New Worlds: The Magic of Numbers

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

In high school I took a class called Theory of Knowledge that was essentially a grab bag of topics not ordinarily covered in the high school curriculum. One of the books we read that year was called A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe — which sounds like it’s about worldbuilding, and in a way, it sort of is. But as the two subtitles indicate, it’s approaching that idea from an unexpected direction: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science: A Voyage from 1 to 10.

It’s an odd but fascinating book. Each chapter is dedicated to one of those numbers, 1 to 10. They start off with geometry, showing you how to use a compass, straightedge, and pencil to construct the different figures (a circle, a straight line, and then polygons from the triangle upward), then continue on into a discussion of where these numbers show up in nature and human culture. From each one the author, Michael S. Schneider, extracts a general theme: bounty for 4, regeneration for 5, etc.

Of course you can find exceptions to these themes. The point isn’t to prove that a given number has a single meaning forever and always, amen. It’s to look at how human beings think about numbers, how the ways we see them in the world around us influence the meaning we ascribe to them. And as such, it’s a really interesting entry point into the idea of numerology and numerological superstitions.

The idea that math is magic isn’t just a slogan used to sell kids on educational programs. It goes back millennia, to the dawn of civilizations as we know them. Math underlies our navigation, our architecture, our music. The tools we’ve developed to work with it — not only physical tools like compasses and straightedges, but conceptual ones like the three hundred sixty-degree circle — have literally given us power, the ability to shape our world to our own ends.

More than one science fictional story uses the premise that our initial communication with an alien civilization will take the form of math, because it’s the one true “universal language.” Given what I said last week about divine languages, is it any wonder that mathematics has been linked with religion, the various numbers given sacred and magical character? Greek and Hebrew both used to write numbers using letters of the alphabet, rather than separate symbols; as a result, any written text can be converted into a numerical sequence and vice versa, a practice that feeds into gematria and similar disciplines. If language is also magic, then combine the two and surely you have the ability to understand and even control the universe.

This manifests in all kinds of ways. Numbers are used in divination, sometimes via the simple throwing of dice, sometimes via systems like astrology, ascribing additional meaning to dates based on their numerological significance. In China even numbers are considered luckier than odd ones (but in Japan wedding gifts are given in odd quantities, because even is easily split up during a divorce and therefore invites bad luck). Prophecies may be built around significant dates; the white evangelical Christian tradition of predicting the Rapture is based on extracting key numbers from the Bible and then processing them to forecast the year of Christ’s Second Coming.

Even when there’s no actual prediction, some numbers are just considered “better” than others. This may be individual, as when gamblers have their “lucky numbers” they stick to come hell or high water, or culture-wide, as with the East Asian emphasis on a 60th birthday, or the Japanese addition of the 77th, 88th, and 99th birthdays. Positive Biblical associations with the numbers 3 and 7 may make Christians gravitate toward those as seeming auspicious, whether they’re aware of it or not. For indigenous Mesoamerican cultures, it might be 20 instead.

Some numbers, by contrast, have picked up bad connotations. Triskaidekaphobia is famously the fear of the number 13 — but you may be surprised to hear that it’s relatively recent. There’s a theory that it derives from the Last Supper, with Judas as the thirteenth guest, but that theory dates to the 1890s. Christian Europe didn’t always shun the number; the Book of Exodus ascribes to God the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, and in Italy it’s considered lucky for everything except the dinner table. And of course outside the Christian sphere, 13 may have any connotation; in Cantonese-speaking areas, where the number sounds like the phrase “sure to live,” it’s auspicious rather than the reverse.

In East Asia it’s generally 4 that you have to watch out for, because that’s a Chinese homophone for “death.” (In Cantonese “sure to live” at 13 is followed by “sure to die” at 14.) The Japanese language makes this extra complicated: because there are two systems for counting from 1 to 10, one indigenous and the other (more frequently used) derived from Chinese, when you’re counting downward you swap in the indigenous Japanese word for 4 in the midst of the otherwise Chinese-derived sequence. (San, shi, go when going up turns into go, yon, san on the way down.)

People don’t always believe in these connotations, of course . . . but that doesn’t stop them from observing the numerological significance all the same. If you’ve ever been in an old building where the floors go from 12 to 14, or there’s a 12A in between the two, you’ve seen the avoidance of 13 in action. Whether the architect or building owner believed or not, they didn’t want to have difficulty renting the apartments or offices on that floor to people who did, and so they decided to minimize the problem. Thus do such ideas propagate themselves through society, sometimes taken seriously, sometimes observed just because that’s tradition.

And that’s how we get to Schneider’s ideas of the “meaning” of each number. He isn’t mystical about it; he’s anthropological. The fact that these associations may arise as much from culture as from any natural (much less supernatural) phenomena doesn’t make them any less real: if people have been told that a certain number has a certain significance, that will affect how they behave around it.

And so, as a writer, you can leverage those associations to your benefit. Make four of something ominous and it will subconsciously remind readers of the Chinese shi, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or both. Make nine of something and it will evoke a sense of the horizon, of being right on the edge of completion or transformation or infinity. You may be doing it already, without realizing that you have . . . because the world around us is built of numbers.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: The Magic of Numbers — 19 Comments

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  2. I highly recommend Georges Ifrah’s A Universal History of Numbers and Marcia Ascher’s Mathematics Elsewhere for more on numbers and ethnomathematics!

    If you’re familiar with the story of the mathematician Ramanujan, apparently his mother’s background in religious mathematics may have helped his abilities in number theory. And then there’s fun stuff like Japanese temple mathematics–essentially geometrical puzzles.

    Also fun: “number” has evolved/grown over time, from natural numbers {1, 2, 3, …} to the invention of zero to negative numbers to imaginary numbers to complex numbers to vectors to matrices to tensors, transfinite numbers, etc. Plus the attitudes revealed in names like “complex”!

    • My sister has a theory that everybody falls into one of two camps: geometry or algebra. I’m distinctly a geometry person . . . so “Japanese temple mathematics” sounds FASCINATING and I want to know more. 😀

      • I liked both! But, I mean, math major. And yes, a lot of people say that’s a big divide.

        The book where I first learned of this was Sacred Mathematics by Fukagawa Hidetoshi & Tony Rothman. Gorgeous hardcover with full-color photographs. Unfortunately my copy was a flood casualty and it’s among the many books I haven’t replaced (too expensive, out of shelf space anyway), but I wonder if you could find a copy used.

  3. And none of this is as much fun as i, which is both imaginary and essential to building stable businesses…

    • and essential to building stable businesses

      But there is no i in “team”!

      . . . my husband (an inveterate punster) is a terrible influence on me.

  4. … and bridges, and one should not type when being Helped by a 15-month-old Baby Hacker…

  5. Numbers are the essence of the Kabbalah, too. There is a reason that the spheres of the universe are numbered “10 and not 9, 10 and not 11”, as the writings stress.

  6. a superb essay.

    waaaaay back when Geocities was around, there was a Highlander: the Series fic that suggested that the reason why the Watchers have a ring of 13 stars tattooed on their wrists, was because 12 used to be the number of completeness and normalness – so add one to show the Watchers are keeping an eye on Immortals.

  7. You could make up your own number meanings as well, or change them over time. In Italy historically 17 brings bad luck – a leftover from Latin-speaking time, when XVII was an anagram of VIXI (I lived, past, hence I’m dead); yet now we’re moving to 13 because of the influence of US culture, together with a diminishing familiarity with Latin.

    And do not forget the possibility that different cultures are at different level of mathematical advancement, and that this in turn influences what can be achieved (or not) technically; moreover different cultures would probably not develop mathematics in the same order, hence any interaction is likely to lead to sudden progress by combining different skillsets. A superb example of this is, of course, UK Le Guin’s The Dispossessed.

    • Yes on making up new meanings, though you’d have to do the work of conveying that to the reader pervasively or convincingly enough that they feel the effect of it. I’d go to that effort if I had a good story reason for it, but if this is just background flavor, it’s easier to leverage the associations the audience already has. (For values of “the audience” that probably assume the average Anglophone reader: as you point out, Italian readers might assign a different value to 17 than an American would.)

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