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“Przekrój” Magazine brings English-speaking readers some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in the fields of wellbeing, art, literature, science, ecology, philosophy, psychology, and more. Take a break from the speed and intensity of the daily news and join us!

For people with hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia, the number 666 is more than just a superstition; it’s ...
2019-06-17 10:00:00

The 666 Faces of the Beast
How to Find the Devil Everywhere

Illustration by Marek Raczkowski
The 666 Faces of the Beast
The 666 Faces of the Beast

Hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia. That’s a real word. And it means something very simple: the age-old superstitious fear of the number 666.

Read in 7 minutes

“Those who would not worship the image of the beast (would) be slain,” warned St. John, the author of the Book of Revelation, which predicts the end of the world. “Let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.” These words have sunk deeply into the memory of Bible readers. And so, for almost 2000 years, people have been looking out for the mythical Antichrist, Satan or another Evil hiding behind three sixes. It would even seem that in our times, the Number of the Beast is more popular than ever before.

Spinning sixes

Take a popular children’s toy, the fidget spinner. Christian fundamentalists declared it a tool of Satan, because while it spins it supposedly creates the shape of three sixes. Never mind that in Jesus’s times nobody knew Arabic numerals; in the original Book of Revelation, the number six-hundred and sixty-six was written in Greek as χξϛ, or possibly as hexakósioi hexēkonta héx (hence the term ‘hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia’), while in the Roman script of the time it would have been DCLXVI. But none of this matters to the fundamentalists, because the devil can be very clever and perverse, of course!

That’s why a scandal broke out in one Polish retail chain when somebody noticed goat cheese offered for 6.66 Polish złotys. Everybody knows that the goat is the bearded, horned symbol of the devil. And the price was no coincidence! Another example: on 6th June 2006, thousands of Dutch people prayed to hold back the forces of Evil, which on that very day (06/06/06) were meant to be particularly active. In maternity wards, superstitious mothers worried they’d give birth to the devil. That was also the day that a remake of the film The Omen was released in cinemas, with its little Antichrist bearing a 666 birthmark. Of course, the premiere started at 6:06:06am.

Even in the heavens, we’re not safe. In the autumn of 2017, the number of the Finnair flight from Copenhagen to Helsinki was changed from AY666 to one less associated with Hell (all the more so because Helsinki’s airport has the designation HEL). We have a similar story from our own Polish backyard. A few months ago, there were protests against bus line 666 between the towns of Karwia and Hel. And across the Atlantic, Route 666 through New Mexico has been re-christened Route 491, so it won’t look like a highway to Hell. Even cars with number plates containing three sixes are seen as unlucky.

If we add to this the references to the Number of the Beast in films and computer games, and the album covers adorned with sixes from various types of metal groups, it turns out that the Iron Maiden song “Number of the Best” is the real anthem of our times. Especially if you’re diligently seeking traces of the Antichrist. Like the former US President Ronald Reagan, who in 1989 changed the address of his residence in Los Angeles from 666 St. Cloud Road to 668 St. Cloud Road, because Heaven forbid that he should be associated with Satan…

Hell in London

But it may still be shocking that today’s unease, often generated by the tabloid media or clever marketers, is only a pale reflection of the palpable fear that Europeans felt over the centuries. While it’s true that nobody expected the end of the world in the year 666, but rather in 1000, the greatest trepidation was brought by the sum of those two: 1666!

At that time, there was more talk of the Apocalypse than in 1000, also because there were more people who could read and count. A few years earlier in Britain, prophets had threatened their compatriots with fire from heaven. The hot and dry year 1666 certainly did feel ideal for this. The fear was deepened by epidemics in Europe, and most of all by the Great Plague in London, which in 1665–1666 took the lives of 100,000 people. Londoners had barely recovered, when on 2nd September the Great Fire broke out. In a few days, it destroyed more than 13,000 buildings, including many prominent ones. Six (!) people died, and as many as 200,000 were left without a roof over their heads.

The news of London’s cataclysm spread through the continent, which was already experiencing disturbances. In Tsarist Russia, 1666 saw a split in the Orthodox church, threatening riots. In the Republic of Poland, the echoes were still being heard of Lubomirski’s rebellion, which had led to bloody, fratricidal battles. But the real and truly Biblical events played out in Asia Minor. Their hero was the Jewish mystic Sabbatai Zevi, who came from the Turkish city of Smyrna (Izmir). Gaining fame in Turkey and in the diaspora across Europe, he declared himself the Messiah. In 1666, surrounded by many followers, he set out for Istanbul, there to crown himself king of Israel. It smacked of the Biblical prophecies of the end of the world. But the Turkish authorities detained Sabbatai, imprisoning him and forcing him to convert to Islam. Only then did faith in the Messiah weaken.

From Mohammed to Hitler

So 1666, representing two very symbolic dates, unfortunately didn’t pass the test. But, of course, there’s always another caesura you can threaten people with. In this way, the Number of the Beast was once associated with Islam. It was proclaimed that Mohammed died in 666, and not 632, so he was the prophesied Antichrist. This path was followed by Pope Innocent III, predicting that the apocalypse would take place in 1284, which he believed was 666 years after the founding of Islam. That didn’t work out, either.

But Mohammed is just one of many examples of attempts to connect the Number of the Beast with a particular person. After all, the author of Revelation assures us that 666 is “the number of a man”. So depending on circumstances, the Beast has been seen in Martin Luther, in one of the Popes, in one of the German Kaisers, and in Napoleon. The proof was to be in the sum of the letters in their name or title. Of course, it all depends on what ingenious code is used to manipulate the values of the letters. For example, for Hitler – an obligatory member of the group of suspects in the 20th century – it was decided that A = 100, B = 101 etc. So Hitler is 107 + 108 + 119 + 111 + 104 + 117 = 666!

The longer you look at such attempts, the funnier they seem. But if we go back to the first Christians, it turns out that there’s something to it. In the Number of the Beast they could see a real, significant figure from their era. A figure who they couldn’t write about straightforwardly, because it would be too dangerous for them.

Caesar or computer?

Two millennia ago, Christianity was under pressure in the Roman Empire, and the emperor Nero had a particularly poor opinion of the devotees of Jesus. Whether he deserved his description as a degenerate in Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical novel Quo Vadis is another matter. But it’s a fact that if we assign the values of the Hebrew script to the title ‘Caesar Nero’ according to the method used at the time by Jewish scholars, the total is six-hundred and sixty-six. The hated emperor also fits so well with the vision from Revelation that after his death, rumours spread that he had only faked suicide, fled abroad and would attack Rome. Or that he would resurrect as the Antichrist and return, sowing destruction. From historical sources we know that in the court of the Parthians – the Romans’ neighbours and enemies – there were even Nero imposters.

But of course, this theory also has its weak points. Nero wasn’t the only Roman emperor who was made into the Beast. For example, the British writer and mythology expert Robert Graves believed that in reality it was the emperor Domitian, who came to power a decade after Nero’s death.

What’s more, with letters and numbers the possibilities are endless. For example, in Hebrew the number 6 was indicated by the letter ‘waw’, transcribed in the Latin alphabet as ‘w’. In this way, 666 turns out to be ‘www’, and the apocalyptic Beast turns out to be the internet. Actually, we can recall the following passage from Revelation: “Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.” Could this be a demonic vision of globalization and digitalization?!

The beast on the streets

The question is whether even the most stubborn subscribers to conspiracy theories can be satisfied by the little-known fact that the ominous number 666 doesn’t appear in all manuscripts of Revelation. Sometimes it’s 616, and even 665. There are also mockers who argue that the Satanic power shouldn’t have three sixes, but these numbers turned upside-down: 999. Just like an upside-down pentagram is supposedly the symbol of devil worship.

But it’s too early to proclaim the end of the Number of the Beast. Especially at a time when the European Union is tottering, and its star-spangled flags are being burned on the streets. Because it turns out that the creator of this symbol of the EU, Arsène Heitz, was inspired by the figure in Revelation of the blessed Woman Clothed in the Sun, who had – wait for it! – “a crown of 12 stars”. So it may suffice to just be patient, and wait until some new prophet throws out the idea that the people burning the EU flag are the minions of the Beast.


Translated by Nathaniel Espino

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