When I hear the word “sloth,” I generally have a Kriston Bell moment. And I’m not alone. Sloths are enjoying a cultural surge, with sloth memes, sloth fan clubs, and even sloth socks (yes, I own a pair).
Culturally, though, we pay more attention to the cute little critter than we do to the other sloth, that of the Seven Deadly Sins.
The idea of sloth as a sin is complicated. Is sloth laziness? Sluggishness? Apathy? Is it a sin of omission rather than commission?
Scholars have pointed out that sloth has an antecedent in the medieval monastic term acedia,which referred to a sort of spiritual malaise. It was also termed the “noonday demon.” The nomenclature is perfect. We’ve all faced the noonday demon: that ennui that hits right around lunch, when our bellies are either rumbling with hunger or full and happy–either way, our thoughts go wandering and no work gets done. (For a modern take on the phenomenon, see this article from the New York Times, “Their Noonday Demons, and Ours,” ; and in this interview with Kathleen Norris, author of Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life,)
But whether sloth was characterized as spiritual torpor or a conscious decision to be a couch potato, the consensus was that sloth was A Very Bad Thing, worthy of its own demon. And, of course, the early modern period was happy to provide one.
According to the 16th-century German witch-hunter Peter Binsfeld, who classified the “Princes of Hell” according to the Seven Deadly Sins, the demon who best represented sloth was Belphegor (the name likely originates from the Moab god Baal-Peor).
(Note to readers about images of Belphegor:
- The image above is actually from the 19th century, not the early modern period. Sorry, it was the only one I could find.
- Belphegor is very big in anime and in the role-playing game Megami Tensei, where he appears in a modified version of the image above as a purple demon sitting on a toilet.
- if you do a Google image search for “Belphegor,” you’re going to get a LOT of pictures of really kind of sad-looking death metal bands.)
Okay, so now here’s where things get a little weird. The demon Belphegor is also associated with a special kind of palindromic number called “Belphegor’s Prime”:
Note the “666” in the middle with 13 zeros on either side.
I have been unable to find any source explaining why this admittedly terrifying number would be associated with Belphegor. Obviously the number 13 and the 666 are considered to be “demonic,” but why that particular demon? Why not Satan, or Beezelbub, or Mammon? Does it have anything to do with the association between Belphegor and sloth, and if so, why?
Couldn’t resist throwing in these tidbits:
- Simon Singh, author of the brilliant The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, has quasi-nominated Belphegor’s prime for a future Simpson’s Halloween appearance.
- Thanks to Mary Catherine for this gem of a meme and to the conversation between her and Kriston that prompted me to dust off this forgotten blog post.