The Power of Three

Those who know me well appreciate that I am a cricket tragic. But despite all the wonderful things that have happened in cricket in the last few weeks I am not inclined to impose my fanaticism on you.

But let me share this with you. When the TV commentary team was describing the field they stimulated a latent thought in my declining mind. Someone mentioned that there was a fielder down at “third man”. My perverse thinking began to wonder where was “first” or, indeed, “second” man. My limited understanding of the distribution of cricketers around the playing field allowed no notion of such field placements.

It caused me to give some cogitation about the sacred number three.

Was it a hint that once there had actually once been such a triumvirate? Of course such a taxonomy still exists closer to the wicket where we often find first, second and third slips.

A very special event in cricket is to take three wickets in three successive balls – a “hat trick” in fact. But the number three has had great significance for millennia. Pythagoras believed that the number three was significant mainly because every event had a beginning, middle and an end. Therefore there were inevitably three phases to cope with. Three was also important because it was the sum of the numbers that preceded it. As well it ended a set of numbers that when added together or multiplied together got the same answer, viz. six!

The number three has some distinctive properties in mathematics. For example any fraction with three in the denominator (or indeed multiples of three) will have a recurring array of decimals when expressed as a decimal fraction. (Such fractions for reasons that escape me are called “vulgar” fractions!) Intriguingly any number whose individual digits sum to a multiple of three will be divisible by three.

In prehistoric times, civilisations struggled to enumerate beyond two. It was common in primitive societies to count, “one”, “two” “many”. So in such societies the number three was the entry into large numbers of unknown magnitude.

The number three of course has great significance in religion. In 325 AD (I understand this terminology is now frowned on – but what the heck!) the First Council of Nicea came up with the perplexing idea that God was really comprised of three distinct essential elements –The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. Christianity’s claim to be a monotheistic religion faltered a bit here! But like many Christian traditions there seems to be a precursor in pagan religion.

Religious scholars Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy write:

“Hundreds of years earlier, an ancient Egyptian text has God proclaim, ‘Being One I became Three’.

Another reads:

‘Three are all the gods, Amon, Ra, Ptah. There are none like them. Hidden in his name as Amon, he is Ra, his body is Ptah. He is manifested in Amon with Rah and Ptah. The three united.’”

Freke and Gandy provide considerable evidence to suggest that Christianity is built on the platform of many pagan beliefs and is perhaps the least original of the major religions.

Hinduism has a similar concept in the Trimurti. In this version, divinity is manifest in the principal Hindu gods of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. These figures represent the divine forces of creation, preservation , destruction and change. Well over a thousand years prior to the First Council of Nicea, it was written in the Vedic text, the Rig Veda how god manifests in three different aspects. It is assumed by scholars that this is the origin of the Trimurti.

Not being as sexist as the early Christian fathers, Hinduism also had the concept of the three goddesses, Tridevi, as well. The Tridevi was comprised of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, art and culture; Lakshmi, the goddess of fertility and abundance; and Durga, the goddess of love and spiritual fulfillment.

Buddhism doesn’t seem as replete with references to the number three, being built on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold path. But there is often reference to the Three Jewels of Buddhism. Many Buddhists believe that enlightenment comes from The Buddha, who showed the way, the Dharma, or Buddhist teachings, and the Sangha, the community of active spiritual seekers. These collectively are the three jewels of Buddhism.

There are many other instances of the number three appearing in Christianity. With the memory of Christmas still fresh in our minds, let us just dwell for a moment on the three wise men who came to present the baby Jesus, soon after his birth, with their three offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They were called Magi which perhaps more than coincidentally was the title given to that other God-man from pagan origins, Mithras. So three in the beginning, when Jesus was visited by the three Magi and three shepherds, and three in the end when he was crucified along with two thieves.

I wonder if Christianity hasn’t missed an opportunity here. Remember in the sixties we used to read Reader’s Digest Condensed Books? In anticipation of the “now generation” Reader’s Digest would produce summarised versions of famous books for those of us with short attention spans to read. I fantasise that if they had been let loose on the New Testament that we might have had the gospels shortened to just Mathew, Mark and Luke. Or even more intriguingly, if they had a go at the Old Testament they might have summarised the principal tenets of the religion in the Three Commandments.

But more power to the number three. In mathematics, religion and indeed philosophy we can’t avoid it. Hegel brilliantly proposed in his dialectic that from thesis and antithesis comes synthesis.

The power of three is imposed on us from an early age by such classics as “The Three Little Pigs”, “The Three Bears” and “Three Blind Mice.” Then we read fairy stories where people are granted three wishes. When we get a little older we read “The Three Musketeers” or watch “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.” Or we dip into the “Lord of the Rings” and find that there were three Rings of Power given to the elves.

You might wonder why I chose such a topic to write about. It’s really very simple.

I have three children.

I have participated in writing three books.

And I have about three hairs on my head that aren’t about to fall out.

So three cheers for the number three! (They’ve probably already done this on Sesame Street.)

6 Replies to “The Power of Three”

  1. Of coure who could forget the instructions for counting to 3 from Monty Pythons Holy Grail. For those less informed……

    Holding the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch]
    King Arthur: How does it… um… how does it work?
    Sir Lancelot: I know not, my liege.
    King Arthur: Consult the Book of Armaments.
    Brother Maynard: Armaments, chapter two, verses nine through twenty-one.
    Cleric: [reading] And Saint Attila raised the hand grenade up on high, saying, “O Lord, bless this thy hand grenade, that with it thou mayst blow thine enemies to tiny bits, in thy mercy.” And the Lord did grin. And the people did feast upon the lambs and sloths, and carp and anchovies, and orangutans and breakfast cereals, and fruit-bats and large chu…
    Brother Maynard: Skip a bit, Brother…
    Cleric: And the Lord spake, saying, “First shalt thou take out the Holy Pin. Then shalt thou count to three, no more, no less. Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out. Once the number three, being the third number, be reached, then lobbest thou thy Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch towards thy foe, who, being naughty in my sight, shall snuff it.
    Brother Maynard: Amen.
    All: Amen.
    King Arthur: Right. One… two… five.
    Galahad: Three, sir.
    King Arthur: Three.

  2. Actually, it is a little known fact that God created the Universe in only three days.

    At the end of those three days He created Red Wine and spent the next three days at the pub before retiring.

  3. Mind you, the theology may be a little dodgy.

    The pub in question was really jumpin’ on New Years Eve.

  4. I love thine alliteration: ‘Writing Wednesday’…May I heccpanre suggest mine own?Tweaking on Thursday,Finishing on Friday,Subbing on Saturday,Sending on Sunday,More on Monday…So tired on Tuesday.Methinks ’tis the only way to success.Good luck to all in 2009!

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