12 Days of Books: Twelve

by Tracy Barrett (W&M contributor)

Twelve days of Christmas. Twelve months in a year. Twelve inches in a foot. Twelve hours on a clock and 12 x 2 hours in a day. Twelve apostles. Twelve gates to the city. Twelve animals in the Chinese horoscope. Twelve Sanskrit names of God. Twelve disciples of Mohammed and Mithra. Twelve signs of the zodiac. Twelve tribes of Israel.

What is it with the number twelve?

It has such a powerful hold on our collective imagination that the normally meticulous and scarily accurate copy editor of my most recent novel, Dark of the Moon, “corrected” me when I mentioned the thirteen moon-cycles in a year (there are 28 days in a cycle; 13 x 28 = 364). She just couldn’t wrap her mind around the fact that although there are twelve months in a year, there are thirteen moon-cycles.

Thirteen is similarly unlucky in many cultures, to the point where there’s a word for fear of the number thirteen: triskaidekaphobia. Examples of the evil and frightening nature of thirteen are way too numerous to list.

Some would have it that our leeriness of the number thirteen comes from the number of diners at the Last Supper, but it’s much older than that. In fact, it’s likely that the writers of the gospels wrote about thirteen dining companions because that number was already considered unlucky, and possibly, too, because of its ties with the idea of sacrifice, especially of a male god or priest or his stand-in.

Robert Graves, especially in The White Goddess, claimed that the fear of thirteen came from ancient religious rituals in a matriarchal society where a male ruler (or god stand-in, or priest) would be sacrificed in the thirteenth month, often to have his blood sprinkled on the fields as a fertility rite.  Naturally, the sacrificee and males in general would tend to have issues with that number! This is part of Graves’s theory of the sacrifice of a substitute taking the place of the intended victim (Abel, Enkidu, Remus, almost Barabbas, etc.)—a theory discredited by many scholars, but enthralling nonetheless.

So I wove those elements into the “last supper” scene of Dark of the Moon. My vision of the female-centered religion of the Minoans when it was in the process of being supplanted by the male-centered Greek religion reflects many of Graves’s theories, including the importance of the numbers twelve and thirteen (plus sacrifice of the king and other elements, many deriving from Leviticus).

And that’s all I’m going to give away about it!


Tracy Barrett is the author of numerous books for young readers, most recently Dark of the Moon (Harcourt) and The Sherlock Files series (Henry Holt). She lives in Nashville, TN, where she taught Italian, Humanities, and Women’s Studies at Vanderbilt University. Visit her website and her blog.


  1. Cathy C. Hall says

    I’m wearing my lucky robe as I type this comment to win–it has nothing to do with 12 or 13 or sacrifice (and to be honest, I’m always wearing my lucky robe around this time of the morning) BUT it does have a rather interesting history. 😉

  2. says

    Fascinating stuff! There’s also that special difference between twelve and thirteen kids feel so keenly when they’re growing up. Getting to add “-teen” to your age is a minor rite of passage.

    • Tracy Barrett says

      And so many religions have thirteen as the age where a child becomes an adult and can be initiated into the religious community!

  3. says

    How much is being a prime number part of it? Especially coming after such a symbolic rock star such as 12 (12 apostles, tribes of Israel, divides into 3 (the Trinity) and 4 (four gospels, etc. — I’m a medievalist, hence the Christian perspective))?

    I’d love a copy of the book.

    • Tracy Barrett says

      I think it’s a large part of it–although seven is a prime too and is lucky. Three and four both have mystical powers; 3 + 4= 7 and 3 x 4 = 12, so they’re extra-powerful. I’m a medievalist too–don’t get me started on Dante and nine!

  4. says

    Isn’t it interesting how superstitious people and cultures were…well I would have to say that a lot of our own customs have come from these superstitions. Your book sounds interesting..Thank you.

  5. says

    Hi Tracy

    I am the reverse of people who are scared of the number 13! I love i!!

    All the best things in my life happens on the 13th. I was fascinated when you said your editor was uncomfortable about the number. Perhaps 13 is the numerical equivalent to black cats.

    That said, I would love to get a copy of your book. I think it’s a fascinating topic and I I’m really hoping that you pick me!

    Have a wonderful holiday season

    • Tracy Barrett says

      Hi Shelley, I don’t think my copy editor was really uncomfortable with thirteen, just that there’s such a cultural mindset in favor of twelve that it didn’t occur to her that there were thirteen moons in a year.

      Your name is in the hat–picking will be at random!

  6. Meridth Gimbel says

    Hi there Tracy,

    I’m a fellow Midsouther. I LOVE your work. I haven’t read this book yet so I will cross my fingers 13 times so that I can win 😉

      • 2c says

        or as i put it in the original comment
        for reasons of proof reading
        …and our research on behalf of ‘searching’ children here
        put twelve in the hat and chuck us plus one
        call it
        a lucky backing doze on 4 error/spoiled/burned/dropped one
        oh go on then
        coded in brief – cant be bothered to code it fully again
        please read true between the lines
        to tidy things up
        my original comment made note far more detailed

        that route 66
        people may all use
        but from different starting points for different reasons and destinations
        etc – please dont mash the metaphor too readily

        though things are there in numbers for all cultures to find
        but even three
        can be mechanical strength
        etc…much more
        or sets like
        that which connects parent to child in a good culture

        or all of the above

        but be careful
        there are sensitive minds out there
        and one must take care
        looking into numbers can be useful
        waste of time
        or dangerous

        code breaking culture especially in numbers can be deadly to the mind

        so yes
        we would like to vet your book
        see which way it rumbles
        we give thanks

        with rose free glasses
        awaiting your copy



  7. says

    Hi Tracy,
    I think so much of it is perspective. I was born on the Ides of March. Obviously I think it’s a great day but I’m sure some of my friends and family would side with Cesar on that one. 😀

  8. Chris U says

    I was amazed to read the first two paragraphs in this post; I’ve thought them myself, almost word for word, many many times! What is it about the number 12. Exactly. My favorite theory is that our world is a joint creation, literally a dream, of 12 refugees floating somewhere on their way somewhere. I imagine they begin the voyage awake but boredom? sets in and they drift off… And 13? Who knows?

  9. says

    Very interesting post. I’m also in Nashville, Tracy. I was so glad to get the email from W&M the other day for an email subscriber update. I’ve been missing W&M! Would love to win a copy of the book. Thanks for the chance!

    • Tracy Barrett says

      The holidays ran away with me and I neglected to choose a winner! The roll of the 20-sided die came up with Linda as the winner. Please check out the list of my books and send me your choice and your address (TracyTBarrett at yahoo dot com) and I’ll get one in the mail right away.

      Thanks to everyone for participating!

  10. librarypat says

    Thank you for a most interesting post. I never gave much thought to 12. I remember reading once about the importance of 7 and 40 in many circles. I can understand how a number or thing could become important within a culture, but for the same number to find repeated importance and influence over and over is a bit more than random.
    I’ll be looking for DARK OF THE MOON to see what influence numbers have in this story.

    • Tracy Barrett says

      I’ll be interested in learning what you think of it! It’s not really a major theme, but twelve and thirteen are woven into various important rituals.

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