N is for Numbers
Symbols in Stories from Around the World
Numbers are not just things to know as a kid. We are surrounded by numbers on spiritual and logical planes. We are immersed in numbers at work or at play. Certain numbers of different cultures are more meaningful than others.
A Greek philosopher named Pythagoras studied numbers and believed that each number had a soul and mystical powers. The numbers were categorized into groups of male and female, light and dark, and odd and even.
Only a few of the numbers are shared below (0-5, 100, and 1,001).
Shape = Circle (completeness, wholeness)
Spirituality = Important to Hebrew Kabbalah as 0 is what existed before creation
Zero has the extreme of relating to deity and yet meaning nothing at the same time. Sometimes, zero really means infinity.
Gender = Male
Attribute = Unity
Spirituality = Monotheistic religions believes in One supreme deity, can mean The Beginning for many cultures with creation myths and beliefs (though can also be the beginning of anything)
Pythagorean Theory = The Creator
Chinese = Character for the number one is a horizontal line and means the unity and the source of everything
Native American Earth Count = Represents fire, spark of life, Grandfather Sun
The number one often takes on a leadership role. Leaders must be able to stand alone and at the same time feel alone in the decisions made. The number one is associated with the sun as the most powerful of celestial bodies.
Gender = Female
Attributes = Balance as well as Opposition/Polarities (earth and sky; male and female; good and evil; left and right; life and death; sun and moon, etc.)
Pythagorean Theory = Unlucky number and dedicated the second day of the month to Hades and the underworld and felt that evil would then come
Native American Earth Count = Represents body, earth, death, introspection, Grandmother Earth
Twins are considered the doubling of luck or an increase of many blessings in different cultures. Many heroes or legends come to us as twins such as the Maya twins named Hunapo and Xbalanque who defeated the gods of the underworld. Even Adam and Eve are considered twins from the Creation time.
Shape = Triangle
Spirituality = Divine trios or triumvirates such as Christianity—Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost; Hindu—Trimurti of Brahma-creator, Vishnu-preserver, and Shiva-destroyer; Ancient Egyptian mythology—Isis, Osiris, and Horus
Pythagorean Theory = Harmony (unity with diversity)
Chinese Philosophy = Heaven, earth, and humanity
Islam = Number three is for the soul
Native American Earth Count = Emotions and water
The power of three is rampant in folk and fairy tales. Think of “The Three Little Pigs” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as well as Cinderella plus two step-sisters and other combinations to make the number three. As the triangle is considered the strongest shape, so has the number three been shared amongst storytellers as how to make the strongest stories. For example, the hero of the story usually must complete three tasks or do something three times to succeed.
Shape = Square
Attributes = Solidity, Stability
Spirituality = Christianity has the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John); Islam has the Four Humours
Pythagorean theory = Perfection as 2 x 2 is the first square made
Native American Earth Count = Balance and harmony
Japanese and some Chinese View = Taboo number as it is homonym for “death”
The number four is used to divide many parts of life from the four seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) to the four elements (earth, fire, water, air) to the four cardinal directions (North, South, East, West). There are also four ages of infancy, youth, adulthood, and old age. The Greeks saw the body divided into four liquids that were linked to certain temperament with blood (sanguine), yellow bile (choleric), black bile (melancholic), and phlegm (phlegmatic).
Spirituality = Christianity—five wounds of Christ (one on each hand, one on each foot, and on side); Islam and the Five Pillars of Islam piety (Declaration of Faith, Obligatory Prayer, Compulsory Giving, Fasting in the month of Ramadan, Pilgrimage to Mecca)
Pythagorean theory = Perfect number of man (five senses, five fingers on each hand, five toes on each foot, four limbs and a head)
Native American Earth Count = Sacred human who makes bridge between earth and sky, past and future, and the material and spirit worlds
Many cultures recognize the importance of five as there are fingers and toes to consider as well as senses. Though, some people from China and India also recognize the number five as five elements, five seasons, and five tastes (salty, spicy, sour, sweet, and bitter).
One hundred is a number that many of us aim for as shown in how we grade or use percentages. We want 100%. One hundred has and continues to mean completeness.
Or 101 or 1,000,001 has the same meaning. This is a long time that has passed and not necessarily the exact number presented. It may not be 1,001 days that have passed but it feels like a long time and could be like 1,001 days. Think of Scheherazade and how long telling stories every night must have felt like. This extra “1” on these big numbers could also mean eternity or infinite amount.
Stories that feature numbers (almost unfair though some to get this list going):
- “Two of Everything,” Chinese folktale, a husband and wife have a magic pot where everything that goes inside then doubles
- “One Grain of Rice,” a greedy king is outwitted by a girl who saves some of the rice gathered for the kingdom and then asks a reward of one grain of rice and then doubled each day for 30 days
- “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves,” part of One Thousand and One Nights—another symbolic number, a poor woodcutter learns the phrase “Open Sesame” to the lair of the 40 thieves
What stories do you know that features a number prominently? Do you know a story that involves many numbers? Is the number for counting? Of spiritual significance? Connected to the Zodiac? Please comment and share this post with others.
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