If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

- George Washington

Monday, 14 March 2011

Beastly stuff

I was browsing through an old copy of Classic Bike Guide (Nov 2007), specifically an article by Jim Reynolds on a Royal Enfield bitsa which had been reworked with new engine internals to give a bore and stroke which resulted in a cylinder capacity of 666 cc. The bike was inevitably christened "The Beast" and, equally inevitably, there was a sidebar to the article that gave a few 'facts' about the fearsome reputation of the number. There was the famous verse from Revelation:
Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred, threescore and six. (13:18)
and a few references to heavy metal bands and various 'Devil's Highways'. This got me thinking, and 666 is indeed a strange number. I am no mathematician, but Wikipedia gives enough information for me to be impressed with its unusual properties.
  • 666 is the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 36, and is therefore a triangular number
  • The number of prime numbers up to 36 is 11, and the number of prime numbers up to 666 is 121, the square of 11
  • 666 is the sum of the squares of the first seven prime numbers
  • 666 is a repdigit (same digit repeated), a palindrome (reads the same forwards and backwards) and a Smith Number (don't ask)
  • The sum of all the numbers on a roulette wheel is 666
and so on. There's a lot I don't understand here (no surprises there), but it does seem that the number 666 has some remarkable properties. The ancient Hebrews were very keen on numerology, ascribing meaning to all kinds of apparently random numerical observations, so perhaps it is inevitable that a number like 666 should be accorded major significance. But who, or what, is the 'beast'? The Bible is ambiguous, but later scholars seem to have settled on its being a reference to Satan or the Anti-Christ. But is it? Is it perhaps a reference to another symbolic monster altogether? Who or what is the
beast rising out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy (13:1)?
One statement in the magazine which made me prick my ears up was this:
The significance of the number 666 can be traced back to pre-Biblical times
Can it? I have a had a quick look round the interwebs, and I can't find any reference to 666 before the mention in Revelations. But if the Hebrews knew about it, they must have got it from somewhere. And there are so many common threads running through the ancient religions, from prehistoric animism and polytheism to Sumerian and Babylonian, and through to Judaism and the religions of ancient Egypt and Greece. It would be interesting to know if the significance of 666 can be found any earlier than the Hebrews, and if so where and in what context. If Jim Reynolds wasn't making it up, then he must have got the idea from somewhere.

I'll keep looking, but I know that the readers of this blog have an astonishingly wide range of interests and expertise, and I am hoping that someone will come along and offer some words of wisdom.



  1. "There was the famous verse from Revelations"

    Argh! No 's'!!

  2. Dang! Corrected. Thank you Julia.

  3. It's like nails on a blackboard to me. Dunno why, since I'm not even religious!

  4. a Smith Number (don't ask)

    Smith needs to get out more. He really does.

  5. @Julia - dead right. I have the same reaction to people celebrating 'New Years' (or should that be 'New Year's', or even 'New Years''? I have no problem with being corrected if the correction is a good one. I suppose I should have gone for the full "Book of Revelation of St John the Divine", but hey, this is a blog not a thesis.

    @patently - Smith is not at fault here. The properties (roughly, the sum of the digits is equal to the sum of its prime factors - yeah, me too) were discovered by Albert Wilansky, who noticed that his neighbour's phone number 493-7775 had this property. The neighbour was called Smith. A pretty random way to get famous if you ask me.

  6. Almost - the sum of the digits is equal to the sum of the digits of its prime factors. (e.g. 22)

    Amazing that anyone spends time working these things out. Why? Why?? Who works out the prime factors of their neighbour's telephone number? Did Wilansky think women would be impressed with that?

    I think this is why I ended up studying science rather than maths - although it should be said that Mrs P has never been impressed by science either.

  7. @ pedantly - thanks for that! I doubt if Wilansky did it to impress women. No woman I know would get moist at the thought of a man who could work that out - no, who couldn't help himself working it out - in the absence of other factors like a tight butt or the old favourite, a sense of humour. I suspect it is a bloke thing, you know how we are all supposd to be borderline autistic? I'm a bit the same, albeit at a much lower level. Every time I fill the car or the bike, I have to work out the mpg, That's litres, divide by 4.54608, remember that, recall mileage since last fill-up, divide by remembered number, get answer. Mentally if I am feeling sharp, on a calculator (thank you iPhone) if not. Or I do mileage against litres x 10, and do the percentage difference against a theoretical 45.46 mpg. So 110 miles on 10 litres is 110% of 45 mpg, or 49.5. OK, 50.007.

    It's an illness. And Anna isn't impressed by it, more's the pity.

  8. Just a couple of things;

    Satan and the Anti-Christ are not one in the same just as God and Jesus Christ are not.

    Revelations was written by John who was Hebrew but the language used was Greek being he was living on the Greek island of Patmos and most likely spoke Aramaic, the latter being the language Jesus of Nazareth spoke.

  9. Christopher: that's why I wrote Satan or the Anti-Christ. I was not conflating them.

    The question of language is the most fascinating of all, and I didn't touch on it. As I understand it, the OT was written in Hebrew by people who spoke Hebrew, but the NT was largely written in Greek by people who spoke Aramaic. That leads to a lot of interesting possibilities of interpretation, especially when you consider the advances in palaeolinguistics since 1611.

  10. Very nice, apart from one fatal flaw.

    The number is wrong.

    Try 616.

  11. It is sometimes said - not always convincingly - that the original NoTB was either 606 or 616, later amended to 666 for reasons of neatness.

    Some sources quote 666 as being the number of the "spirit of the Sun[God]" in pre-Christian times, notably in a Babylonian context. Babylonian maths was a weird combination of base 6 and base 10, and they were well up on numerology and gematria. The associated powers and protections were apparently often invoked through the scribing of amulets, one form of which was the "magic square". This, in 6x6 format, containing the numbers of the gods (1-36) can be presented with all rows and columns totalling 111, for a grand total of 666, representing the Sun.

    That said, a casual glance on Google doesn't reveal very much mainstream supporting evidence for this particular interpretation. And I did read it many years ago, in a book that also purported to have a genuine recipe for potions of invisibility. (Lacking the necessary body parts of a hanged thief, I never verified that, either).

  12. Interesting. The Bible clearly says 'six hundred and threescore and six' (unless there's a translation error), so the neatening up must have happened before then. The Babylonians were tricky buggers, so perhaps it was them.

    The 'magic square' idea is mentioned in the Wikipedia entry as well, but I got brain fade at that point. And yet the idea of a square, with the number 1 to 9 and each row and column totalling 45, is the basis of a popular game today. As a Su Doku adept, I can see how the idea is attractive.


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