Try searching for numbers in folklore. You’ll find all manner of things about mystical maths and sacred numbers.
It seems ancient people loved numbers.
In the 6th Century BCE, the Greek Pythagoreans founded a system based on numerology. For them, the first 9 numbers held sacred meanings.
3 represented Harmony since 1 meant Unity, and 2 meant Disorder. Add the two together and you reach a harmonious conclusion.
And 9 represented Triple Perfection. And it wasn’t just the ancient Greeks that developed such systems. Numerology also appears in ancient Babylon and Egypt, the Indus Valley, and even South America.
But numerology and other numbers in folklore are a massive topic. So we’re going to look at the numbers 3, 7 and 9 to narrow the focus!
Let’s have a look at why numbers in folklore hold such power.
The ancient Greeks, Hebrews and Chaldeans practised a form of divination with numbers called arithmomancy.
Numbers are assigned to the letters of the alphabet. A common rule equates A with 1, B with 2, and so on.
So my real name adds up to 189. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure of the significance. I can add them together and get 18, and then 9. Which is cool…I suppose. We’ll find out later why the number 9 is significant.
But for now, let’s switch to numbers in folklore. Let’s start with the number 3.
Three’s a Crowd
Many things in the world of folklore come in groups of three. Think of the Three Bears. Or the Three Billy Goats. And there’s the little mermaid, who needs to secure the love of her prince before sunset on her third day as a human.
Some superstitions rely on ‘third time lucky’. Or the idea you can fail twice before finally succeeding.
But how often do you hear people say bad things always happen in threes? Perhaps humans use the number three as a way to draw a line under misfortune.
Maybe it can be traced back to earlier mythology.
Christianity has the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Christ apparently died at 3 pm. That partially explains why many believe 3 am to be the Devil’s Hour.
The Egyptian pantheon hosts the earlier Trinity of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. In Norse mythology, Odin, Thor, Freyr and Freyja all have three weapons, artefacts or magical items.
And Greek mythology gets in on the act with the triad of Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. The Three Fates, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, govern the length of a human life.
Modern Wicca sees a woman’s life governed by the flow between the Maiden, Mother, and Crone phases. And the day is even divided into three phases; morning, afternoon, night.
And think of the three witches of Macbeth. In Germany, people made paper triangles, adding a cross to each corner. Prayers were written in the middle.
They protected cradles from witches. Somehow, they also guarded against gout.
But why ‘3’ at all?
Perhaps it stretches back to the fundamental way the universe works.
Think of the Rule of Thirds in art and photography. Even three organs hide inside the brain: the pineal and pituitary glands, and the central thalamus.
Maybe the human brain finds harmony in the number three after all.
The 7th son of the 7th son
It’s not just Iron Maiden who understood the importance of the numbers in folklore. In Ireland, the seventh son of the seventh son possessed magical abilities.
And we’re used to the number in our daily lives. We have seven visible colours in the rainbow and seven days in a week. We’ve heard of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
And there are seven notes in a musical scale (the eighth forms the octave and harmony).
But think of the famous saying – seven years of bad luck for breaking a mirror.
Some scholars believe the mystical power of seven derives from the chakra system. Humans have seven chakras, corresponding to the seven levels of consciousness. And if you blend the seven colours of the rainbow, you get white.
Seven in Native American legends
The Kiowa people of North America have a legend about the Seven Sisters. The girls had an eighth sibling, a boy. One day, they were playing and he pretended to be a bear.
At some point, he turned into an actual bear and started hunting them. A tree stump came to their aid, telling them it would save them if they only climbed on.
The sisters climbed onto the stump and it rose into the sky, away from the bear. The seven girls became stars, forming the Big Dipper constellation.
N. Scott Momaday believes the story allowed the Kiowa to relate to the night sky. The darkness was not quite so frightening with relatives looking down on them.
Some believe seven is so powerful because it represents the sum of the spiritual (3) and material (4) realms.
And the number 9!
Nine is a very lucky number since it’s 3 x 3…or the Trinity tripled.
Why else do you think we’re on cloud nine after a good day? Or dressed to the nines?
In medieval Germany, people believed you could enter the world of Faerie by twirling nine times!
Cats enjoy nine lives. And the River Styx flowed around nine twists.
And in Norse cosmology, Yggdrasil supports nine known worlds. And Odin hangs on the tree for nine days and nights seeking wisdom.
But the number nine isn’t quite so lucky in Japan. Said aloud, the number sounds similar to the word for torture.
16th-century theologian Peter Bungus realised the Ninth Psalm predicts the rise of the Antichrist. So perhaps nine is less lucky than it appears.
But it’s not about just numbers in folklore.
I even found some cool superstitions about counting itself! If you have warts, count how many you have. Tell that number to a stranger and they’ll go away.
Apparently counting possessions, money and even children can also cast them away as well. So be careful when you’re writing your insurance manifests.
And if the power of numbers interests you, I have a tale about numbers in my free short story collection below. It asks the question; what if numbers hold the universe together?
Download your copy and find out!
Ghosts & goddesses
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