Involuted Mysteries: Unwrapping Meanings in Literature, Theory, and Art before 1800. The Symbolism of Numbers, and Their Associated Topoi, Part XVIII



Hours…Months…Signs of the Zodiac…Labours of Hercules…Olympians…Tribes of Israel…Apostles…Disciples…Labours of the Month…

We come now to Eleven, which is a number whose whole significance, it seems, is determined by its relation to the number Twelve. One speaks of the “eleventh hour” as a time of urgency before the final twelfth, and similarly, I suppose, the captains of business refer to a company on the verge of bankruptcy as being in “chapter eleven”.

This, as I say, presumes that there are twelve chapters in the book of time, and so there are. There are twelve hours in the day, an arbitrary division that is obviously a reflection of the twelve lunar months and the twelve signs of the zodiac through which the sun appears to travel in its annual revolution.

In ancient mythology – so much of which is solar mythology –, the prominence of the number Twelve is thus guaranteed. Hercules’ twelve labours, for instance, are a displacement of the myth of the solar god (Hercules’ original identity), who annually conquers each of the twelve zodiacal monsters in his victorious round.

The twelve Olympians are very probably related to the zodiacal constellations in the same way, as were the twelve tribes of Israel in ancient Hebrew mythology. And for the same reason, as Thomas Carlyle concludes in his book on The Hero, “Any vague rumour of number had a tendency to settle itself into Twelve.”

The twelve tribes assure us that there must be other Old Testament Twelves. As Rabanus Maurus writes in the ninth century,

This number…is typified by many things in the Old Testament: by the 12 sons of Jacob; by the 12 princes of the children of Israel; by the 12 running springs in Helim; by the 12 stones in Aaron’s breastplate; by the 12 loaves of the shew-bread; by the 12 spies sent by Moses; by the 12 stones taken out of Jordan; by the 12 oxen which bare the brazen sea. Also in the New Testament, by the 12 stars in the bride’s crown, by the 12 foundations of Jerusalem which John saw, and her 12 gates.

Of course, the most important New Testament antitypes of the twelve tribes are the twelve disciples and the twelve apostles (with their twelve tongues of fire and doves of the Spirit at Pentecost), which give rise in turn, in the Middle Ages, to the twelve knights of the round table in the Arthurian tradition.

The division of the year into twelve months is the occasion for an important literary and artistic tradition devoted to the description of the Labours of the Months. The tradition traces back to Hesiod’s Works and Days, conscripted any number of so-called “pastoral” or “bucolic” poets, and included the “eclogues” that were obligatory exercises of poets in general from Virgil through the eighteenth century. They are thus the theme of one of the Elizabethan Spenser’s most famous works, The Shepherd’s Calendar.

As one would expect, allegories of the Labours of the Month are also widely depicted in medieval and Renaissance art: in manuscript illuminations, emblem books, ecclesiastical sculpture, and stained glass. Occasionally, in such depictions, the year begins in March or April (to correspond with the Annunciation or the Passion), occasionally on Christmas Day.

Most commonly, it begins with January, under the zodiacal sign of Aquarius. To the medieval peasant, January was still the month of feasts, including as it does that period of Christmas that ends on Epiphany or Twelfth Night. (The twelve days of Christmas was but another of those arbitrary “settlings” into the number twelve that Carlyle spoke of.)

To represent January, thirteenth-century sculptors usually showed us the figure of an old man seated before a well-provisioned table. Sometimes he had two heads, one of an old, the other, a young man: one looking back to the past, the other forward to the future (the familiar iconography, that is, of the two-faced classical god Janus).

In representations of February, under the sign of Pisces, we see the peasant warming himself contentedly before the fire.

In March, with the sun in Aries, he is outside, surrounded by the first flowers of spring, on his way to the vineyard to dress his vines.

In April (Taurus, the sign of Venus) we see an amorous youth crowned with flowers, or carrying ears of corn, in token of the embryonic seed that is forming at this time of year.

May (Gemini) is the month of chivalric and aristocratic sport; it is typically represented by a young nobleman going forth on horseback, carrying a lance, or a falcon on his wrist.

In June (Cancer) the meadows are mown by a figure carrying a scythe over his shoulder, a whetstone at his side, or bringing the cut hay back to the barn. Sometimes, there are scenes of sheep-shearing.

July (Leo) brings the harvest; at Chartres the peasant cuts the corn with his sickle, at Notre Dame in Paris, the harvester sharpens his scythe in preparation for work.

In August (Virgo) the harvest continues, or the threshing of the wheat begins.

September (Libra) is the month of vintage: at Chartres, we see the grapes being gathered, taken to the vats, and happily trod. At Amiens, instead, we see the labourers picking fruit.

In October (Scorpio), the fermented wine is transferred to its casks, and the seed for next spring is broadcast.

In November (Sagittarius), the peasant at Amiens gets in his wood supply; at Chartres and Paris, the swineherd watches his pigs fattening themselves on acorns.

December (Capricorn) is a time of preparation for the Christmas festival. Pigs and cattle are slaughtered, cakes are baked; or a reveler is depicted, glass in hand, seated with a ham before him.

The year, as Emile Male notes, “begins and ends with jollity”. And on this happy note, we end our numerological survey.

There are other important numbers, of course: twenty, twenty-four, forty, seventy, seventy-two, one hundred, and so on; but their significance is a function of the factors of which they are the product, and in any case, we are long overdue to move on to other themes.