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.