Numbers, Symbols, and the Now

Recently I’ve been reading a few books on Celtic mythology, including Rees’ Celtic Heritage and Peter Ellis’ A [not so] Brief History of the Druids, and one thing that was touched on at least briefly in both books was the importance of various numbers in the Celtic worldview. For instance, five and nine supposedly referenced the concept of “unity,” especially in Ireland.

Having just read that, I happened to walk by a billboard for Coke’s Dasani water today. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like “5 steps for purification. 1 thirst-quenching drink.” Or something about as inane. In any case, it occurred to me that I can’t really think of many great examples of modern numerical symbolism, apart from the incredibly annoying “9-11 / 7-7” craze that’s going around right now. While that’s certainly symbolism, it’s not really the same thing as 5 representing the unity of your nation, or 7 representing the sacred. I realize that the latter is around in religion still, but I’m trying to think of a distinctly modern example and failing.

It seems to me that on the whole, modern society deals with numbers largely in terms of quantity and not symbolism. More is better, unless it’s price, in which case less is better. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but I feel that it’s a sad thing that numbers have been so completely colonized by science that they’ve lost mythological meaning for the most part.

If you can think of examples of “modern” number mythology, please comment on this post. I’d be interested to see what people come up with.

One thought on “Numbers, Symbols, and the Now”

  1. Hm… well, here’s one you might not have thought of…

    Wayne Gretzky, the Great Gretzky, “Number 99”, famous Canadian hockey player, grew up in Brantford not far from Toronto, long since retired but still involved in the appropriate organizations. (See for more about Gretzky.)

    It always amused me that some hockey players are quite particular about what number they want for their jersey. Now that I’m thinking about it, it doesn’t seem to be quite a coincidence that arguably one of the greatest players in hockey picked the double 9 for his jersey number.

    The number 9 itself carries with it many spiritual and mystical connotations (the above unity reference being one). Using a number like 99 would bring the wearer double the power of 9. Good luck is just one. Perhaps the number’s true power is related to unity, in such a way that Gretzky was able to channel from a higher source power and skill by wearing 99.

    Now, returning back to a societal view. Why would Gretzky come to mind? I’m not sure. I do think though that he has definitely become similar to a mythological character. (Hm… thinking sort of like Achilles but wielding a hockey stick and defeating his opponents by just magically skating around them to score goals…) Gretzky is what some kids aspire to or dream of growing up to be like. How many young boys grew up hearing all about “Number 99”? It was hard to hear “99” and not think of Gretzky. It was hard to think of the number 99 and to not think of the magic of Gretzky. (Another interesting note: Mario Lemieux picked the number 66 because he couldn’t use number 99 and 66 was just the upside-down 99.)

    Now, arguably Gretzky may have picked the number 99 for mundane reasons (I think I heard it said that he thought the number was unique because it was the last double digit number or something like that), but the number seems to have evolved (at least for one generation) into a magical mantra to use when one wanted to be something special or wanted something special to happen.

    No, I don’t think numbers will lose their special significance. Granted, the sacredness of numbers isn’t as entrenched in our society as it was for the Celts, but it’s there sometimes if we really look hard enough or just try to understand. (But then again what do I know… I’m not a sociologist, just one crazy pagan who loves math and numbers… hehe…)


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