Did the ancient Greeks believe that the number 12 symbolized everything? Was it random that there were 12 Olympian gods and no more (or less)?
12 is used in most religions as something holy and perfect. In every religion you can see that the number twelve is always present in main events or facts:
- Greek Mythology: Labours of Hercules, the Dodecatheon and twelve Titans, according to Hesiod.
- Christianity: The 12 Disciples of Christ
- Norse Mythology: Odin had 12 sons
- Islam: There are twelve Imams, legitimate successors of the Islamic prophet.
- Judaism: 12 tribes of Israel.
- Sumerian Mythology: 12 Major Gods
There are way too many examples where 12 is used and I it's probably because
12 had a special place for ancient people, since the use of the Duodecimal and Sexagesimal systems was widespread at the time and it's actually the first systems used in arithmetics. I have found no reference (and I believe there isn't any) as to why it is deemed a special number in a religious essence, apart from the fact that it had many mathematical properties, such as being the first number with six divisors.
The number 12 is a highly respected and practical number. It has many factors for such a low number, so it is one of the lowest easily-divisible numbers. Number 11 is not divisible, number 10 only has two factors (2 and 5) meaning that if you measure anything in tens, you can only divide it into either halves or pairs. Number 9 only divides into 3, number 8 only into 2 and 4, number 7 is a prime number with no factors, number 6 only breaks down into half or thirds, number 5 is a prime, you can only halve number 4 or 2, and 3 and 1 don't divide and are so small you wouldn't want to measure things in them, anyway. Number 12, however, divides into 6, 4, 3 and 2, giving it a large number of practical uses where things have to be divided up into whole numbers, from calendars to clocks. As a result of all these factors, mathematicians get excited about the number 12 and apparently, they always have done! For example, Pythagoras, the classical mathematics genius, teacher, and leader of a pagan religious movement, taught that the number 12 had divine, profound mystical meaning.
For the law will state that there are twelve feasts to the twelve gods who give their names to the several tribes: to each of these they shall perform monthly sacrifices and assign choirs and musical contests, and also gymnastic contests, as is suitable both to the gods themselves and to the several seasons of the year.—Plato, Laws [828b]
Plato often draws from earlier Greek poets (especially Homer and Stesichorus) for his information, but a particularly long passage in Phaedrus seems to be his own creation. In it he describes the procession of Zeus and his attendants through heaven:
Zeus, the mighty lord, holding the reins of a winged chariot, leads the way in heaven, ordering all and taking care of all; and there follows him the array of gods and demigods, marshalled in eleven bands; Hestia alone abides at home in the house of heaven; of the rest they who are reckoned among the princely twelve march in their appointed order. They see many blessed sights in the inner heaven, and there are many ways to and fro, along which the blessed gods are passing, every one doing his own work; he may follow who will and can, for jealousy has no place in the celestial choir. But when they go to banquet and festival, then they move up the steep to the top of the vault of heaven. The chariots of the gods in even poise, obeying the rein, glide rapidly; but the others labour, for the vicious steed goes heavily, weighing down the charioteer to the earth when his steed has not been thoroughly trained:-and this is the hour of agony and extremest conflict for the soul. For the immortals, when they are at the end of their course, go forth and stand upon the outside of heaven, and the revolution of the spheres carries them round, and they behold the things beyond.—Plato, Phaedrus [246e-247c]
A plausible interpretation is that the twelve groups are the signs of the Zodiac. So Plato suggests at least three different connections between the number of Olympians other sets of twelve:
- Monthly festivals,
- The Zodiac, and
- Greek tribes.
Tolkien, in "On Fairy-Stories", talks about the "Cauldron of Story" in which elements of myths get pulled apart, mixed around, and combined to produce the stories that are told and retold. Classical-period mythology used Homeric epics as it's base elements, but storytellers (such as Plato's Socrates) were free to create their own organizing structure. There is no fixed membership among the Twelve because different storytellers had different visions of Zeus' court. Even a single author, such as Plato, might have different versions designed for different purposes.
From this distance, it's probably impossible for us to identify the original connection between the number 12 and the Olympic gods and goddesses. But once the number became attracted, it stuck because of the variety of associations with other groups of twelve. It's not so much that the number was special as that the gods and the number became entwined in each other.
I don't think that the number 12 symbolized everything, as there are occurrence of other numbers in various stories. Odysseus sailed for 9 days with the gift of Favorable Winds from Aeolus, god of wind and on the 10th day, the bag was opened as he saw Ithaka for on the horizon.
Dimitra searched for her daughter for 9 days and on the tenth day, she discovered she had been taken to the underworld,
"Demeter wandered about in search of her daughter for nine days, without taking any nectar or ambrosia, and without bathing."
source: Theoi article on Demeter
But 12 does seem to be associated with a harmonious state. Different cultures have different views on the same numbers. Some cultures see number '6' as a positive sign.
There are NOT only 12 Olympian gods, there were 12 gods in the council that presided over Olympus, these were Zeus's immediate family (minus Hades) and did not include minor deities such as Nemesis, Hypnos, Nike, etc. So the number of gods was (at least in the myth, It may have been symbolic in Greece(I don't know much about real Greek history)) dependent on the number of gods in the Olympian family.