Symbology of numbers

Butterflies in the genus Diaethria all appear to have a number tattooed on their wings – photo by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Today I was moving the little magnet on my decorative Halloween wall calendar, and noticed that it’s now only 40 days until Oct 31, aka Halloween — woohoo! (Hopefully that’s not too triggering for you, like the people who want to drive you crazy by counting down the number of shopping days left until Christmas.)

We have many methods of marking the passage of time, and certain dates hold special significance. Some dates float, as in Thanksgiving ; others are fixed, whether as a birthdate, a chosen commemorative day, or a date that may live on in notoriety. On September 10, 2002, who would have ever thought that the very next day would become infamous from then on? (Other than the perpetrators of the attacks.)

Throughout history, certain numbers have taken on more mystical qualities.

The number 13 has become so associated with bad luck that hotels won’t even list a 13th floor, and hostesses have refused to have thirteen people at a dinner party. Fear of the number even has a name: triskaidekaphobia.

Theories abound as to why people link 13 to bad things – in Norse mythology, Loki the trickster god showed up uninvited to a banquet as the 13th guest and tricked a blind god into shooting an arrow at another god, killing him; Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the Romans, was supposedly the 13th man to sit at the Last Supper; King Philip IV of France ordered the arrest (and killing) of all the Knights Templar on Friday 13, 1307; and so on. In some minds, the superstition was probably reinforced in mid-20th century America by the nearly-disastrous Apollo 13 moon mission.

But there are cultures who believe that 13 is a lucky number, and in Asia, a different number is considered extremely bad: 4. It’s a homonym for the word ‘death’ in some Asian languages. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, Bad-Luck Numbers that Scare Off Customers, most companies in that part of the world avoid using the number entirely (such as in a company phone number), and potential business partners would be wise to do the same.

The number 40, which gave me the idea for this post, was used over and over again in the Bible. The rain of the Great Flood fell for that many days and nights, Noah waited for 40 days after the rains stopped to send a bird out to look for land, Moses stayed on Mount Sinai for that length of time, the wandering Hebrews took 40 years to reach the Promised Land, the season of Lent lasts for 40 days.

Even today, 40 can be found throughout many cultures. The practice of isolation to prevent the spread of disease has traditionally been 40 days, and in fact that’s where the name ‘quarantine’ comes from. Maybe we need a special word for the 10 days of isolation following a Covid diagnosis 😉. A full week of work in North America is traditionally 40 hours, and 40 ounces is a standard size of bottle for liquors. And who decided that the term ‘catching forty winks’ represents having a short sleep?

Of course, once our brains decide that a certain number must have significance, we tend to see it everywhere.

The number 23 has attracted a dedicated following. There’s a Facebook group of people who believe that 23 follows them through life, called the 23rdians, as well as a group on Twitter. While that number, like all numbers, has mathematical properties, people looking for what’s been called the 23 Enigma will recite ‘statistics’ such as adding up the four digits of the year performer Kurt Cobain was born, and was died (1967, and 1994), which with each year comes out to 23, and the fact that criminals Bonnie and Clyde died on May 23, 1934 (I’d have been more impressed if they’d died in 1923). I’m sure that if you could widely research birth and death records, you’d find a lot of people who entered or left the world on that date, just as you’d find plenty on the 24th of the month, or the 4th, or the 31st.

What is one to make of animals that appear to have numbers printed on them? Does it mean something? Hubby and I spotted one ourselves, a Diaethria butterfly, in the Amazon jungle. It’s a pretty white butterfly with a splash of red on the wings, and what looks like the number 88, 89, or 98 outlined in black. It’s even called the ‘89’98 butterfly’. If I were a superstitious sort, I’d probably think it was a lucky sighting, since in Chinese culture the number 88 is considered a symbol of good fortune. But enough things went wrong after that trip that I’d have to say it didn’t bring us any luck.

Humans have a built-in predilection to look for patterns — Survival 101. Patterns are one of the ways we learn, either to repeat actions that are beneficial, or avoid those that aren’t (although for some reason it took me over 40 years – there’s that number again – to learn to stop sticking my head in a hot oven as soon as I opened the door to check a roast or a cake). Patterns are legitimate, but sometimes people let pattern-spotting get out of hand, and will begin finding coincidences that validate their pet theory. That’s how conspiracy theories get started.

For writers, pattern-spotting and superstition are rich mines for motivating their characters, or even entire civilizations. Entire movie franchises have been built around it.

Tomorrow will mark 40 days to the start of this year’s annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). What that means for you, if you’ve always wanted to write a novel, is that you have essentially the length of the Biblical Flood to build your ark.

A couple of years ago, the NaNoWriMo organization surveyed winners as to what contributed to their success, and one common theme was advance preparation. You could start with not much of an idea and just dip your toes in the water, but I don’t think you’ll find the experience very satisfying.

If you’re serious about starting a novel this year, get your ducks in a row: basic plot outline, a good sense of your protagonist, her/his/their goal, obstacles to achieving that goal, where and when the story will take place. And my suggestion: where the story will start, and where it will end (then you just need to fill in the steps to take your protagonist from beginning to finale). You won’t need to finish your novel by November 30th, but if you reach the 50,000 word goal, you’ll be well on your way.

To help you, NaNoWriMo is offering a five-week course, NaNo Prep 101. It’s self-paced, so you can work on the contents whenever you’re able. From their website, this is the course outline:

  1. Develop a Story Idea (September 19-25)
  2. Create Complex Characters (September 26-October 2)
  3. Construct a Detailed Plot or Outline (October 3-9)
  4. Build a Strong World (October 10-16)
  5. Organize Your Life for Writing! (October 17-23)
  6. Find and Manage Your Time (October 24-30)

Each week’s module includes numerous resources as well. You can find all the details and start the course here.

I’ve had so many people, when they find out I’ve written a novel (and am working on books 2 & 3 in the series), tell me that they’ve always dreamed of doing the same. If you have the same dream, this could be your year!

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