The Mysticism of the Number 40


How mystical is number 40? Is it ‘bad’ and ‘evil’? Or is it ‘good’ and ‘lucky’? Different cultures present a broad range of ideas about the significance of numbers. Let’s look at some examples and explore what Ukrainians think about the number 40. To avoid confusion, let’s recall from the outset that Ukrainians succeeded in intertwining a great many religious (Christian) customs with the pre-Christian, i.e. pagan ones. They merged the two seamlessly, and so harmoniously that for a person knowing little about Christianity it would be unclear where one ends and another begins.

Forty Birds to Eat

infographic featuring ten examples of the mystical meaning the number 40 has in Ukrainian culture

On 22 March, many Christians will celebrate the Feast Day of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. And one delightful Ukrainian custom associated with this day is to bake forty ritual pastries or buns in the form of birds. The name of this bread product varies throughout Ukraine, including ‘Larks’, ‘Magpies’, ‘Doves’ and ‘Birds’. 

According to Ukrainian folk beliefs, the forty larks predict the final arrival of Spring on 22 March. Also, with spring, birds and insects return from Vyrii (Vyrii, or Vyriy echoes the concept of heaven in Ukrainian mythology), where they spend their winters. It is thought that these ‘lark’ pastries were a kind of offering of sorts to Spring, asking it to arrive sooner, or an offering to the ancestors’ spirits. These ancestral spirits travelled with the larks from Vyrii, to become the guardians of the fields and meadows, and to bless the people with a good harvest.

Traditionally, the baked larks were given to the neighbourhood children, who would then run onto the streets singing ‘vesnianky’ (spring songs) to welcome the Spring. People believed that the baked larks eaten by the children would contribute to successfull farming affairs – in particular, that poultry would be more bountiful and multiply.

Casting spells with forty sticks

There is another custom that is popular on this Feast Day. Similarly to the previous one, this custom is of interest to women. However, only young unmarried women would perform this ritual. 

On the Day, Ukrainian girls turned to magic. For example, they used forty bobbins or forty sticks while reciting specific spells. With this magic ritual they thought to enchant the men they loved to return their feelings.

A prayer against maggots 

Continuing discussion of spells and magical rituals, here is a spell that in its text includes the number forty. We extracted this spell from our book A Collection of Ukrainian Spells, titled ‘No. 59. Prayer against maggots’:

‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven, not eight, not nine.
Begone worm,
Begone maggot,
From this leg, from these horns, from this [insert colour of the coat] coat, from this bone, from this blood, from this body, from forty joints!’ 

Forty (Engl) = Sorok (Ukr) –> Soroka (Ukr) = Magpie (Engl)

According to an old belief, on the Feast Day a magpie brings forty twigs to make its nest. (In the Ukrainian language, ‘forty’ is ‘sorok’ and a ‘magpie’ is a ‘soroka’. In fact, there are several folk sayings that mention both ‘forty’ and ‘magpie’ in the same context.)

Weather forecast

If you want to know what the weather forecast is for April, make sure to note what the weather is like on 22 March. According to ancient beliefs, the Feast Day’s weather will repeat its pattern for the next forty days. On the other hand, there is a chance that forty frosts (i.e. forty freezing days) will come after this Feast Day. Note the connection with frosts, and that the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste were executed by being frozen to death in a lake.

A gardening tip for pea-lovers 

Plant your peas on the Feast Day. Undoubtedly, it will ensure you an abundant harvest. At least forty pods of peas will be on each plant.

When repenting your sins is not good enough… 

Here is a mention of the number forty in rituals aimed at freeing oneself at least of some sins. According to the old beliefs, ‘whoever kills a viper will be forgiven forty sins’ or ‘whoever sees off forty departed on their last journey (i. e. goes to 40 funerals), will be forgiven three great sins’. 

Remembering one’s soul

It is an age-old tradition in Ukraine to commemorate the departed. Usually, a repast is held immediately after the funeral. Then, the commemorative repast, perhaps with fewer people, is repeated on the ninth and fortieth days after the death of the departed. Also, on these occasions the relatives of a departed person arrange special prayers for their loved ones. It is believed that on the fortieth day the fate of the soul’s future destiny is decided, and it finally leaves the world of the living. 

40th Birthday

Fortieth birthdays are significant but evoke different attitudes. Some strongly advise against celebrating this occasion. Among other superstitions, there is a belief that one’s celebration of a fortieth birthday would amount to an invitation of death. In contrast, others think that this date represents a person at the peak of their abilities.

Pysanka – Sorokoklyn

One of the most ancient and popular designs drawn on pysanky is called ‘sorokoklyn’ (сорококлин). The name ‘sorokoklyn’ is based on the Ukrainian words ‘sorok klyntsiv’ (Engl. ‘forty wedges’). This traditional pysanka design is divided into 40 triangles. Sometimes there are 24 or 48 triangles. Every triangle or wedge represents a natural phenomenon, or a type of human activity, or, in reference to the Christian beliefs, the Great Lent (a forty-day-fast), or forty martyrs.

Here is an excerpt from our book The Story of Pysanka:

Particularly beautiful is a complex line drawing on pysanky under the name ‘sorok klyntsiv’ [forty wedges]. In fact, it does consist of forty wedges. These pysanky are found in Volyn, Podillia, Kharkiv regions and in Bulgaria. Sometimes pysanky with such patterns are called ‘klyntsi’ [wedges] and contain only 24 wedges. When drawing straight and oblique lines on pysanky, the triangles become such a naturally flowing form of the ornament that we see no need to trace its succession from the archaic triangle, which is found on ancient bronzes, textiles and mosaics with symbolic meaning. […]

The religious tendency is captured in one of the most popular pysanky in the geometric style, ‘sorok klyntsiv’ [forty wedges]. Such pysanky have come to mean either ‘a forty-day Lent’ etc. 

Linguists, for you…

In Ukrainian, ‘forty’ is also a special number from a linguistic point of view. When spelt, all but one double-digit number ending with ‘0’, end with ‘-dtsiat’ or ‘-desiat’ meaning ‘ten’ – for example, 20 is ‘dvadtsiat’, or 70 is ‘simdesiat’ (7 ‘sim’ + 10 ‘desiat’). The only exception to this linguistic pattern is ‘forty’. It has neither ‘-dtsiat’ nor ‘-desiat’. It is just ‘sorok’.