Numbers and their meaning are considered by many cultures as expressions of cosmic and human order. The significance of numbers derives from an ancient belief that chance did not exist; therefore numbers assumed great significance with specific meanings and power. Read on to discover the meaning behind numbers.
The number one often symbolizes the primal being or creation. It is sometimes seen as a symbol of God. One also symbolizes humankind (reflecting our upright stance.) In modern western culture to be "number one" is to be the best.
Pythagoras believed that the number two signified diversity. In fact, Pythagoras regarded the number two as the first true number because it represented plurality. Two is the symbol of disorder, separation, opposition and conflict. But two is also a symbol of equilibrium, order and balance in philosophies such as Taoism, where yin and yang represent the two opposite but complementary forces that govern the entire universe. Two is a lucky number in Chinese culture, on the basis that good things come in pairs.
Three is a sacred number in most religions. The Ancient Egyptians had a powerful trinity of gods as did the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Hindus worship a trinity known as the Trimurti ("three forms"). Christians believe in a Holy Trinity. In Islam three symbolizes the human soul. To Pythagoras three symbolized perfect harmony, being the sum of unity (one) and diversity (two). The universal meaning of three probably relates to man, woman and child—the fulfillment of birth and productivity. As a symbol of fulfillment, three often occurs in fairy tales as the number of tests to be passed or riddles to be solved.
The meaning of the number four is frequently a symbol of wholeness and universality often represented by the square and the cross. Like the square, the number four symbolizes stability. Four is the number of the cardinal directions, the seasons, the four elements and the stages of life (childhood, youth, maturity, and old age). To Pythagoras four symbolized perfection, being the first square number. Four is taboo in Japan and parts of China because it sounds like the word for "death." For American Indians four symbolizes organization: space is divided into four regions, time into four units and human life into four ages. As a number that divides and orders space, the number four is primarily a symbol of the earth.
The meaning behind the number five is often related to "Man", whose head and four limbs form the five-pointed pentagram as well as having five fingers and five senses. Pythagoras believed the number five symbolized marriage and union since it is two plus three. Five played a special role in China as symbol of the midpoint. In Hinduism five signifies, among other things, the number of the life principle. The god Shiva was sometimes imagined with five faces. Five is a sacred number to the Mayans, for whom it symbolized the maize god, because maize shoots appear five days after the seed is planted; and for the Aztecs it symbolized completeness and the awakening of consciousness. Five has great significance in Islam, being the number of pillars of piety, hours of prayer, elements of the Hajj, and other religious aspects.
The meaning behind the number six is common with the six-pointed star in that six can symbolize harmony and perfect balance. In China the number six is associated with heaven. For Christians, the number six is ambivalent. Six can represent completeness because God created the world in six days. However, in the Apocalypse, six appears as the number of evil—666 is the number of the "beast". To the Mayans six was an unlucky number, signifying death. In modern western culture six symbolizes luck, being the highest throw of a dice.
The number seven symbolizes wholeness, completion and fullness in many cultures because it unites divinity and sky (three) with the material Earth (four). The number seven has also been regarded as holy because of the four phases of the moon each lasting seven days. Seven is auspicious in Hindu, Muslim and Judeo-Christian teachings. The menorah, a sacred candelabrum with seven stems, is a symbol of Judaism. In Ancient Egypt seven symbolized eternal life. Buddhism speaks of seven different heavens. The Chinese see the seven stars of the Great Bear in connection with the seven bodily openings and the seven openings of the human heart. In the Bible the number seven occurs many times in both a positive and negative sense as an expression of totality.
The number eight is very auspicious in eastern traditions. Eight plays an important role in both Hinduism and Buddhism. It is usually the number of spokes in the Buddhist "Wheel of Law"; the lotus typically has eight petals; eight paths lead to spiritual enlightenment; and the Hindu god Vishnu has eight arms that are connected with the eight guardians of the universe. In China the number eight is considered lucky because it sounds like the word for "prosper." In Christianity, eight is a symbol of the resurrection of Christ and the hope for the resurrection of humankind. Eight is also the number of the major directions of the compass in its simplest form and relates to cosmic order and equilibrium.
Nine amplifies the power of three (being three times three). As such, the meaning of the number nine is eternity, completion, wholeness and fulfillment. Nine is considered lucky in China because it sounds like the word for "long-lasting." In addition, the nine-story pagoda is a symbol of heaven in China. Nine is considered unlucky in Japan because it sounds like the word for "pain." The Aztecs considered the number nine to be inauspicious, symbolizing the gods of night, but the Mayans thought it lucky. In Judaism the number nine symbolized intelligence and truth. Historically, nine muses personified the human arts and sciences. In Christianity, the choir of angels equals nine.
The number ten is a holy number and a symbol of totality. This is because it is the sum of the first four numbers and also the number of fingers on both hands. Pythagoras considered ten to be a symbol of universal creation. The reason being that ten is the foundation of most counting systems (again because humans have ten fingers) and symbolizes the return to oneness or the beginning—after you count to ten on your fingers, you must begin the cycle again. In China, ten symbolizes duality since it is the double of five (five represents totality). The number ten occurs often in the Bible as a symbol of totality.
The meaning behind the number eleven ranges widely depending on the culture. In many African cultures and traditions, eleven symbolizes fertility because it is believed that it takes eleven days for the semen to reach the egg. In other cultures and belief systems (especially Christianity) the number eleven is a symbol of excess and imbalance because it exceeds ten—the number for completeness.
As the multiple of divinity (three) and the material earth (four), twelve symbolizes both spiritual and earthly order. The fundamental number of the duo-decimal system (used by the Babylonians) and of the sexagesmial system, it was thus a sacred, lucky number and a symbol of wholeness. In the Bible and in Christian symbolism, twelve plays a major role as the symbol of completeness and perfection.
Thirteen symbolizes bad luck in many cultures. It is linked to the thirteen people at Christ's Last Supper, one of which betrayed him. It follows the number 12 in the duodecimal system which is thought to bring good fortune; hence for the Babylonians it was the number of the underworld and of the destruction of perfection.
Fourteen is significant in Christian symbolism as the double of the sacred number seven, it is also the number of goodness and mercy.
As a product of three times seven, the number twenty-one has long been considered a symbol of perfection. It is also a holy number in the Bible and a symbol of divine wisdom. In the West, twenty-one is a symbol of responsibility and adulthood.
It is the total number of the hours of day and night, and the double of the perfect number twelve. It therefore represents the number of harmonious equilibrium.
For Christians 666 symbolizes evil, being the number of the beast referred to in the Bible's Book of Revelations. It is still seen by many in the western world as symbol of the Antichrist.
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"It's never too late to be what you might have been."
- George Eliot