Have you noticed how there are 12 months in a year, most people use a 12-hour clock, and we even have a dedicated word for “twelve units of something” (a dozen)?

Yes, the number 12 is kind of special. Numbers are important to many cultures because it affects how calendars and dates are generated, which in turn affects significant events and holidays, and therefore everyday life.

The significance of the number 12 has some roots in Abrahamic faiths, and it has also played a important role in Ancient Greece. Primitive people also generally counted up to 12, because they used their 10 fingers and 2 feet. And finally, orbits regarding the Earth, Moon, and Sun revolve around the number 12 (12 lunar rotations around the Earth for each Earthly rotation around the Sun).

In fact, it’s so sacred that the following number, 13, is considered unlucky and evil.

But it’s not just the Zodiac signs that exalt the number 12. You’ll never guess just how many cultures have used 12 as a sacred number. Here’s a sampling of some of the most well-known examples of 12 as a sacred number.


1. Western astrology – the 12 Zodiac signs

Western Zodiac. Credit: Zodiac Signs

Western Zodiac. Credit: Zodiac Signs

It’s weird how so many people believe in star signs, because it implies that 1/12th of the world’s population shares the same general fate (weal or woe). Almost every lifestyle magazine has some sort of horoscope prediction for each Zodiac sign, and there are copious guides for succeeding in life depending on your star sign.

Western astrology has its roots in the Babylonian calendar, and was derived by basically taking the sky and dividing into 12 equal parts. Why 12? Well, because there are 12 lunar months, meaning that the Moon rotates around the Earth about 12 times for every one time the Earth rotates around the Sun (remember how that was important earlier?). That’s it – astrology is based on cosmic coincidence. If the Moon happened to rotate around the Earth 13 times a year, we’d have 13 Zodiac signs.

Did you know there’s supposedly a 13th Zodiac sign? It’s Ophiuchus, which falls between 29 November to 17/18 December, depending on the year. According to some astrologers, there’s an even more obscure 14th Zodiac sign – Cetus. Some astrologers, like Mark Lerner, have explained that Ophiuchus does not belong because of the way the Zodiac was derived. But given that it was already based on cosmic observations rather than a systematic or legendary story, Ophiuchus should definitely be considered for inclusion into the Zodiac.


2. Chinese astrology – the 12 animal signs

Chinese Zodiac. Credit: Cafe Astrology

Chinese Zodiac. Credit: Cafe Astrology

If you’re Chinese, then you also have a second set of horoscopes to deal with – your animal sign. Instead of 12 different signs spanning each year, each animal sign spans one lunar year. Again, it’s incredibly strange how so many people believe that an entire generation can share the same fate, because it implies that everyone of a certain age will be equally lucky (or unlucky).

Their arrangement is based on an ancient Chinese story in which these 12 animals had a race to determine who would be the first in Chinese astrology. However, since one of the animals is a dragon (and every other animal is fairly mundane), it’s also very, very odd why the dragon, a mythical creature, didn’t win.

However, thanks to its origins, there are no “secret” or “hidden” Chinese astrological signs (whereas in Western astrology, the Zodiac signs are partly derived from the stars and constellations, rather than a unified myth).


3. Roman/Greek mythology – the 12 Labours of Hercules/Heracles and the 12 Olympians

Kevin Sorbo as Hercules. Credit: American Profile

Kevin Sorbo as Hercules. Credit: American Profile

The 12 Labours of Hercules (or Heracles) is probably the most famous Roman/Greek myth around. The name Hercules is more famous, and is in Roman in origin – but for purists, Heracles is the Greek name.

What you may not have known is that there were originally only 10 Labours to complete – but Hercules had help for two of the labours, so they were “disqualified”. If you remember the television series “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” (with Kevin Sorbo), you’ll remember the narration in the opening titles. One of the lines describes the era that Hercules lived in, “when the gods were petty and cruel, and plagued mankind with suffering”.

Disqualifying twoLabours because Hercules had help? Yep, the Greek gods certainly were petty – and there were 12 major gods, traditionally called the 12 Olympians, who lived on Mount Olympus. Although sources vary on the actual membership of the 12 major Greek gods, many ancient Greek temples revered statues of 12 gods.

Twelve was a pretty important number in Ancient Greece!


4. Abrahamic religions – the 12 Tribes of Israel

In the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites were descended from the 12 sons of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. Each tribe corresponded to one of the 12 sons. Later on, two other tribes broke off to create the Kingdom of Judah (the eponymous tribe and the tribe of Benjamin), with the Kingdom of Israel being comprised of 10 tribes as a result.

If you’ve noticed, a sub-motif of the number 12 is that they are sometimes further split into one group of 10 and another group of 2. You see that in the Labours of Hercules, and also the Tribes of Israel here.


5. Christianity – the 12 Apostles

The landmark that's named after the 12 Apostles. Credit: Visit Victoria

The landmark that’s named after the 12 Apostles. Credit: Visit Victoria

And finally, Christianity has the 12 Apostles – the disciples of Jesus Christ when he took on a human form. The most famous one is probably Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed him and gave him up to the Romans, who later crucified him.

One of the reasons that 13 is unlucky is because Jesus Christ and his disciples make up 13 individuals. Since one betrayed him, and the rest were loyal (so 12 people stuck together), it’s one of the origin stories for the unluckiness of 13.

There are other repeated instances of the number 12 used in the Bible, such as in the Book of Revelations (the last book), where there are 12 gates and 12 angels.


12 Strong. Credit: Golden Village Cinemas

12 Strong. Credit: Golden Village Cinemas

If you think that 12 is no longer sacred today, you’ll be in a for a big surprise. After the 9/11 attacks, a U.S. Special Forces team was sent to Afghanistan to battle the perpetrators of the terrorist attack. Guess what the name of the film is?

12 Strong. That’s right, even in the modern era, 12 is still a sacred number.

And since they proved victorious – we guess that there were 12 Strong soldiers who prevailed!


Credits: American Profile, Visit Victoria, Cafe Astrology, Zodiac Signs, Golden Village Cinemas