Start Encyclopedia69 Dictionary | Overview | Topics | Groups | Categories | Bookmark this page.
dictionary -  encyclopedia  
Full text search :        
   A   B   C   D   E   F   G   H   I   J   K   L   M   N   O   P   Q   R   S   T   U   V   W   X   Y   Z   #   



Magic Numbers

  Experiments have shown that human beings are the only creatures in the world able to remember and manipulate numbers. Other animals can ‘count’ instinctively: birds, for example, will make up the full complement of eggs in a nest each time one is removed. But calculation, and the awareness it involves of the implications of number, are unique to humans. Perhaps this is one reason for our species\' fascination with numbers, and our habit of assigning them properties which are not merely mathematical, but magical.

The fact that each of us has 10 fingers has meant that, in most societies, the first 10 numerals have particular significance. In a few societies only, for example, some Central American aboriginal tribes, each of the first 20 numerals is distinct from all the others, but usually we count to 10 and then begin again. In the 6th century  BCE, the Pythagoreans of Greece (who founded an entire philosophical and religious system on numerology), assigned special ‘sacred’ meanings to each of the first nine numerals. One was Unity, indivisible and unique, and represented the Deity. Two was Diversity and represented the power of Evil. Three was Harmony (formed from the union of Unity and Disorder). Four was Perfection: the first ‘square’ number (that is, a number formed by another number multiplied by itself). Five was Nature, six was Justice, seven was the climacteric in sickness (the point after which recovery began). Eight was Double Perfection, the octave or ‘full chord’ in music, and also stood for human beings themselves. Nine was Triple Perfection, the trinity of trinities. Similar ideas were common in the numerology of many cultures, such as ancient Babylon and Egypt, the Indus Valley civilization and the earliest inhabitants of South America. The ancient Chinese evolved number-systems based on complex squares and grids: columns of numbers which added or multiplied up to ‘magic’ totals.

Throughout history, the odd numbers have always been assigned more magical properties than the even numbers. In many ancient cultures one was a forbidden number, whose use was allowed only to initiates or priests. Nine was associated with the supernatural, and counting to nine, praying nine prayers (or sequences of three times three, as in the Kyrie eleison (three times), Christe eleison (three times), Kyrie eleison (three times) of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches), or performing ninefold rituals were ways to solicit the attention of supernatural powers or even to enter their world. (If you twirled round nine times in medieval Germany, you were supposed to depart from ‘mortal’ time and enter ‘fairy’ time; whirling dervishes pattern their circles in groups of nine.) Cats (creatures thought to straddle the natural and supernatural worlds) have nine lives in folklore, and the Underworld in Japanese and Greek folklore is said to have nine entrances and nine rivers. Three, the trinity made up of ‘beginning, middle and end’, is a standard magic number in religious and supernatural systems of all kinds, from the simplest to the grandest, and its numerological ‘perfection’ seems to be matched both in mathematics and in Nature, where three-fold symmetry is commonplace.

The most powerful magic number of all was held to be seven. The origins of this belief may be in the movement of heavenly bodies, and their association in early cultures with gods and other supernatural beings. (In Central American aboriginal cosmology, for example, time was a procession, the gods, bearing the days in groups of seven; in Greek and Roman cosmology, each of the seven planets then known was thought to belong to a specific supernatural power, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury and so on.) Medieval European alchemists, drawing on lore from ancient Babylon, assigned seven metals, one to each planet, and maintained that the planet\'s ‘power’ was inherent in the metal and that if you worked on a particular metal or combination of metals at particularly propititious planetary times, you would transmute them into the first of all metals, gold, overseen by the first of all heavenly bodies, the Sun. (The other heavenly bodies, and their metals, were Jupiter (tin), Mars (iron), Mercury (quicksilver), the Moon (silver), Saturn (lead) and Venus (copper).) The seven days of the week were similarly given astronomical/religious associations, and most were named accordingly. From them came the idea that seven was a complete cycle (as in the Hebrew creation myth), and that seven was therefore a ‘perfect’ number. This gave rise in medieval European thought to all kinds of groupings of seven: the Seven Deadly Sins, the Seven Virtues, the Seven Liberal Arts, the Seven Seas, the Seven Sacraments, and so on. But seven had a significance well beyond Europe: there were Seven Wonders of the ancient Greek world, Seven Gods of Love in Japanese folklore, Seven Sages in Middle Eastern folklore. Still, today, seven is a potent number in astrology and superstition.

Examples could be multiplied from all traditions and all historical periods. Our human fascination with numbers is limitless—witness the unceasing efforts, over two millennia and still continuing, to discover the exact (though totally unimportant) value of pi. Modern methods of calculation have vastly increased our understanding, and in the process have given folklore, superstition and number-magic generally a huge new supply of symmetries, coincidences and aberrances to add to those which were known in the past, and which still influence the habits of mind and behaviour of even the least credulous inhabitants of the modern world. KMcL



Bookmark this page:



<< former term
next term >>
Magic Realism


Other Terms : Natural Hazards | Nominal Essence | Reflexivity
Home |  Add new article  |  Your List |  Tools |  Become an Editor |  Tell a Friend |  Links |  Awards |  Testimonials |  Press |  News |  About |
Copyright ©2009 GeoDZ. All rights reserved.  Terms of Use  |  Privacy Policy  |  Contact Us