An excerpt from Circles, Lines, and Squiggles: Astrology for the Curious-Minded
When we think of the symbolic nature of numbers, several numbers come immediately to mind: 1, 3, 4, 7, 9, and 12, with each number carrying a set of associations based on their numerical properties. Of the six, the number twelve holds several unique qualities. First of all, it is the number of greatest magnitude that, in English, has just one syllable. Numerically, it is the smallest composite number with exactly six divisors (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 12). It is also the smallest abundant number, a number for which the sum of its proper divisors is greater than itself (2 + 3 + 4 + 6 = 16). Moreover, the number twelve is a sublime number, which is a positive integer with a perfect number of positive factors, all of which add up to form another perfect number. In the case of twelve, we have: 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 6 +12 = 28. Sublime numbers are very rare, so twelve, being one of them and the smallest sublime number to boot, makes this number quite special.2 Finally, twelve appears in most calendar systems—solar and lunar—and is deeply implicated in the nature of time. A year has twelve months. An analog clock has twelve hours, serving both ante meridiem (a.m.) and post meridiem (p.m.) hours. Additionally, the basic units of time—60 minutes or 60 seconds—are evenly divisible by twelve and its divisors. Aside from its mathematical qualities, what does the number twelve represent symbolically?
Castor: Haven’t a clue.
Pollux: When I think about a clock, I think about a circle that is continuously moving, never ending.
Castor: Until the battery stops.
Author: I like the image of a continuously moving object. It suggests a sense of balance, a sense of wholeness and completion. It also suggests a sense of history and tradition, as well as a sense of authority, at least that’s what most of the occult literature says. Perhaps this is why the number twelve appears repeatedly as an organizational principle of countless civilizations, especially in the ancient and classical world. Is it a coincidence that there are twelve Olympians in Greek mythology? Mythic by nature, but all-too-human in their petty jealousies and insecurities, the twelve Olympians are at once real and symbolic, a mirror held up to the ancient Greeks to help them understand the chaos of the world around them. But why twelve Olympians? Why not ten, or eleven, or thirteen for that matter? The same could be said about one of the most legendary heroes of Greco-Roman lore, Hercules. Why, after killing his wife and children in a fit of madness, a madness brought on by Hera, Zeus’s jealous wife and Hercules’s mother, was Hercules condemned to complete twelve labors imposed by his older brother Eurystheus, whom he served? Why not seven labors, or eight, or sixteen?
Castor: I never really thought about it.
Author: The number twelve didn’t surface only in ancient myths and stories. It had a presence in the everyday organization of society. For purposes of self-preservation, cities often formed into confederations or leagues. This should not be surprising. However, the confederations were often composed of twelve regional cities. The most important league during the early Greco-Roman era was the Etruscan League (though “Leagues” is more appropriate, since there were several confederations that extended from the foothills of the Alps to the Amalfi coast). Like other leagues, it was a “dodecapolis,” a federation of twelve autonomous cities bound together by trade and military alliance.3 Why twelve? Again, why not six, or ten, or fourteen? Was it a coincidence, a geographic convenience, or was it symbolic of something else, something greater?
Pollux: A geographic convenience.
Castor: Naw, a coincidence.
Author: I side with “symbolic of something greater.” Along with suggesting completion and wholeness, the number twelve also suggests equality and cohesion. At the same time, the number twelve suggests differentiation from the outside world: internal cohesion and differentiation from others—two essential ingredients for a successful alliance in an uncertain and hostile world. Although the Etruscan League disappeared as Etruscan civilization was absorbed into the ever-expanding Roman empire, the number twelve didn’t disappear. Instead, it found a place in Roman rule and law, in the Law of the Twelve Tables, otherwise known as the Duodecim Tabulae, a set of laws inscribed on twelve bronze tablets that appeared in ancient Rome around 451-450 BCE.4 According to the Roman statesman and scholar Cicero, they just didn’t appear: they were ceremoniously placed in the Roman Forum for all of Rome’s citizens to read. The Duodecim Tabulae became the de facto basis of Roman law, binding both patrician (aristocrat) and plebeian (commoner) together in one codified legal system. Though not a comprehensive code of laws, it was one of the earliest instances in which a government drew up, posted, and enforced a set of laws common to its citizens. But why twelve bronze tablets?
Castor: I know, why not four, or seven, or ten?
Author: In fact, there were ten tablets originally.
Castor: Just what I thought.
Author: After the initial uprising around the year 455 BCE, a commission of ten patricians, known as the Decemviri, drew up a set of laws that filled ten tablets. How logical: ten commissioners, ten tablets. A perfect match. The heavens would smile on the symmetry of such an arrangement. But then the lower classes revolted again, enough so that another commission of ten patricians was appointed to address their demands. The result: amendments to the original set of laws, enough to fill two additional tablets, bringing the original ten tablets to twelve. So, do the Twelve Tables (or Tablets) reflect a deep-seated desire to be in sync with the numerological forces of the universe, or is it just a quirk of fate that the original ten tablets blossomed into twelve? In either case, the number twelve continued to flourish in a variety of cultures and traditions.5
Castor: A dozen eggs.
Pollux: I don’t think that’s what he had in mind.
Author: Although the number twelve found a place in Roman law and governance, its significance did not disappear even as the Roman empire began to crumble. It is a significant number in the Judeo-Christian world as well, carrying with it religious, mythological, even magical overtones, both as a symbol of faith and as a symbol of cosmic order and perfection. A quick search of an online Bible produces close to two hundred entries for the number twelve, some are duplicates, but most of them are unique. In the Old Testament alone there are scores of references: the twelve minor prophets, the twelve sons or “princes” of Ishmael, the twelve sons of Jacob (who later became the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel). In the New Testament, Jesus has twelve disciples. During the Last Supper, Jesus breaks twelve loaves of bread, one for each of his twelve disciples.6
Obviously, the number twelve has staying power. We find it a few centuries later infused in the stories surrounding the legendary King Arthur. An early medieval figure of the sixth century, Arthur lived (that is, if he lived at all) in Britain after the Roman legions had departed, leaving the indigenous Britons, ancestors of the modern Welsh and Cornish, to fight it out with the Picts, the Irish, and the invading Anglo-Saxons. It will be several hundred years before Arthur appears in the annals of British history, with the earliest mention of Arthur appearing in Historia Brittanum written by the Welsh historian Nennius around 800 CE.
Although Nennius doesn’t say that Arthur was a “king,” he does imply that Arthur might have “held some Roman designation equivalent to such recorded titles as Comes Brittaniae (Count of Britain) or Dux Brittaniarum (Duke of the Britons).”7 If so, this would have given Arthur supremacy over local chieftains, elevating him at least to the status of a quasi-king. Several centuries later, William of Malmesbury includes Arthur in his writing, declaring the warrior-king a hero of Welsh folklore. Drawing on a number of earlier works of British history, Geoffrey of Monmouth fills out the tale even more in his popular twelfth-century book History of the Kings of Britain, introducing us to Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s wife Guinevere, his favorite knight Lancelot, and Merlin the wizard. We also find Arthur brandishing a magic sword (known to Geoffrey of Monmouth as Caliburn, but later to the world as Excalibur). But it is not until Robert Wace’s Norman-French version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history in which we find the first mention of Arthur’s Round Table.8
Pollux: Round Table? That’s odd, shouldn’t it have been rectangular with Arthur at its head?
Castor: I agree. It should have been a rectangle.
Author: The prevailing folklore tells us that Arthur created a round table in order to quell infighting among his knights, as every knight sat at the table an equal member. Practical, yes, but what about the symbolic nature of the table? What associations does it evoke?
Castor: A cheese pizza?
Author: To answer this question, let’s turn to the frontispiece of Ronan Coghlan’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends, where we find a rather unique view of Arthur’s table. Rather than a literal table with twelve seats, it is a two-dimensional representation of the table designed like an Indian mandala, flattened in perspective, but laden with symbolism. In the context of astrology, it evokes the form of a natal chart with its circular rings emanating from a central core, sliced through by twelve radiating “beams.” Actually, there are twenty-four beams or wedges, twelve of them “dark” (one for each of Arthur’s knights) and twelve of them “light” (separators to keep the quarreling knights apart). In this context, the round table of the Arthurian romance tales takes on astrological significance, with the table representing…9
Pollux: The ecliptic?
Castor: And Arthur’s knights the twelve signs of the zodiac.
Author: That is if you include Arthur, who represents the luminous and dominant Sun. When it comes to the number twelve, astrology is a veritable goldmine. Twelve signs of the zodiac. Twelve heavenly bodies (of course, this depends upon who’s doing the counting). Twelve Ages of a Great Year. Twelve houses of the natal chart. Twelve, twelve, twelve: it’s quite a magical number. Take Jupiter for example. Regarded by the ancient Babylonians as their chief god Marduk, Jupiter takes approximately twelve years to complete its orbit around the ecliptic, which, according to some scholars, may have given Babylonian astrologers the idea of dividing the ecliptic into twelve sections in the first place.