Chapter 17. Numerals

0 (zero)

Zero is the number, 0 is the numeral and digit for the starting position of all counting systems that begin with nothing. We draw it as a circle. It took us a while before zero was anything but a vacant position. Then, at first, it was only a dot. We have many names for it. In Greek, midén. In Spanish, el cero. In Swedish, noll, nolla. In English, zero, oh, naught, nil. If you add zero to any value, the value doesn’t change. If you multiply any value by zero you get zero. In the Gregorian calendar, there was no year zero, and there is no day zero.
 We count year 1 from day 1.

1 (one)

Also known as “unity,” one is the simplest natural number, made by incising a short straight vertical line in Roman numerals, in Hindo-Arabic, or in Kurdish, Persian, and Urdu. We have many names for it. In Greek, énas In Italian it has a gender, una or uno. One is the number that is equal to the result of being multiplied or divided by itself. Geometrically, if zero is a point, then one is a line. One is equivalent to the empty set, that is, the set containing nothing, which is different from nothing itself. One is the first item in any non-zero set. One is number one. One is alone, itself, just as you are yourself, but unlike you, one has infinite presences enumerating all sets of one, and, as a digit, holding the place of one in an infinite number of numbers over 9.

2 (two)

The words “twin” and “pair” represent sets of two. Anything may be idealized as representing a set of two, that is, itself, and not itself. Also existence and non-existence. Duality is the yin and yang of our reality even though we may strive for unity. If a number is divisible by two we say it is “even”; otherwise, it is “odd.” Two is the smallest and only even prime number. Two is the first magic number (whatever that means). If one is the element water, two is the element earth. if one is the sun, two is the moon. Geometrically, if one is a line, then two is a plane. and three is a volume.

3 (three)

Three’s Arabic number and digit has three endpoints. A triangle has three angles, three sides, and three vertices. Three the number of dimensions that we can see. Bad luck, they say, comes in threes, but so do the Daoist Dantians, the Buddhist Bodhi, the Hindu Trimūrti, the Zoroastrian three virtues, and one’s karma according to the Wiccan Rule of Three. The Christian God is a trinity, and there were three Magi who sought out the baby Jesus.

4 (four)

Four used to be my favorite number, I having had a feeling about such things. The earliest glyph for 4 looked like a plus sign having four points. The Romans either made four ones, IIII, or marked one before five, IV. Two plus two equals two times two, which equals two squared, which equals four.

5 (five)

Why do humans have 5 toes on each foot, and 5 digits on each hand? Why are there 5 Platonic solids? Why do starfish have 5 arms? Why does Shiva have 5 faces? Why does Islam have 5 pillars? Why has the pentagram assumed symbolic importance in Taoism, Bahá’i, Judaism, Christianity, and Wicca? Five is the only odd untouchable number and the only Fibonacci number equal to its position (assuming you start at 1). In numerology, 5 is associated with love, balance, and humor.

6 (six)

Six is the smallest perfect number, the sum of its proper divisors. There are 6 whole tones in an octave.
 The Greek prefix for six is hexa; the Latin prefix for six is sex. 666 in the Book of Revelation, is the “number of the beast.”

7 (seven)

Lucky seven has taken many forms, hook, V, zayin, and has always been a happy number. 7 is our cognitive maximum, filling a mind with possibilities. Give me 7; give me 7 more; give me 7 times 7.

8 (eight)

Fold in your thumbs and hold up your fingers. This could be the origin of “eight.” Any octuple has one more member than the cognitive maximum. 8 is much more than 2 cubed. Knock it on its side and it’s greater than anything, tracing a closed path with no endpoint.

9 (nine)

Nine is unique. If the digital root of a number is 9 then the number is divisible by 9. If you divide an n-digit number by the number obtained by replacing each digit with 9, the result is a decimal number that repeats the n digits indefinitely. The Chinese dragon, a symbol of magic and power, has nine forms. In the Bahá’i faith, nine signifies completeness. Buddha had nine virtues. There are 9 circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno. See you on cloud nine.


Arabic numerals cannot be understood by counting their endpoints. Zero, two, and three have the same number of endpoints as their numeric value, and 4 when it is written with two crossing strokes open at the top (as in the Didot font: 4), but other numerals, no.