The American Flag: 13 Stipes and the Five-Pointed Star

(Excerpted from United Symbolism of America by Robert R. Hieronimus, Ph.D.)

Triskaidekaphobia Is Not the American Way

If ever a number has received a bad PR campaign, it’s 13. The fear of this number is a relatively recent phenomena, and when examined as to its source, it appears to be a strange leftover from superstitions of the Dark Ages. When the church was clamping down on pagan folk healers and persecuting women, the number 13 was associated with the Goddess and the way this culture marked time, based on the annual menstruation cycle of the average woman. The current administration of those days spread the word that 13 and symbols associated with 13 were evil and they began burning the folk healers as witches. Some fundamentalist-conspiratorialists explain that 13 is unlucky because it is the number in the room after Judas showed up at the Last Supper to betray Jesus. They fail to mention that 13 is also the number of the group of 12 disciples together with Jesus during all the years of his ministry. Some have gone back even further to the first time 13 is used in the Bible. It appears in Genesis 14:4 in the list of a litany of wars between kings surrounding the story of Abram and Lot. “Twelve years they had served Chedorlaomer, but the thirteenth year they rebelled,” is the phrase, and from this they have concluded that the number 13 is associated with rebellion. Some say that the reason we fear Friday the 13th is that it’s the date on which the Knights Templar were arrested in October 1307, linking the date to bad luck ever since. Before all of these theories, however, in many ancient cultures, thirteen was seen as a number of transformation, symbolizing renewal, rebirth and regeneration. This interpretation may have resulted from the fact that thirteen follows the nice, round, complete number of a dozen. Thirteen is the number of the Zodiac when you include the sun as it travels through them in the year. Thirteen is the initiate, the one regenerating himself. The zodiacal sign of Scorpio is most often associated with the number 13, the sign that is also linked to themes of regeneration and rebirth. One could conclude that in order for America as a nation to reflect the 13 in our flag, many trials and errors over many lifetimes, many rebirths and regenerations will be required for the ultimate success. When we add together the numbers one and three to assess the number 13 numerologically, we arrive at the number four. Four can refer to the four elements of the physical world: air, earth, fire and water. It is in the physical world where rebirth and regeneration must take place to be reborn in spirit or attain spiritual vision. In the I Ching, the 13th hexagram is T’ung Jen, or “fellowship with men” that “must be based upon a concern that is universal.”10

Classically trained scholars, some of the Founding Fathers were probably aware of thirteen’s association with rebirth. The number of Colonies uniting in 1776 as 13 was fortuitous, as an attempt to coerce Canada into becoming a 14th state failed miserably early on. But once they were the Thirteen Colonies the founders really played up that number in their propaganda and symbolism. By doing so, they very well may have been consciously emphasizing rebirth and renewal as much as the number of united colonies. When the artists depicted them as stripes, or stars, or tiers on the pyramid, or arrows in the eagle’s claw, or berries on the olive branch, it meant the 13 individual states were united as one in their effort of renewal.

The Five-Pointed Star

The five-pointed star was almost unheard of in flags before this time. In heraldry, stars of the sky would usually be depicted with six, seven or eight points, and a five-pointed star would sometimes refer to the stars of planet Earth, like starfish or flowers. Hexagrams, or the intersection of two triangles, represent the union of male and female energies, like fire and water, or spirit and matter, and would have symbolically reinforced balance and unity. The five-pointed star is sometimes called the star of man, as it can be likened to the head above the torso with two arms and two legs (think of DaVinci’s Vetruvian Man), or even to man’s five physical senses. The five-pointed star has many mystical meanings. Paul Foster Case said five is “the sign of absolute universal synthesis,” symbolizing the small world or the microcosm.12 Today, through long identification, the five-pointed star is strongly associated with the U.S. military, which began using it based on its use in the American flag. A pentagram is a five-pointed star made by drawing intersecting lines in one stroke with equal angles at all five points. It is thought to have first been deemed sacred by the ancients tracing the path that Venus makes as it traverses the Zodiac. The pentagram has a long history as a magical symbol for many cultures and religions, including the Babylonians, Egyptians, early Christians, and Freemasons. In the last century the pentagram became associated with Satanism, possibly due to a misunderstanding of ceremonial magick. Even if Satanists do use a pentagram, that is just one possible level of interpretation for this popular symbol. Magical historian Eliphas Lévi was responsible in the 19th century for incorrectly identifying the difference between an inverted pentagram, calling it the negative, and an upright pentagram, calling it positive. Before Lévi’s ideas were published the pentagram was used by early Christians and everyone else with the points facing both up and down without any distinction.