37

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)?

  • 1
    Interesting question, since it seems the number 12 is used in other religions such as Christianity. So I suppose it's not random. Also, there were many gods, not just 12, but usually we're referring to the 12 basic ones. – nikaltipar Apr 29 '15 at 7:55
  • 1
    Can you point out where else in Greek mythology the number 12 is significant? Im only asking this because of the line "Did the ancient .... 12 symbolized everything?" – Ero Sɘnnin Apr 29 '15 at 7:55
  • I don't know enough to post an answer, but the number 12 was important in older times and it was deemed holy. It was used as a base in arithmetics, just as today we're using decimal, octal and so on, I'll try to answer this a bit more precisely. – nikaltipar Apr 29 '15 at 8:00
40

The number 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:

e.g.

  • 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.

The Divine Number 12

  • 2
    This is a really interesting answer. I never noticed this regular occurrence of 12 before. – Daft Apr 29 '15 at 9:04
  • 2
    I'm a bit dubious about this. Really, for any suitably small number, you can see it appear over and over again in religion/mythology, simply because there are only a few small numbers to choose from. Now, your answer is probably as good as any - they had to pick some number of Olympian deities, after all - but it would be nice to see if there is some explicitly ascribed significance to the number 12 in Greek writings that might directly justify the existence of 12 Olympian deities. – senshin Apr 29 '15 at 15:41
  • @senshin Thanks for the comment. I have read some times about the significance of 12, I'll try to add some sources when I have some time to dig them up. – nikaltipar Apr 29 '15 at 19:14
  • I guess we also have 12 Sumerian Major Gods. – kenorb Apr 30 '15 at 17:13
  • 1
    Pure speculation, but one notable instance of "12" comes from nature: twelve months (i.e. lunar cycles) in each year. This might have influenced the importance and perceived cosmic significance of the number, especially since many early cultures used lunar calendars. Either way, great answer! – Nerrolken May 11 '15 at 19:28
21

Plato suggests a connection between the monthly feasts, the Greek tribes and the gods:

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.

  • It's certainly true that the membership of the 12 fluctated: Hestia had to make way for Dionysus, for example. I agree that it's hard to know why 12: were there six gods and six goddesses to begin with? But the number seems to have stuck, while the actual god/desses changed. – solsdottir Mar 25 '16 at 14:37
8

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.

  • 1
    In Barry Straus' book attempting to relate the Illiad to archaelogical evidence, he mentions that in the Bronze Age near-east "9 and then 10" was a formula for "a long time and then finally", and doesn't necessarily relate to an actual number. – Rob Crawford Jun 21 '16 at 13:32
  • @RobCrawford, agree, it is a concept and message behind the numbers which is the interpretation to take. A link to the book I can find on Amazon? – Vass Jun 22 '16 at 13:48
  • 1
    Here: The Trojan War: A New History. – Rob Crawford Jun 29 '16 at 13:56
-1

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.

  • 5
    Any references to back this up? – Daft Apr 29 '15 at 9:05
  • This comes down to definition. There are traditionally twelve deities in the Greek Olympian council, meaning the rest of them were not included in Olympian decisions. This would have been better as a comment or request for clarification from the poster. Welcome to the site. – James Apr 29 '15 at 14:01

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.