By Vexen Crabtree 2007
Starting out life as an immensely useful number for counting and dividing things, the number 12 became a number revered by mathematicians and early astronomers. So the skies were divided into 12 portions as were the months of year, reflecting the annual movement of heavenly bodies. Superstitions and religious beliefs were piled on top of respect for the number 12 and was adopted by multiple early civilisations. The sky, divided into 12, has each portion ruled by a personification, a god, a divine being, a teacher, a prophet or a son of the sun. Odin of Norse mythology sat on a chair that overlooked all of creation, and had 12 sons1. The Babylonians had the longest lasting influence upon our calendars, timekeeping, mathematics and religions; all of which emphasize the number 122,3. The Babylonians' most ancient myths defined zodiacs where each portion was ruled by a different god (some good, some evil)4. Pseudoscientific enterprises such as astrology have the number 12 at its core. The ancient Zoroastrians had twelve commanders on the side of light (light being a symbol for the sun)5, and in Judaism and the Hebrew Scripture there are many references to the 12 tribes of Israel, and later on the Greeks imagined 12 Gods on mount Olympus. Mithraists, and then Christians believed that their saviour had 12 disciples. Shi'a Muslims list 12 ruling Imams following Muhammad. Such holy persons are depicted with a bright solar light around their heads such as occurs when any object approaches from the sun and now stands infront of it. Although many ancient religions such as the Gnostics understood things like the twelve disciples of Mithras to be symbolic of the stages of the waning and waxing sun throughout the year, later religions took it literally and believed in an actual 12 disciples - and some still do.
Now we understand what stars, planets and stellar objects are, it makes no sense to retain the mystical, nonsensical connotations of the 'holy', 'perfect', 'divine' or 'special' number 12. If the number is employed in a practical sense to divide time, measurements, or angles, then the chances are it makes awesome mathematical sense to utilize such a factorable number as the number twelve. But if you see it used in a superstitious, religious, magical, paranormal, holy or weird way, then watch out, because you have entered the world of flat-earth delusion. It is, after all, only a number.
The number 12 is a highly respected and practical number. It has many factors for such a low number, so it is one of the lowest easily-divisible numbers. Number 11 is not divisible, number 10 only has two factors (2 and 5) meaning that if you measure anything in tens, you can only divide it into either halves or pairs. Number 9 only divides into 3, number 8 only into 2 and 4, number 7 is a prime number with no factors, number 6 only breaks down into half or thirds, number 5 is a prime, you can only halve number 4 or 2, and 3 and 1 don't divide and are so small you wouldn't want to measure things in them, anyway. Number 12, however, divides into 6, 4, 3 and 2, giving it a large number of practical uses where things have to be divided up into whole numbers, from calendars to clocks. As a result of all these factors, mathematicians get excited about the number 12 and apparently, they always have done! For example, Pythagoras, the classical mathematics genius, teacher, and leader of a pagan religious movement, taught that the number 12 had divine, profound mystical meaning6.
We will see from this usefulness and roundness has arisen first respect, then awe, and finally superstitions based on the number 12. It all starts with telling the time and star-gazing.
Everyone is familiar with the 12 signs of the Zodiac (even if they can't list them!): Aries the Ram, Taurus the Bull, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces. The oldest preserved zodiac dates from 3000BCE when the Sumerians in Mesopotamia developed their Zodiac based on twelve heavenly bodies they could see, such as planets. The Babylonians, with their numbering system of 60, found the number 12 to be practical and useful for calendars and times. The author of "Science: A Four Thousand Year History", Patricia Fara, says "the Babylonians split the heavens into twelve equal sections, one for each lunar month and carrying the name of a prominent constellation. Translated into Latin, these now exist as the twelve signs of the zodiac"7. This idea was passed on from culture to culture:
“The notion of the zodiac is very ancient, with roots in the early cultures of Mesopotamia. The first 12-sign zodiacs were named after the gods of these cultures. The Greeks adopted astrology from the Babylonians, and the Romans, in turn, adopted astrology from the Greeks. These peoples renamed the signs of the Mesopotamian zodiac in terms of their own mythologies, which is why the familiar zodiac of the contemporary West bears names from Mediterranean mythology.”
"Astrology" by James R. Lewis (2004)8
For more on astrology and horoscopes, see: Astrology: Do Observed Positions of the Planets Influence Our Lives in Mystical Ways?
In the earliest conception of Babylonian mythology it was Tiamat, with 11 helpers, who formed the first Zodiac and it is possible that right from the beginning some of them were associated with evil. Before Marduk overthrew Tiamat, the components of the Signs of the Zodiac were:
Source of list: Budge (1921)4.
This most ancient Zodiac has many elements that are easily comparable to those in use in many cultures today, for example The Fish-Man (Pisces) and The Scorpian Man (Scorpio).
In addition to these fixed abodes, Tiamat had the help of a brood of devils; these could easily represent shooting stars that aren't part of the fixed Zodiac.
“We may note in passing that some of the above-mentioned Helpers appear among the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac which Marduk 'set up' after his conquest of Tiamat, e.g., the Scorpion-man, the Horned Beast.”
Frequently there were also twelve superior gods. The ancient Zoroastrian holy book, the Menok i Xrat, says that the "twelve Signs of the Zodiac, as the Religion says, are the twelve commanders on the side of light"5. These commanders fight against evil in a battle for the fate of the world. The star-gazers and sun-worshippers of the ancient world would be proud that they were followed by a long series of cultures that imagined a collection of twelve gods:
“Among all the gods worshipped by the Greeks, the twelve deities who dwelt on Mt Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece, formed a special category of their own. The gods of Olympus were usually taken to be Zeus, Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Apollo, Artemis, Demeter, Hermes, Aphrodite, Ares, Hephaestus and Hestia. In certain local variations, positions among the 'twelve' were occupied by Pluto, Dionysus, Heracles or other local cult heroes.”
Some Gods had twelve sons, and some sun gods had 12 disciples to spread the message across the world that the sun wasn't dead; it was rising again in the sky in spring, after being defeated in autumn.
As the division of the divine realm into 12 areas was based on the original stellar usefulness of the number, non-godly religions also developed mystical systems that divided existence into 12 parts. Buddhists hold that life is composed of 12 stages, which together keep the wheel of life turning, ensnaring all life in a samsaric (cyclic) form of existence from which it is hard to escape.
“The Buddhist teaching on samsaric existence is [...] depicted in the Wheel of Becoming. [...] The rim of the wheel is divided into twelve segments and scenes. These show how beings pass from one realm to another, and are call the nidanas. [...] These scenes depict Buddhist teaching on Dependent Origination: the causal chain which ensures that the Wheel of Samara keeps revolving.”
Organized Judaism arose from Hebrews who lived in Babylon and picked up literacy skills there, and wider Sumerian culture infused the whole region. So Judaism inherited the importance of the number 12. As the stars are divided into twelve, it is only natural to presume that Human communities can be divided into twelve geographical locations, and each one administered by a different personification of the Sun. Likewise, any individual community could also be led by twelve. As in the heavens, so on Earth.
The Hebrew Scriptures records the adoption of Babylonian astrology intro Judaism repeatedly. Jacob had 12 sons, who went on to procreate the twelve tribes of Israel, god's chosen people (God being the sun, with twelve divisions). Early folk-lore-born stories of the founding of Judah and Israel were written and edited by later Hebrew scribes into a story of the twelve Judges12: the story is told in the Biblical Book of Judges.
And again in Kings:
In 1 Kings, a lot of pseudo-historical details are phrased in terms of 12 or multiples of twelve. For example, in 1 Kings 4:7 it is said that King Solomon had "twelve officers over all Israel", and in 1 Kings 4:26 that he had exactly 12 thousand horsemen. This "rounding" of numbers into groups of 12 informs us, as we already know, that the books of Kings are primarily concerned with religious symbolism and not with historical fact. 1 Kings 6:1 states there were 480 years, i.e. twelve generations, in between the exodus and Solomon's building of the temple. Many details of that temple are described in multiples of 12 (e.g. 7:12-15, 7:25,44) - but it is quite possible that, if this temple was real, that it was designed in that way. Less probable is the existence of 12 lions that guarded the ivory throne (1 Kings 10:19-20). When it was finally built, Solomon sacrificed (almost) 144,000 sheep and oxen as "peace offerings" to God - that is, 12 sets of 12 thousand animals (1 Kings 8:63) minus the relatively small number of 2000, which could simply be an editing error. Aside from Solomon and the Temple, other stories in 1 Kings are told in terms of 12: The prophet Ahijah accurately tore someone's new garment into 12 pieces (11:30), King Omri reigned for 12 years (16:23), prophet Elijah made an altar out of 12 stones (18:30-32), and finally, Elisha was seen plowing with 12 yoke (pairs) of oxen, but he wasn't allowed to stop farming and follow the prophet Elijah until he had boiled the oxen's flesh - after which Elijah accepted him as a follower (1 Kings 19:19-21). This emphasis on the number 12 tells us that the authors of Kings considered the symbolic value of their stories to be more important than the telling of true history.”
Aside from grandiose tales, individual communities also adopted the same symbolic template. The ancient Qumram sect of the 2nd century BCE, famous since the discovery of The Dead Sea Scrolls, assigned 12 leaders to each of its communities. The 12 were "schooled to perfection in all that has been revealed of the entire Law" (quoted from the Manual of Discipline scroll, 8:1 ff)13.
Christianity adopted the importance of the number 12 from Jewish scriptures (where kings, judges and leaders often come in twelves), from Babylonian culture that infused the mythos of the region, and from pagan religions of the Roman Empire, who often divided the heavenly realm into 12 areas, each ruled by a different god. Also, pagan religions such as Mithraism had the son of God followed by 12 disciples. So when the Christian stories of Jesus emerged, it was only fitting that he too had 12 disciples. The stellar symbolism is still preserved in the solar halos that adorn the heads of the disciples in drawnings. Because these stories were not based on 12 actual people there are massive contradictions in the New Testament about who the 12 were - every list is different. See Mark 3:16-19, Matt. 10:2-4, Luke 6:14-16, John 21:2 and Acts 1:13. And although the 5th book of the New Testament is called "The Acts of the Apostles", their actual deeds are very brief, and some disciples are not mentioned at all. It is best to consider any "multiple of 12" element in the Bible to be based on copied pagan myths rather than being a historical account.6,14,15”
Voltaire exclaimed (with his usual mixture of ridicule and sarcasm) that the Sibylline Oracles of ancient Greece were 12 in number because this was a sacred number and that God had no other way of communicating, and that these prophets "had certainly predicted all the events in the world. [...] Who can deny the fulfilment of their prophecies? Has not Virgil himself quoted the predictions of the sibyls?"17 However it transpires that this was the result of forgery - the original Sibylline Books were lost to history - destroyed - and it was later Christian clerics who concocted the idea of 12 Oracles, and used the respected name of the Sibylline Books to promulgate a number of prophecies which made it seem like the ancients had predicted Christianity.
Islam became another Abrahamic religion to accept the traditional division of the land and power into 12 areas. Qur'an 5:12 says God appointed twelve leaders to the people of Israel. Qur'an 2:60 and 7:160 tell a slightly odd story which states that God and the angels divided Israel into 12 distinct tribes. The people asked for water, so, Moses was told to strike a rock with his staff. This piece of magic resulted in 12 rivers springing from the rock, and each tribe "knew where to get its own water". This odd radial division of land and people is purely mythical; nowhere are there 12 rivers stemming from one rocky source, and, never have the Hebrews been divided into 12 tribes each with its own source of water. This story clearly has astrological and mythological meaning rather than literal meaning.
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The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.
Budge, E. A. Wallis. (1857-1934)
(1921) The Babylonian Legends of the Creation.
(2017) "Mithraism and Early Christianity" (2017). Accessed 2017 Aug 02.
(1995) Buddhism. Paperback book. Part of the TeachYourself Books series.
(2009) Science: A Four Thousand Year History. Hardback book. Published by Oxford University Press. Fara has a PhD in History of Science from London University.
Lewis, James R.
(2004) Astrology. This essay is in "Encyclopedia of New Religions" by Christopher Partridge (2004) (pages 337-339).
Mackenzie, Donald A.
(1915) Myths of Babylonia and Assyria. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition produced by Sami Sieranoja, Tapio Riikonen and PG Distributed Proofreaders.
(1997) Greek Mythology and Religion. Paperback book. Published by aïtalis, Astrous 13, 13121 Athens, Greece.
McFadyen, John Edgar. (1870-1933)
(1905) Introduction to the Old Testament. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition.
Price, Robert M.
(2003) Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?. Published by Prometheus Books, NY, USA.
(1995) Cosmos. Paperback book. Originally published 1981 by McDonald & Co. Current version published by Abacus.
(1764) Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition produced by Juliet Sutherland, Lisa Riegel and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.