Carnival is over, Lent arrived with Ash Wednesday this week. People are giving up on habits – to probably take them up again after 40 days –, or they take on specific tasks – to give them up again after 40 days. But what is it with these 40 days? Of course, it has to do with religious mysticism. As so many of the things we inadvertently include in our daily life.
The Sumerians might have started it with their God Enki, who was symbolized by the number 40 around 2000 BC. (Thank you, Wikipedia, I had suspected something like this but needed some back-up!) The Old Testament’s deluge lasted for 40 days, and Noah stayed on board the Ark on Mount Ararat for 40 further days until he opened the hatch to let a bird explore whether it was safe to go ashore. Christians are aware that Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days – we basically commemorate this time with practicing Lent. Or not. And there are 40 days between Easter and Christ’s Ascension. Maybe there is a connection that in some parts of Europe but also Asia, people believe that the spirit of the dead lingers around 40 days before it is farewelled with another special service.
In the times of Corona virus and Covid-19, the term “quarantine” gets misused for the isolation of a patient for 14 days. The true meaning is that of 40 days: Sailors had to quarantine off-shore during the Plague in Europe before they were permitted to go ashore.
Are you ready for some more fun facts about the number 40? In the German region I hail from, the 40th birthday is considered the port to wisdom. Therefore, it is celebrated big time.
Of course, many of you know the fairy tale of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves – nothing godly about those, for sure. An Arabian proverb (just to stay in that region) says “to understand a people, you must live among them for 40 days”. I guess, since even after a lifetime of not understanding one’s own people in all its ways, they must mean the linguistic angle. You can actually learn a language within a month if you truly dedicate yourself to it. Indeed, I did so with Swedish, Dutch, and Hungarian back in the day. Would I understand these peoples’ ways of life and thinking after 40 days? I highly doubt it.
A fun scientific fact is that a negative 40 in temperature is the same in Fahrenheit as it is in Celsius. I’m not keen on trying to find out myself whether that is accurate. 40 is also the only integer, i. e. full number whose English name has all its letters in alphabetical order! And in the TV series “Sesame Street”, 40 was apparently the highest number ever counted to. I wonder why – since it would make so much sense to be able to count to 100 (for all kinds of reason) and then at least know about thousand, a million etc. But 40 it is. Truly mystical …
The Irish band U2 wrote and performed a song based on Psalm 40, a text that is about the hope that God keep His promises when one is in the pits. And way before a certain novel about numerous shades between black and white, Johnny Cash wrote and performed a song called “40 Shades of Green”, a song of longing for Ireland and, of course, a girl.
Even competition has the magic number included. Did you ever count the spaces on a Monopoly board? Yep, 40! And did you know the maximum number of runners in the Grand National, the steeplechase rase near Liverpool, England? Again 40.
I could also make up a story about having read 40 of my friend, iconic columnist Joe Boyle’s West Side Stories in the Suburban Times before I gathered courage to timidly ask kind editor Ben Sclair whether he’d permit me to have a weekly column there, too. But I don’t want to bore you and have you have 40 winks. Instead, I’ll leave it to you to find more magic numbers. Maybe, it is not always 40.