Starting out life as an immensely useful number for counting and dividing things, the number 12 became a number revered by mathematicians and early astronomers. So the skies were divided into 12 portions as were the months of year, reflecting the annual movement of heavenly bodies. Superstitions and religious beliefs were piled on top of respect for the number 12. Superstitions concerning signs of the Zodiac and life events have been comprehensively shown to be false. The ancient Zoroastrians had twelve commanders on the side of light (light being a symbol for the sun), the Greeks imagined 12 Gods on mount Olympus, and many Gods have had 12 sons. Mithraists, and then Christians, believed that their saviour had 12 disciples, and Muslim Shi'as list 12 ruling Imams following Muhammad. Such holy persons are depicted with a bright solar light around their heads. Although many ancient religions such as the Gnostics understood things like the twelve disciples of Mithras to be symbolic of the stages of the waning and waxing sun throughout the year, later religions took it literally and believed in an actual 12 disciples - and some still do.
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 meaning1.
We will see from this usefulness and roundness has arisen first respect, then awe, and finally superstitions based on the number 12. It all starts with telling the time and star-gazing.
The oldest preserved zodiac dates from 3000CE when the Sumerians in Mesopotamia developed their Zodiac based on twelve heavenly bodies they could see, such as planets. Sumerian government always composed of twelve people. The Babylonians, with their numbering system of 60, found the number 12 to be practical and useful for calendars and times. The author of "Science: A Four Thousand Year History", Patricia Fara, says "the Babylonians split the heavens into twelve equal sections, one for each lunar month and carrying the name of a prominent constellation. Translated into Latin, these now exist as the twelve signs of the zodiac familiar from newspaper horoscopes, such as Aries the Ram and Taurus the Bull"2. This idea was passed on from culture to culture:
“The notion of the zodiac is very ancient, with roots in the early cultures of Mesopotamia. The first 12-sign zodiacs were named after the gods of these cultures. The Greeks adopted astrology from the Babylonians, and the Romans, in turn, adopted astrology from the Greeks. These peoples renamed the signs of the Mesopotamian zodiac in terms of their own mythologies, which is why the familiar zodiac of the contemporary West bears names from Mediterranean mythology.”
Further East, the Chinese zodiac also had twelve divisions; although they were different to the common ones that Western culture adopted from the Sumerians.
Frequently there were also twelve superior gods. The ancient Zoroastrian holy book, the Menok i Xrat, says that the "twelve Signs of the Zodiac, as the Religion says, are the twelve commanders on the side of light"4. These commanders fight against evil in a battle for the fate of the world. The star-gazers and sun-worshippers of the ancient world would be proud that they were followed by a long series of cultures that imagined a collection of twelve gods:
“Among all the gods worshipped by the Greeks, the twelve deities who dwelt on Mt Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece, formed a special category of their own. The gods of Olympus were usually taken to be Zeus, Hera, Athena, Poseidon, Apollo, Artemis, Demeter, Hermes, Aphrodite, Ares, Hephaestus and Hestia. In certain local variations, positions among the 'twelve' were occupied by Pluto, Dionysus, Heracles or other local cult heroes.”
Some Gods had twelve sons, and some sun gods had 12 disciples to spread the message across the world that the sun wasn't dead; it was rising again in the sky in spring, after being defeated in autumn.
As the division of the divine realm into 12 areas was based on the original stellar usefulness of the number, non-godly religions also developed mystical systems that divided existence into 12 parts. Buddhists hold that life is composed of 12 stages, which together keep the wheel of life turning, ensnaring all life in a samsaric (cyclic) form of existence from which it is hard to escape.
“The Buddhist teaching on samsaric existence is [...] depicted in the Wheel of Becoming. [...] The rim of the wheel is divided into twelve segments and scenes. These show how beings pass from one realm to another, and are call the nidanas. [...] These scenes depict Buddhist teaching on Dependent Origination: the causal chain which ensures that the Wheel of Samara keeps revolving.”
As the stars are divided into twelve, it is only natural to presume that Human communities can be divided into twelve geographical locations, and each one administered by a different personification of the Sun. The Signs of the Zodiac became Leaders; it was thought their influence over the lives of individual people could be worked out through a mixture of planet-watching and confused mysticism. The legacy that such lunacy left us was a deep-rooted religious tradition that the affairs of mankind are rightfully led by twelve leaders. As in (the heavens) heaven, so on Earth. Odin, for example, who sat on a chair that overlooked all of creation, has 12 sons7. Many sun-worshipping religions had their god-man figure gather twelve disciples, one for each division of space. The prime example is Mithras, the half-god half-human saviour of Mithraism, a Roman mystery religion. In keeping with other developed sun-worshipping religions, the saviour (Mithras) is depicted in drawing with an aurora behind his head, representing the sun.
This pagan history crept into many religions; in Judaism mythology Jacob had 12 sons, who went on to procreate the twelve tribes of Israel, god's chosen people (God being the sun, with twelve divisions). So, as Christianity arose out of Judaism, it too inherited the reverence of the number 12. Jesus had 12 disciples. Early Gnostic Christians accepted this as a symbolic and figurative account, but later Pauline Christians took it all literally. Later still, Shi'a Muslims would list twelve ruling Imams who succeeded Muhammad.
“Jesus surrounds himself with 12 disciples. This is usually taken to be symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel. This notion of 12 tribes, however, is itself a symbolic reference to the 12 signs of the zodiac in Babylonian astrology, which the Jews adopted whilst in exile in Babylon. The zodiac was an extremely important symbol in the Pagan world. Osiris-Dionysis is symbolically represented as the still spiritual center of the turning wheel of change represented by the 12 signs. [...] [In] the Mysteries of Mithras 12 disciples surrounded the godman, just as the 12 disciples surrounded Jesus. The Mithraic disciples were dressed up to represent the 12 signs of the zodiac and circled the initiate, who represented Mithras himself.”
Other religious scholars such as "Robertson, Niemojewski, Volney and others" also hold that "as son-god Jesus had twelve apostles representing the twelve houses of the zodiac"8.
Islam became another Abrahamic religion to accept the traditional division of the land and power into 12 areas. Qur'an 5:12 says God appointed twelve leaders to the people of Israel. Qur'an 2:60 and 7:160 tell a slightly odd story which states that God and the angels divided Israel into 12 distinct tribes. The people asked for water, so, Moses was told to strike a rock with his staff. This piece of magic resulted in 12 rivers springing from the rock, and each tribe "knew where to get its own water". This odd radial division of land and people is purely mythical; nowhere are there 12 rivers stemming from one rocky source, and, never have the Hebrews been divided into 12 tribes each with its own source of water. This story clearly has astrological and mythological meaning rather than literal meaning.9
In the largest study ever undertaken of horoscopes, David Voas looked at over ten million married couples:
“Even the smallest tendency for Virgos to fancy Capricorns or for Libras to like Leos would be apparent in the statistics. If only one pair in a thousand is influenced by the stars, we would see ten thousand more couples than expected with certain combinations of signs. In fact, the numbers are just what we'd predict based on chance.”
Prof. David Voas (2008)10
People's astrological signs do not predict success in marriage. But this complete lack of correlation does beg one more question: If people believe in astrology, it seems at first that a certain effect should be apparent. If all Virgos thought they had a better chance with a Taurus and married accordingly, it should show up. How come this sociological effect is not even apparent in the statistics? The reason is that horoscope advice is random. With so many columns giving so many contradictory opinions, choices made by them are as good as random choices. So not only are the predictions random in nature, leading to random choices that people merely think are meaningful, but, the results of unions are completely unrelated to astrological signs.
Why do some people come to conclude that such random advice means anything? Social psychologists have been studying questions such as this for some time.
“Certain beliefs or suppositions imply a similarity between two entities: A child should look like his or her parents, identical twins should behave alike, or a personality description ought to resemble the person it describes. However if the two entities are sufficiently complex, then mapping one onto the other will almost certainly produce a number of points of overlap, and the expectation will appear to be confirmed. [...]
The Barnum effect refers to the tendency for people to accept as uncannily descriptive of themselves the same generally worded assessment, as long as they believe it was written specifically for them on the basis of some "diagnostic" instrument such as a horoscope or personality inventory.”
"How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life" by Thomas Gilovich (1991)11
The critical thinker Carl Sagan did not have access to a database of ten million marriages, but he did conclude from two other lines of reasoning that the planets do not influence our lives12:
When you see the number twelve, watch out. If the number is employed in a practical sense to divide time, measurements, or angles, then the chances are it makes awesome mathematical sense to utilize such a factorable number as the number twelve. But if you see it used in a superstitious, religious, magical, paranormal, holy or weird way, be warned that it is based on ancient sun-worship, star warship, and ridiculous astrology. As a species we have been using it to divide the solar realm into twelve divisions, assuming that each one is ruled by a personification, a god, a divine being, a teacher, a prophet or a son of the sun. Now we understand what stars, planets and stellar objects are, it makes no sense to retain the mystical, nonsensical connotations of the 'holy', 'perfect', 'divine' or 'special' number 12. Such superstitions have made their way into major religions; there are 12 tribes of Israel as founded by the 12 sons of Jacob, the 12 disciples of Mithras and Christ, the 12 Gods of Olympus and according to Shi'a Muslims, 12 successors to Muhammad. Applaud the usefulness of number 12... but watch out for those who are deluded by the pagan, irrational, magical and nonsensical claims made about it! It is, after all, only a number.
Skeptical Inquirer. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly by the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, New York, USA.
The Koran. Translation by N. J. Dawood. Penguin Classics edition published by Penguin Group Ltd, London, UK. First published 1956, quotes taken from 1999 edition.
"Mithraism and Early Christianity" (2002). Accessed 2013 Aug 20.
Buddhism (1995). Published as part of the TeachYourself Books series.
Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009). Hardback. Fara has a PhD in History of Science from London University. Published by Oxford University Press.
How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (1991). 1993 paperback edition published by The Free Press, NY, USA.
Mackenzie, Donald A.
Myths of Babylonia and Assyria (1915). Produced by Sami Sieranoja, Tapio Riikonen and PG Distributed Proofreaders. Amazon digital edition.
Greek Mythology and Religion (1997). Published by Haïtalis, Astrous 13, 13121 Athens, Greece.
Encyclopedia of New Religions (2004, Ed.). Hardback. Published by Lion Publishing, Oxford, UK.
Jesus Versus Christianity (1993). Originally published 1988. Cambridge International Publishers, London UK.
Cosmos (1995). Originally published 1981 by McDonald & Co. This edition published by Abacus.
Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary (1764). Digital edition produced by Juliet Sutherland, Lisa Riegel and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. Accessed via Amazon.co.uk