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Tattoo designs - N >> Numbers

Number tattoo designsNumber Tattoos - Since mankind first began to count, numbers and destiny have always gone hand in hand. Our fascination with numbers begins in the cradle - remember counting fingers and toes? Then come the days of the week, the months of the year, the planet, the stars, and onwards to infinity.

Numbers are also potentially intriguing tattoo elements. Who, in a moment of truth, won't confess to harbouring a number they consider 'lucky'? Johnny Depp has the number 3 tattooed on his left hand, on the web between his thumb and forefinger. Soccer star, David Beckham, has his lucky Roman numeral 'VII'. Some numbers are especially and profoundly important to us -- the birthdays and anniversaries of loved ones, for example, or the date of a dearly departed. We will never forget them, but do we really understand them? Do we know where they came from?

0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9… we call them 'Arabic numerals'. Arabs call them 'Hindu numerals', which is where the copyright belongs, with Indian mathematicians living around 500 AD. Arabs get the credit, because it was from North Africa that medieval Europeans first encountered these characters, which have formed the basis of our number system, roughly since Gutenberg invented his moveable type (1450s), which launched Western Europe out of the Dark Ages.

But long before the Indians introduced the concept of 'zero', people were already counting. Fingers and thumbs were certainly the first abacus, making the decimal system - based on '10' - an inevitable invention. The earliest evidence of a counting system comes from Egypt and involves repeated signs for '1', up to the count of ten, then a repeated sign for each group of '10'. Roman numerals are a classic example of this system. Who doesn't know what XXII stands for? Ten plus ten plus one plus one equals…? America's annual Super Bowl pageant continues to identify with the gladiators of old - the 2010 version in Miami is dubbed Super Bowl XLIV.

But the 'Arabic' system of numerals emerged the victor. From its ancient Brahmi origins, to Hindu, then to Arabic and through medieval to modern times, the organic growth of the numerals, zero through nine, can be visibly traced.


brahmi numerals
Brahmi numerals in the first century CE


While the symbols are unencumbered by historical meaning beyond their numerical value, various traditions have since cloaked the numerals with esoteric significance. From Pythagoras to pure hokum, our numbers have been alchemized into concepts to either fear or revere. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), for instance, is quoted as saying, "Numbers are the universal language offered by the deity to humans as confirmation of the truth."

Here are various meanings ascribed to our basic numbers by various traditions from numerology to the Tarot - to sheer superstition:

0. The beginning and the end. The Alpha and Omega. Pure potential. Or it can mean 'total failure'. Zilch. A goose egg.

1. Yang energy. Positivity. Free will. 'Number one' is often used to denote oneself, as in, 'I'm taking care of number one.' Sprinter, Ben Johnson, raised a single finger signifying, 'I'm number one!' as he smashed the Olympic 100 metre record in 1988. 'One' is the first and the best and the only. It has no divisors, no factors, no components. It stands for independence and the individual. Or God.

2. Yin energy. Balance and union. Duality and opposition. 'Two' gets complicated because it beckons us to choose. If '1' is the essence, then '2' is the existence. In Cantonese numerology, this number means 'easy'. In poker, the lowly deuce is sometimes wild. Sometimes King.

3. Neutrality. Mystery and initiation. Two is linear, three is geometric. Three dimensions create the solid contents of life. Aspects of reality seem to come in threes - the Holy Trinities in many religions. The Three Wise Men. The past, present, and future. Thought, word, and deed. Animal, vegetable, mineral. Me, myself, and I. 3-D movies. And perhaps most importantly, God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent.

4. Creation, stability, simplicity and practicality. Think, achievement and humility. Four speaks of being calm and grounded. The centre of the cyclone. Four is square and natural, solid and whole. The four seasons, four cardinal directions, four elements in nature. The core of Buddhist teaching is the Four Noble Truths (life is suffering; it has a cause; an end to suffering is possible; the way out is the Noble 8-fold Path). In Chinese numerology, 4 is unlucky, being an homonym with the word for death.

5. Five fingers, five toes, five senses - the number 5 is physical. Action and adventure. Restlessness, passion, and unpredictability. To the Chinese, it symbolizes 'myself', or 'never'. The psychologist Carl Jung saw 5 as the union of the first male and female numbers, hence the symbol of creative life and erotic love.

6. The Chinese number 6 means 'easy and smooth all the way'. Things unfolding as they should. Natural reactions and responsibilities. Protective and dependable, the number 6 is a caring number, a number that encourages us to accept what is inevitable, giving rise to compassion and forgiveness. 'Six degrees of separation' says that no one lies outside the number 6.

Number tattoo designs7. Lucky seven. The seven deadly sins. (What to believe in?) Seven is said to represent the focused search for esoteric meaning, and is concerned with mysticism and healing. In therapeutic circles, it implies thought, awareness, and imagination in the service of manifesting what we want. "And on the seventh day, God ended his work which he had made…" The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew root word for 'seven', meaning, 'to be complete or full. The Cantonese word for 7 is considered vulgar.

8. Infinity. Sudden fortune, prosperity. Sacrifice and power. Opportunity. All that optimism, despite our 'winding up behind the 8-ball'. In Chinese culture, where the spoken 8 sounds like 'prosper', it's considered a lucky number. It represents the totality of the universe. The Summer Olympics in Beijing commenced at 8:08 p.m. on August 8, 2008. Buddha taught his Noble Eightfold Path, and The Beatles sang about "Eight Days a Week". And finally, "He that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you…"

9. No single digit has a value higher than 9, so it's seen as symbolic of completeness. And vision, intellectual power, attainment. And of seeing the big picture. Marks the end of the human gestation period, nine months. Dante's Inferno speaks of nine circles of Hell and nine spheres of Heaven. The Chinese Netherworld is described as having nine rivers. In Norse mythology, secrets are revealed to Odin after hanging on the World Tree for nine nights.

Many numbers beyond the single digits have well-known cultural significance, such as '13'. You're not likely to find the unluckiest number on racing cars, stable doors, or athletes' jerseys. In medieval times, witches in Europe were believed to have supernatural powers associated with the cycles of the moon - precisely 13 in a year. But in many religions, the number 13 has positive associations, such as rebirth in Christianity, mercy in Judaism, and remembrance of God in Sikhism.

Religions and cults in general abound with mystical and magical numbers, such as the devilish '666'. Then, just when you think you're numerologically safe, new research on ancient manuscripts lets 666 off the hook, and suggests that you now might want to beware of '616'.

There's even something called the 'Jesus number' - '153' - derived from the numerological value for the phrase 'my Son is the God'. What do you get when you add the Jesus number to 777 (the numerological value for the 'cross')? The sum is 930, which equals 'peace'.

See also: Lucky Tattoo Index

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Tattoo designs - N >> Numbers

Tattoo Symbol Index - A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

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