Twelve as a Symbol

Since today is 12-12-12, the last of the triple dates of the new century, I thought I’d explore what symbolic resonances the number twelve has.

Twelve disciples, things sold by the dozen, twelve signs of the Zodiac, twelve months of the year, twelve hours on the face of clock—we have a lot of twelves in our cultural associations. But the deeper meaning of the number itself eluded me, beyond a sense of “coming of age,” which much literature associates with twelve (the beginning of puberty) and again with eighteen (the end of puberty).

In The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J. C. Cooper states that twelve is number of cosmic order:

“As 3X4 it is both the spiritual and temporal order, the esoteric and exoteric. There are the twelve Signs of the Zodiac and months of the year, of which there are six males and six female; twelve hours of the day and night…there are also the twelve days of return to chaos at the Winter Solstice, when the dead return, celebrated by Saturnalia in Rome and the twelve days of Yuletide and Christmas; these celebrations are also found in Vedic, Chinese, Pagan and European symbolism. The days are said to forecast the meteorological pattern of the twelve months of the coming year.” (p. 120)

Because a twelve-sided figure approximates a circle, twelve is also a sign of completion and wholeness. Perhaps on this day of twelves, we can take stock of what’s completed, what’s whole. The Mayan calendar is nearly at an end, so there is a lot of talk about endings and completion right now. Perhaps it’s fitting that we have the reminder, before the “end of the world,” that we’re really just finishing one cycle and beginning another. Of course, depending on where you start counting, you’re always at the end of a cycle and beginning another. It’s just that sometimes, for whatever reason, our collective imagination fixates on the idea that one era is ending, and a new one is on its way. Let’s pray that the coming world has more conscious awareness, more compassion, and more equality than the one we’re leaving in the past.

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