Sacred Forty 

The number forty was sacred amongst most nations of antiquity and is significant in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic tradition. The ancient Babylonians noted that the Pleiades, a revered constellation of stars in Taurus, disappeared for forty days with the seasonal rains. This might have contributed to the reverence with which the number was regarded, although it seems likely that the number was used simply to represent a rough calculation of large units, reflecting a lot or many, much like in modern times we might speak of dozens.

The number forty keeps coming up in the scriptures, expressing a period of probation or trial. Amongst the countless times the number forty is mentioned in the Old and New Testaments are the following examples: Moses went up to the mountain and spent forty days and forty nights there with the Lord;242 Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years before finding the promised land;243 Elijah fasted for forty days and forty nights;244 the rain was on the Earth for forty days;245 after forty days, Noah sent out a raven from the ark;246 the search for the land of Canaan took forty years;247 the children of Israel were delivered into the hands of the Philistines for forty years;248 many kings were reputed to have ruled for forty years, among them Eli,249 David,250 Solomon, and Gideon.251 The punishment of criminals in biblical times was limited to forty strokes.252 Jesus spent forty days and nights in the desert, tempted by Satan.253 Forty days was the period from Jesus’ resurrection until his ascension into heaven. The list goes on and on.

According to Creationism in Catholic theology, it was believed in medieval times that God created the soul forty days after conception of boys and eighty days after conception of girls. The foetal cycle or period of human gestation, from conception to birth, is forty weeks long. The number forty has also been retained on the Christian calendar. For instance, Halloween is celebrated forty days after the autumn equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. Similarly, the festival of Candlemas on February 2 falls forty days after Christmas, and Lent consists of forty days preceding Easter. In Europe, it was customary for a woman to be ‘churched’ forty days after childbirth before she could resume all her normal duties, as women were traditionally looked upon as unclean until forty days after confinement.

In Muslim culture, the dead are mourned for forty days, and Mohammed is believed to have been forty years old when he received the revelation delivered by the angel Gabriel. 

The number forty is still echoed in the word ‘quarantine’, from the Italian term quaranta, which carries the same meaning. Sailors were usually kept in isolation for this period, observing the early tradition of the magic figure forty, presumably in the belief that the magical significance of this number protected them and dispelled any evil in the form of diseases clinging to them.

In modern times, the expression ‘to catch forty winks’, meaning a short sleep is still in use, and a popular maxim is that ‘life begins at forty’. 


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