E T Bell
The Magic of Numbers
The Magic of Numbers
‘The Magic of Numbers’ is still available today. Amazon bills it as:
“a stimulating account of the origins of mathematical thought and the development of numerical theory”
“… exploring the ways in which "number magic" has influenced the development of religion, philosophy, science and mathematics”
These days, Bell’s quote may find agreement among physicists and scientists. We can create models of the universe – things which we can’t possibly see or experience directly – with the aid of mathematics. And these models reflect real occurrences and relationships of objects and forces.
I’ve used the royal ‘we’. I actually mean ‘people a lot clever than me’. The highest end of mathematics and theoretical physics is an exclusive club. We all benefit from satellites in space but not many of us could get them there or make them work when they’d arrived. We may all one day benefit from String Theory, but it probably wouldn’t bankrupt you to buy a drink for each of the people who *really* understand it.
Numerology is an older concept of how numbers underpin the universe. As alchemy is to chemistry, it may have been the first steps in what has become a (very different) modern discipline.
Numerology is a system of magical thinking, a fairly basic magical concept, based on the idea that something can be expressed numerically, even reduced to its most basic identity - by numbers.
The idea was probably given extra traction by the Hebrew writing system which had no separate letters and numbers, so alphabetical symbols could stand for numbers too. Thus, it was easy to translate a name or word into a numerical version to examine its ‘hidden’ characteristics.
By this method, Jourdemayne becomes:
1 + 7 + 6 + 2 + 4 + 5 +4 + 1 + 1 + 5 + 5 = 41
4 + 1 = 5
The letters reduce to numerically to five and the word contains more fives than any other number than one (also five).
Fives are restless, live on their nerves and fascinated by the bizarre and unusual.
Don’t know what they mean.
The dark side of a five nature may also manifest as excess, debauchery or perversion.
It’s a nice idea, but work’s a bit demanding at the moment and I’d rather get the sleep.
Anyhow, like other magical systems, numerology can provide an insight into human cognitive patterns and reflect the preferences of specific cultures.
So now that it’s Friday the thirteenth, it seems the time to go over why this day seems to have such a bad rep.
Numerologists work the significance of numbers out from philosophical precepts and then cite examples as evidence.
There are some numbers which are always going to be significant to human beings.
We have ten sets of digits and toes which may account for the popularity of base 10. However, with the rise of computing, the usefulness of binary has become more apparent. I keep a hexadecimal chart next to me to specifiy web colours, for example.
There are seven orifices in the male human body. The eighth, in women, is the one through which new life emerges. So it is easy to consider eight as a female number and for it to be associated with change or rebirth.
These rationales are based on biological constants.
In addition, we are the inheritors of middle-eastern religious traditions so other patterns that emerge reflect that.
Two is bad because it is the first to split from one – the devil from god. Remember that this notion seems indisputable only to monotheistic religions such as Judaism and Catholicism. If we were the cultural inheritors of dualism - the philosophy that opposites are dynamic tension, evident in religions like Catharism and Mithraism – modern European numerologists may not have disliked the number 2 so much.
If we start with the idea that two is bad, we can go searching for evidence: in Noah’s ark the ‘unclean’ beasts went in two by two, for example (the ‘clean’ ones went in, in sevens). For thoughts on how beasts get to be ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’ see this.
The first human to be created was Adam. Eve was the second and she precipitated The Fall. So the first woman was a separation from the perfection of one and the cause of all the trouble.
Told you this was culturally specific reasoning.
Four is doubly female: (2+2 and 2x2) … so you can guess this isn’t going to be good.
Four is solidity: four points are needed to construct a three-dimensional object, a tetrahedron. After that come the cultural preferences and taxonomies: there are four weeks in a month, four seasons, four phases of the moon, four elements in classical physics, four humours in classical medicine, four cardinal points, menstruation once every four weeks.
This means it’s earth-bound and practical.
“Sweat, misery and defeat are the lot of man on earth and the lot of 4-people in numerology” says one of my books on one of its less jolly pages.
So getting to thirteen … 1 + 3 = 4. Oh dear.
Thirteen reduces to a very unlucky number. So you know the drill by now: use your cultural biases to work out a rationale, then go looking for supporting evidence in appropriately authoritative tomes -
Thirteen is a supernumerary number. Twelve is perfect; it (reduces to three 2 + 1) – the number of the Trinity. Twelve is complete – twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve months of the year, twelve disciples. The twelve months of the year is a fudge BTW: the Babylonians has a sneaky extra one to account for the thirteen lunar cycles in a year. The thirteenth at the Last Supper was Judas and we all know what happened to him.
Thirteen becomes the Death card in the tarot. But cussedly, it’s not such a bad card. It’s about rebirth and new opportunities, moving on.
That’s thirteen. What about Friday?
The Sumerians based their calendar on the moon’s phases with a few extra days after the 4 x 7 when the moon isn’t visible. At the end of every 7 day cycle, there was a day which was sacred and evil simultaneously.
This is probably where our Sabbath comes from – an uncanny day on which it is best to be fairly inactive in order to avoid the danger which is about.
This sycratic confusion of ‘powerful & potentially malign’ with ‘holy & in need of reverence’ is a common idea in magical thought. Powerful supernatural beings are often called by kindly names in an attempt to charm them and to avoid evoking the creature itself. As Robert Kirk wrote, fairies were referred to euphemistically because “… the Irish usually bless all they fear harm of”.
Names can be hazardous hyperlinks, potential shortcuts to entities themselves.
This the fairies were ‘The Good People’, ‘The Honest Folk’, ‘The Little Folk’, ‘The Gentry’ and more. The Devil went by ‘Auld Clootie’, ‘Auld Scratch’ or ‘Auld Hornie’ in Scotland, ‘Grime’, ‘Grim’, ‘Old Harry’, ‘Old Nick’, ‘The Old Gentleman’ and many others in England. Hecate, the powerful and fearsome godess of witches was called ‘The Good Goddess’ and also in Greece the Furies were called the ‘Eumenides’, which means ‘The Kindly Ones’.
Even Harry Potter’s friends and associates are too nervous to say the name of the dark magician ‘Voldemort’!
But back to Friday: Friday is ruled by Freya the Nordic goddess of love, war and death. Not an intuitive grouping for us, but there we go. She has occasionally been rebranded as a witch, which might account for the uncanniness of her day.
Jesus was crucified on a Friday.
And Chaucer in the ‘Nun's Priest's Tale’, the tale of Chauntecleer the proud rooster and Reynnard the fox, writes that: “And on a Friday fell all this mischance”.
So that’s pretty clear then. There are sound reasons for believing Friday the thirteenth to be unlucky.
But the thing about fear of Friday the Thirteenth is that it doesn’t seem to figure much before the nineteenth century. If the day really was unlucky, you’d think that knowledge would be a human constant. And in some Mediterranean countries, like Greece and Spain, it is Tuesday the thirteenth which is thought unlucky.
I have no certain explanation for the rise of the superstition then, but a couple of ideas.
The first one is that there are plenty of ideas in the collective conscious which are not explicitly stated. Perhaps the nineteenth century was the first time that Friday the Thirteenth was noted and written down.
The second one, and more likely, is that the nineteenth century saw a Renaissance of occult thought and activity with participants such as Eliphas Levi, S L MacGregor Mathers, Helena Blavatsky and August Strindberg, and societies like the Theosophical Society and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
Perhaps Friday the Thirteenth is a manifestation of nineteenth century nouveau occult numerological ramblings.
Of course, like all magical thinking, these ideas reveal more about human factory-installed software and cultural biases than about the world in an objective sense.
That’s why it’s important to understand and appreciate the importance of the cultural biases which may predetermine thought patterns. These, in some ways, are the most potentially dangerous as they most easily go under the radar.
Not that all magical thinking is wrong or useless, but it often is.
However evolution has favoured those who look for patterns - and some of those causal relationships that we intuitively posit actually exist and help us to survive. Some false positives (I can see god’s face in the clouds) are less dangerous than some false negatives (I didn’t see that tiger’s face in the forest).
It’s a numbers game.