaning of any biblical text. The crowning glory of biblical number symbolism
is the book of Revelation. Written in 22 chapters - the 'master' number,
the number of things traditionally supposed to have been created by God,
the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet - it is full of numerological
puzzles. The greatest and most famous of these is the
puzzle of the number of the Beast, 666:
The identity of the Beast
Numerologists, however, have not been content with these simple
explanations, and speculations as to the Beast's identity have ranged far
and wide. In the early 19th century there was an attempt to make Napoleon
into the Beast. Thomas Macaulay, the English statesman, refused to accept
this hypothesis; with typically mordant wit, he announced that the House
of Commons was obviously the Beast: it had 658 members, three clerks, a serjeant
and a deputy, a doorkeeper, a chaplain and a librarian -making 666 in all.
The magician Aleister
Crowley believed himself to be the Beast; he had, he claimed, discovered
his true identity while still a boy, with 'a passionately ecstatic sense
of identity'. He signed himself 'The Beast 666' - or sometimes To mega
therion, which means 'the great Beast' in Greek. Its number is 666.