In this post I would like to go over some occurrences of the number 40 in religions, literature, traditions and superstitions. My focus will be on the traditions of the Middle East and the Western world (European). I will also try to make a few speculations about the origins of the number 40, or the origins behind its symbolic value.
Number 40 in the Bible
The people that are knowledgeable about the Bible know that the number 40 is associated with punishment, testing, preparation, waiting or purification. The number appears many times in both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
In the Old Testament, Noah’s flood lasted 40 days (Genesis 7:12). Moses was summoned by God at age forty, he was on top of Mount Sinai for 40 days on two occasions (Exodus 24:18 and Exodus 34:27). The people of Israel were condemned to wander for 40 years in the Wilderness (Numbers 32:13). The prophet Jonah warned the people of Nineveh that the city will be destroyed in 40 days (Jonah 3:4). The prophet Elijah walked for 40 days without food and water at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). Saul, David and Solomon reigned each for 40 years. Gideon, Eli and Deborah judged Israel for 40 years each.
In the New Testament, Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness and was tempted by Satan three times (Mathews 4:1-11). The time between the Resurrection and the Ascension is 40 days (Acts 1:3). More than 40 people conspired to kill Paul (Acts 23:13).
The number 40 appears a few more times in the Old Testament. I will point some additional occurrences when I will make some speculations regarding the origins of the number.
Number 40 in Christian traditions and superstitions
Because the number 40 appears so many times in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we would expect to see the number in many Christian Traditions. For example, the observance of Lent mimics the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness. The number 40 also appears in a few superstitions. According to some versions of Physiologus the serpent does the following:” when he grows old, his eyes become dim and, if he wants to become new again, he abstains and fasts for forty days until his skin becomes loosened from his flesh. And if it does become loosened with fasting, he goes and finds a narrow crack in the rock, and entering it he bruises himself and contracts and throws off his old skin and becomes new again”. According to the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville , the sarcophagus stone consumes the body of the deceased person in 40 days. Also, there was the tradition to keep a ship in a quarantine for 40 days.
The number 40 also appears as the number of various groups of martyrs. The 40 martyrs of Sebaste or the Holy Forty, were 40 Roman soldiers that were killed because of their Christian faith.
Number 40 in other sources
Since Islam is also an Abrahamic religion, we expect to see the number 40 in Islamic traditions. For example, prophet Muhammad was 40 years old when he received the revelation from the archangel Gabriel. Also many people should know the story of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves.
In Egyptian mythology, the number 42 plays an important role. In the Book of Coming Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), the deceased must make 42 negative confessions to prove that he lived a good life. The number 42 is related to the 42 nomes or districts of Egypt (Lower Egypt had 20 nomes and Upper Egypt had 22 nomes). But the symbolism of 42 and 40 are connected to Osiris, the god of afterlife and regeneration. Apis the bull was the animal manifestation of Osiris, and according to Diodorus Siculus (Diodorus the Sicilian) the Egyptians performed the following ceremonies “There should be added to what has been said what still remains to be told concerning the ceremonies connected with the sacred bull called Apis. After he has died and has received a magnificent burial, the priests who are charged with this duty seek out a young bull which has on its body markings similar to those of its predecessor; and when it has been found the people cease their mourning and the priests who have the care of it first take the young bull to Nilopolis, where it is kept forty days, and then, putting it on a state barge fitted out with a gilded cabin, conduct it as a god to the sanctuary of Hephaestus at Memphis. During these forty days only women may look at it; these stands facing it and pulling up their garments show their genitals, but henceforth they are forever prevented from coming into the presence of this god”. The connection between the number 40, Osiris and the afterlife is also seen regarding the process of embalming. According to the Bible, Jacob (also called Israel) was embalmed after he died. The Bible adds the fact that the process of embalming requires 40 days (Genesis 50:3).
Pregnancy and the number 40
I believe that the symbolism of number 40 has its origins in the duration of pregnancy. Childbirth usually occurs 40 weeks from the last menstruation period or 38 weeks after the conception. There are other possible explanations that I will mention, but the connection between pregnancy duration and the number 40 seems the strongest. And we actually have a connection mentioned in the Bible. Leviticus 12 says this regarding the purification after childbirth “A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding”. So, the entire process of purification last 40 days if the mother gives birth to a boy, and 80 days (2 times 40) if she gives birth to a daughter.
The other mentions of the number 40 can be connected to a metaphorical or symbolic pregnancy. The Great flood of Noah can be connected to the birth of a new world. Moses was summoned at age 40, then he was a shepherd for Jethro for 40 years and then he led the Israelites for 40 years (died at age 120). Moses is connected to the birth of a new nation. Also, because the Israelites didn’t obey God, they were punished to wonder in the wilderness for 40 years. The generation that disobeyed God died in the wilderness, but the new generation finally saw the new land (Joshua 5:6). Osiris is connected to the birth or rebirth in the afterlife. In the Egyptian symbolism, we also have more female goddesses like Maat, Isis and Nephthys that are connected to the funerary rites.
I should also add that pregnancy is associated with labor pain. Also, the infant and maternal mortality during childbirth was very high in antiquity. Childbirth was indeed a great trial in the antiquity.
Agriculture and the number 40
The ancient societies were agricultural, so we may expect to see some connections between the number 40 and agricultural festivals. Of course, many of the agricultural festivals were associated to female deities like Demeter. In a way these festivals were a celebration of Mother Earth giving birth to crops.
The Ascension of Jesus is celebrated 40 days after the resurrection. The Pentecost is the tenth day after the Ascension. The Pentecost of the Christians is related to the Shavuot of the Jews. The Shavuot marks the end of the grain harvest that started at Passover. The Shavuot is connected more to the symbolism of the number 49 and 50, but nonetheless has agricultural connections.
According to Gerald Massey “Forty days was the length of time in Egypt that was reckoned for the grain in the earth before it sprouted visibly from the ground. It was a time of scarcity and fasting in Egypt, which gave a very natural significance to the season of Lent, with its mourning for the dead Osiris, and its rejoicing over the child of promise, the germinating green shoot springing from the earth”. Massey makes the connection between agriculture, Osiris, and Lent. He also makes the connection between the story of Osiris/Seth and the temptation of Jesus by Satan.
Astronomy and the number 40
Knowledge of astronomy was very important for the agricultural societies. Certain things must be done in specific time intervals, or the entire crop can be lost. In Works and Days, Hesiod gives the following advice “When the Pleiades, daughters of Atlas, are rising, begin your harvest, and your ploughing when they are going to set. Forty nights and days they are hidden and appear again as the year moves round, when first you sharpen your sickle. This is the law of the plains, and of those who live near the sea, and who inhabit rich country, the glens and dingles far from the tossing sea, — strip to sow and strip to plough and strip to reap, if you wish to get in all Demeter’s fruits in due season, and that each kind may grow in its season. Else, afterwards, you may chance to be in want, and go begging to other men’s houses, but without avail; as you have already come to me”. Besides the agricultural advice, it is interesting that the Pleiades cluster are hidden from the view for 40 days. The Pleiades or The Seven Sisters is a star cluster located in the constellation Taurus. Taurus the bull can be connected to Apis, the bull form of Osiris.
In the book, Etymologies by Isidore of Seville, he says the following about numbers “The reckoning of numbers ought not to be despised, for in many passages of sacred writings it elucidates how great a mystery they hold”. Well I hope that I demystified some of the aspects regarding the number 40. I tried my best to search for this number in various writings and traditions. I also tried my best to explain the origins behind the symbolic nature of this number. We see that many aspects of human culture are interconnected. The symbolism of the number 40 is connected to human biology, agriculture, and astronomy. I tried to be holistic in my approach.
Physiologus, translated by Michael J. Curley
The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, translated by Stephen A. Barney
ANCIENT EGYPT THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD vol.2 , Gerald Massey
Work and Days by Hesiod
Library of History by Diodorus Siculus http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/diodorus_siculus/1d*.html