Numerology is the idea that numbers have meaning and power beyond the expression of an arithmetical value, and the presupposition that those who gain sufficient knowledge of these properties can access and utilize their occult significance. While mathematics unwaveringly discounts the possibility that any mystical properties might intrinsically be associated with specific numerals, as with astrology or alchemy, the appeal of numerology persists.

However, whether the supernatural aspects prove to be accurate or not, it is impossible to deny the curious nature of the long-standing (and still developing) study of numerology. Could underlying patterns in popular culture add up to some degree of validity to numerology, or are these simply inevitable coincidences?

HISTORICAL ANTECEDENTS

Numerology played an important role in many ancient cosmologies, or the story of the origin, development, and order of the universe. Depending on the mythology, different numbers held particular significance: in ancient China, 5 was considered to be the numeral around which the universe was organized (5 senses; 5 parts of the body; 5 types of animals), while 3 held special significance in the Rig-Veda, the mythology of the Baltic Slavs, and in Greek Mythology (the goddess Hecate has 3 faces, and is sometimes known as the triple goddess). Over the centuries, different schools of numerological thought have risen and fallen, with some even passing in and out of favor with the passage of time. For example, Jewish mystics developed one example: Kabbalah Numerology. Like some other numerological systems, this technique assigns meanings to individual numbers. Kabbalists found meaning through “gematria,” or by adding the corresponding numbers associated with the particular letters in an individual’s name. With so many competing numerological philosophies, contradictions inevitably arise: a number that is considered lucky by one school of thought may be considered a curse by another.

MUSIC OF THE SPHERES

In more recent history, numerology has emerged as a method of conveying meaning through the arts.

While numerology embraces the aesthetic, symbolic, and associative properties of numbers, it eschews the mathematical. By contrast, widespread current scientific and philosophical opinion holds that numbers have no significant relationship to one another aside from their mathematical properties.There is one place where this rejection of numerological properties has largely been ignored: within the arts.

Musical scores in particular have proven fertile ground for the application of numerology. One interesting element of this application is its apparent inevitability: while there is a long history of applying numerology in the construction of musical scores, composers who are ignorant of the existence of these traditions nevertheless continue the practice, sometime leading to similarities between the works of individual composers who each arrived at their results independently.

In part, this is thanks to the secretive aura with which many composers approach the application of numerology in their scores. Perhaps the motivation for this secretiveness is derived from the more personal nature of modern numerology: while Renaissance era composers would have utilized numerology in order to pay their respects to Christianity, modern composers are often serving their own personal deities (although it is worth noting that composers like Alfred Schnittke still draw on deep Christian belief in their application of numerology in scores).

For some, modern numerology is comparable to the quasi-science that governed ancient cosmological myths, with certain meanings being attached to certain numbers, leading to some numbers being considered to be generally “favorable” while other numbers are considered personally “unlucky.” For example, composer Arnold Schoenberg though that the number 13 was exceptionally bad, while he believed the number 3 was exceptionally good (Schoenberg also developed the most influential dodecaphonic method of composition, also known as twelve-tone).

However, for other composers, numerology essentially amounts to a diversion: a game with numbers that holds no deeper meaning than the joy intrinsic to sending coded messages via numbers. In certain postmodern disciplines, enlisting the audience to translate such enciphered communications can be an important goal. Ovaltine advertisers hoping to utilize numerology should take note: requiring the audience to decrypt your numerological cryptogram can go wrong if the audience feels the content of your communiqué wasn’t worth the effort of decryption.

EVERYTHING IS 19

Throughout Stephen King’s body of work, the number 19 plays a significant role. A sort of harbinger of fate for King, the number is frequently attached to an object, address, or any other story element that will bring the characters closer to their inevitable destinations (which, this being King, are often pretty horrific). The number appears throughout King’s oeuvre: the first line of 1974’s Carrie, King’s first published novel, is a newspaper citation dated August 19th, 1966.

19 plays a special role in Wolves of the Calla. The 2003 novel is the fifth book in King’s magnum opus, the Dark Tower cycle, and it examines the role that fiction plays in our lives. The novel provides a sort of active demonstration of this theme by providing a surfeit of references to the number nineteen: the protagonists count the number of letters in characters’ names and fine they total 19, they hear “19th Nervous Breakdown” by the Rolling Stones, and eventually, they being to use “gone nineteen” as a slang term for strange activity.

The cumulative effect is that the immersed reader cannot help but begin to see 19s everywhere they look. It seems inescapable that this is a desired outcome of the text, and it makes an important thematic point: that the realm of fiction does indeed have an effect on our lives, as the characters’ obsession with 19 seems to leak out of the pages of the book and begin spreading to the reader’s day to day life.

However, this a fact that underpins numerology: because it is so easy to impose patterns on random events, and because numbers are so present in every aspect of life, the Frequency illusion and confirmation bias can lead to, say, the belief that one is haunted by the number 19 – doubly so if one has been primed by a text that references to the number to excess.

23 SKIDOO

In issue 23 of Fortean Times, Robert Anton Wilson wrote that he had first learned of “the 23 enigma” from author William S Burroughs. Wilson wrote that in 1960 Burroughs had met a boat captain by the name of Clark who bragged that he had sailed for 23 years without so much as a single accident. However, that very night, Captain Clark’s ship was involved in an incident that took the lives of every soul on board. According to Wilson’s tale, with the tragedy fresh in his mind, Burroughs turned on the radio, only to hear a new bulletin reporting a plane crash in Florida. The plane had been designated Flight 23, and the pilot had been Captain Clark.

It’s worth noting that, according to the now-easily searchable records of airline crashes, no such place crash occurred. However, whether or not the story is apocryphal, the 23 enigma has entered into numerological legend, and many additional examples of the “23 phenomena” have been identified. From the 23 chromosomes that both genetic parents donate to a fertilized egg to the fact that 2/3 = .666666 etc., the 23 enigma has captured the attention of many notable individuals – and made its way into many facets of pop culture.

One of the most obvious examples may be The Number 23, the 2007 thriller that reunited Batman Forever director Joel Schumacher with Jim Carrey. The story follows Carrey as a man who becomes obsessed with the number 23 after he reads a book on the subject that bears many similarities to his life (and the movie was, suitably enough, released on February 23rd).

From Tank Girl to Gorillaz, the art of Jamie Hewlett frequently includes the number 23 (in one particularly memorable example, the band poses beneath the title “CATCH-23,” with lead singer 2-D suspended by his jacket collar from the second “C”). In fact, 23 appeared in the imagery for the Gorillaz so frequently that an entire page in the animated super band’s 2006 book-length interview, Rise of the Ogre, is devoted to the 23 enigma.

According to that page, which includes plenty of examples (of varying credibility) of the 23 enigma in action, during World War II, the number 23 was one of the occult tools Aleister Crowley advised Winston Churchill to direct against Hitler. Whether the anecdote is factual or not, the notion of turning numerology against fascism certainly is a sweet one.

THE ULTIMATE ANSWER

In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy (which includes five books), extremely intelligent mice construct a supercomputer called Deep Thought, which has a sole and single purpose: to calculate the ultimate answer to life, the universe, and everything. When Deep Thought completes its intended purpose, it is revealed that the ultimate answer is 42 – an inexplicable piece of data without knowledge of the ultimate question, which Deep Thought is unable to provide.

The “ultimate answer” being an inexplicable (but very normal) number is right in line with the sense of humor that characterizes the H2G2 books. Further, the ultimate answer being the number 42 is among the most popular jokes from the series, and 42 has subsequently become something of a shorthand method for referring to the story.

While the reason that Adams choose 42 has been a topic of discussion for decades, he took that knowledge with him to his grave. However, Adams was an outspoken skeptic and atheist, and if there was deeper intention in the section of the number 42 (beyond it being an unexpected non-sequiter “ultimate answer”), it’s unlikely that his motivation lay in any sort of numerological power.

Nevertheless, the number’s inclusion as the “ultimate answer” has been sufficient to enshrine it in many readers’ imaginations, and 42 has since appeared elsewhere as an allusion to the H2G2.

One notable example is on LOST, the island-based speculative fiction series that aired from 2004 to 2010. An ongoing storyline on the show saw Hugo “Hurley” Reyes being plagued by a series of “bad numbers”: 4 8 15 16 23 42. First appearing on Hurley’s winning lottery ticket, the six numbers became a sort of textual inside-joke, appearing throughout the series and stoking plenty of speculation about the what the significance of the mysterious digits might be. While other digits were included for their own historical and mythological significance, 42 was included as a reference to the H2G2, demonstrating how new numerological traditions can quickly take hold.

TRISKAIDEKAPHOBIA

One of the most widespread numerological superstitions is the fear of the number 13. The number has appeared throughout pop culture as a sinister suggestion of bad luck or mortality. For example, the home address of the eponymous family on the 1964 sitcom The Munsters, 1313 Mockingbird Lane, plays upon the number’s bad reputation, and 13 features prominently in the 1985 animated series The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo (which co-starred Vincent Price and ran for 13 episodes).

While most readers will already be familiar with the negative associations surrounding 13, the “why” for this persistent numerological superstition is somewhat more difficult to determine. There are competing explanations as to the origins of the number’s negativity. Two of the most prominent emerge from Norse and Christian mythology respectively – although curiously, both stories involve dinner parties. According to the Norse story, a 12-guest dinner party at Valhalla went awry when Loki crashed the soiree (making him guest #13), leading to the death of Balder the Beautiful. Meanwhile, Christian mythology points to Judas, the insidious 13th guest at the Last Supper, as the reason for the negative association.

Some theories have postulated that 13’s negative connotations may emerge from a tendency to consider the number in relation to 12. Because 12 is considered a complete number – in addition to the Christian symbolism mentioned earlier, there are also 12 zodiac signs, 12 months in a year, and 12 gods of Olympus – adding an additional to the whole to create 13 results in an “unstable” or unlucky number.

There are many superstitious practices that have arise from the avoidance of the number 13. In Florence, Italy, the houses between numbers twelve and fourteen are designated 12 ½. It is common practice for buildings to omit the thirteenth floor, and Room 13 is often conspicuously absent from hospital floor plans. And it isn’t just architecture that has been affected by the superstitions surrounding 13: even literature has acknowledged triskaidekaphobia. Welsh author Jasper Fforde’s novels frequently list a 13th chapter (including a title) in the book’s table of contents, but when one turns to the indicated page, the reader will find only the end of chapter twelve and the beginning of chapter fourteen.

In fact, the aforementioned composer Schoenberg had triskaidekaphobia, and believed he would die in a year that ended in “-13.” Schoenberg became particularly depressed when an astrologer friend warned him on his 76th birthday in September 1950 that the year would be a perilous one for him, for a specific numerological reason: because 7 + 6 equals 13. Schoenberg did indeed die at the age of 76, on Friday, July 13th, 1951, at 11:45 PM – a mere quarter of an hour before the arrival of July fourteenth.

Friday the 13th is a combination of two “bad” associations. In addition to the number 13, “Friday” has negative associations within Christianity because it is reputedly the day that Jesus died. Interestingly, it is impossible to have less than one or more than 3 Friday the 13ths in any given year, thanks to the Gregorian calendar, which was adopted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.

However, Friday the 13th is especially helpful in illustrating another important facet of numerology: it’s reliance on its antecedents. Because it is arguable that the negative associations for Friday the 13th emerge from Christian numerology, it begs the question: if you don’t subscribe to the beliefs of Christian dogma, why would a superstition based on Christian numerology be worth subscription?

TWICE TWENTY-TWO

22 is another number that appears to have significant recurrence: there are 22 major arcana cards in most Tarot decks, 22 letters in the Hebrew language; together with 11 and 33, numerology considers 22 to be a “Master Number.” These numbers are particularly powerful because they double the first three numbers of the set of “Universal Numbers,” or the numbers 1 through 9. By doubling the first three numbers in this set, numerological principles dictate that the intrinsic properties of those three numbers can be even further expanded. Among these three Master Numbers, 22 is considered the “Master Builder.” According to numerology, this gives 22 special potential, and if properly utilized, can bring the most fantastic dreams into reality.

One of the most persuasive arguments in favor of the power of 22 comes from Archie Comics. The publisher began as MLJ Magazines in 1939 (named for the first initials of the three founders, Maurice Coyne, Louis Silberkleit, and John L. Goldwater). MLJ got its start printing books like Blue Ribbon Comics and Top-Notch Comics. However, the publisher really got its start thanks to a comic in Pep Comics #22, which debuted in December 1941. The comic, a teen comedy story called “Archie,” introduced the little town of Riverdale, as well as the characters of Archie, Betty, and Jughead. While the comedic Archie feature had been considered something of a departure when compared to the other stories included in Pep Comics, the concept proved so successful that Archie Comics #1 was released in Winter 1942 (and has been consistently in print for the duration of all 8 decades since).

While a single appearance of 22 may not be that impressive, it isn’t the only instance of the number playing a integral role in the formation of the foundation of Archie Comics’ flagship titles. Outside of Archie and the rest of the Riverdale gang, the publisher’s most successful character is likely Sabrina the Teenage Witch. While the widely beloved character has headlined plenty of her own titles since, she also owes her origin to a 22, making her first appearance in the panels of October 1962’s Archie’s Madhouse #22.

THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST (666)

One of the most well renowned numbers in numerology is 666, otherwise known as “the number of the beast.” Even outside of numerology, 666 is considered an “interesting number” that is notable for having unusual properties. It is the sum of its first 36 numbers (which makes it the sum of the numbers on a roulette wheel, which typically has 36 numbers), and it is the sum of the squares of the first seven prime numbers.

The association with Satan comes from the fact that 666 is the number of the beast is given in Revelation 13: 18, which reads, “Here is wisom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six.” Many times throughout history, gematria has been used to demonstrate that certain world leaders bore the number 666. During the reformation, numerologists on one side connected the number to Leo Xth’s name, while competing numerologists of the opposing religious ideology connected the number to Martin Luther’s name.

Perhaps one of the most interesting numerological facets of 666 is its propensity to be associated with other instances neo-mythological numerology. The number was considered magic by Crowley, who attempted to unify magical thinking through his hugely influential grimoire Liber 777. Pop culture has wholly embraced 666 as a method of referring to Satan, with Murdoc Niccols of the Gorillaz gleefully bringing up the number whenever possible and movies like the recent remake of The Omen being released on June 6th, 2006 (that’s 6/6/06).

Meanwhile, the original run of Archie Comics ran to issue #666, which may have been a coincidence – however it’s a little harder to argue about the intentionality of Blossoms 666, a 2019 offering from the Archie Horror line that leans heavily into the theme of Satanism by pitting the Blossom triplets against each other as they each attempt to claim the title of “Anti-christ.”

DOES IT ADD UP?

Is numerology “just” a pseudo-science? Modern understandings of science and mathematics leave little room for the uncertainty and mysticism that is necessary for a belief in numerology. However, even if utilizing numerology isn’t literally a method of channeling occult energy, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worthwhile.

As demonstrated by several of the examples above, numbers can be used as a way of conveying personal meaning, an inside joke between the author and the text. They can also be a method of conveying secret meaning, whether by inviting the audience to decode a numerological cipher or using established mythological numeral associations to more deeply explore thematic concerns. And in other instances, numerology may just be a method of playing number games, as is the case with Tamsyn Muir’s number-obsessed Locked Tomb trilogy, comprised of Gideon the Ninth, Harrow the Ninth, and Alecto the Ninth. The very first page of the very first book includes a reference to the “Master Builder” 22.

Plus, when calculated using a rudimentary method of gematria that involves only counting the letters, the names in the title [(Gideon - 6 letters) + (Harrow - 6 letters) + (Alecto - 6 letters)] total 666, which seems befitting for a story that concerns the empire-toppling offspring of an undead Emperor. The Gideon novels play with 22 and 666 and are wildly successful, and Archie Comics plays with 22 and 666 – but is there actually any connection between the two? Could numbers like 22 and 666 actually contain an intrinsic power that makes reading them irresistible? More than likely it’s nothing more than a coincidence borne of a finite amount of possible single, double, and triple digit combinations, along with a natural human preference for patterns. All this being said, sometimes the evidence in favor of the power of numerology seems overwhelming – and if nothing else, these superstitions can have concrete real-world effects, as when the number 13 is omitted from an elevator shaft. While the superstition may be groundless, the effect is verifiable.

Maybe numerology really can change the world.

AVERY KAPLAN is the Features Editor at Comics Beat and the author of several books (plus a whole bunch of comic book articles). She lives in Southern California with her partner and a pile of cats, and her favorite place to visit is the cemetery.