Monday, May 29, 2017
The Sacred Number Seven (Chambers's Journal 1905)
The Number Seven, article in Chambers's Journal 1905
HIPPOCRATES declared that the septenary number, by its occult virtues, 'lends to the accomplishment of all things, and is the dispenser of life and foundation of all its changes.'
Like the number three, seven has from time immemorial held a conspicuous and sacred place in the scheme of things. Just exactly why this should be so it is difficult to determine, because, although we find a definite reason in many cases, in others it would appear to be purely accidental.
Human nature, moreover, when keenly set on establishing a theory, is ever prone to look around in all directions, picking up everything that seems to fit the mosaic. That the ancients considered uneven numbers to have special force and efficacy there is abundant proof. Shepherds of ancient Greece were especially enjoined to see that the number of their sheep ‘be not even.’ That there were seven sages of ancient Greece and just seven wonders of the ancient world savours very much of chance or coincidence. Although three was considered most acceptable to the gods, Aristotle tells how, because weakly infants commonly died before this date, the seventh day was therefore honoured with the solemn festival of naming a child. Even in this twentieth century the luck in odd numbers— thirteen alone excepted—is largely believed in— seven as frequently as three; and as recently as last year a ‘wise woman’ of the Emerald Isle seriously asserted that there was no cure for a certain child’s complaint unless the seventh son of a seventh son could be discovered for the deed. But a curious old rhyme respecting magpies would seem to contradict this magic potency of seven:
One for the sorrow, two for the truth,
Three for a wedding, four for a birth,
Five for heaven, six for hell,
Seven for the deils' own sel'.
Mrs Hemans, in apostrophising ancient Rome, thus refers it will be remembered, to her unique position:
On the seven hills of yore
Thou sat'st a queen.
Another classic instance, similarly curious, may be recalled:
Seven wealthy towns contend for Homer dead,
Through which the living Homer begged for bread.
History records many more. One in evidence just now is that long secretly guarded Chapel of the Pyx, dedicated by Edward the Confessor to St Peter, and, on this account obviously, only entered, even in later years, by those stately officers of State when seven huge keys had fastened its heavy double door.
It is to be regretted that little now remains of the original locality 'where famed St Giles ancient limits spread,’ and where ‘an inrailed column reared its lofty head:’
Here to seven streets seven dials count the day,
And from each other catch the circling ray;
but the name of Seven Dials is in itself sufficient testimony to one more honour paid to this typical number.
That folks were in olden times occasionally ‘scared out of their seven senses’ clearly indicates the number of senses at one time recognised, supposedly under the influence of the seven planets. On this and other theories the ancient Hebrews, Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks founded their respect and reverence for the number seven. The seven bodies of alchemy may be appropriately referred to here.
One of the more prominent proofs of the original significance of seven in use at the present day is the ‘seven years’ lease,’ instituted because life was supposed to be in danger and to undergo a change every seven years. Hence we have Shakespeare following up this supposition, and affirming in those oft-repeated lines:
And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages.
Closely allied, of course, is the ‘seven years apprenticeship,’ and that dreaded ‘seven years penal servitude’ —made so conspicuous in the case of Adolf Beck—which, when the sin merits such severity, becomes twice and three times seven.
It may be observed, in passing, that seven witnesses were required by the Hebrews to attest an oath. The one instance, probably, when seven judges were deputed to sit in judgment was that of those appointed by the justice-loving though unpardoning Maria-Caroline of Naples for the ‘Junta of State' over persons accused of treason. The ‘deadly’ sins of the Catholic Church were, strange to say, formerly eight, until, somewhere in the Middle Ages, there dawned a happier day, and the monks, in a lenient mood and with a leaning towards the mystical number, elected that there should be only seven.
Dumas, in his Isabel of Bavaria, refers to an ancient privilege which authorised the deputies of the six merchant bodies to accompany the kings and queens of France upon their entry into Paris from the gate of St Denis to the palace, followed on this occasion by the representatives of the different manufacturing bodies clothed to represent the ‘seven capital sins,’ and, by way of contrast the ‘seven Christian virtues.’ The recognised ‘sins’ and ‘virtues’ appear to have varied slightly at various periods of religious history, though in number usually ‘seven.’
Kingsley, it will be remembered, says, ‘Every duty which is hidden to wait returns with seven fresh duties at its back.’ The Mohammedans believe in an angel who, before recording man’s ill deeds, waits ‘seven hours, peradventure he may ask pardon.’
To be in the ‘seventh heaven of delight’ is a qualitative term still in use for superlative expression, and may be traced to the cabbalistic belief in seven heavens, although Ptolemy recognised only five, the Hebrews three, and other systems nine of these states. To refer again to Shakespeare, he on more than one occasion showed considerable preference for seven, convinced, seemingly, of the ‘divinity in odd numbers.’ He speaks of tears salted seven times. His prophetic wish that there shall be in England ‘seven halfpenny loaves sold for a penny’ assuredly came from a kindly heart, as well as that thoughtful reflection of the potential good lurking in ‘seven hundred pounds and possibilities.’ In an age so greedy of gold as the present, the same could hardly be expressed in less than seven figures, while in the eyes of the extremest section of these money-minded mortals perhaps seven millions of pounds is barely adequate for their designation of bliss.
Space will not permit the enumeration of all the instances in which seven is pro-eminently set forth in the Scriptures. It is interwoven with almost every Biblical story. Beginning with the Creation, we find that the seventh day was consecrated to rest. Noah had seven days’ warning of the Flood, and, by command, took fowls of the air and ‘clean’ beasts by sevens. The ark touched ground on the seventh month; and after seven days a dove was sent out, and again after seven days more. On the seventh day of the seventh month a holy observance was ordained to the Children of Israel. The seventh year was a sabbath of rest for all things. At the end of seven times seven began the grand jubilee. Every seventh year the land lay fallow. Every seventh year saw a general release from all debts. Jacob served seven and yet seven years for Rachel. Pharaoh’s dream predicted seven years of plenty and seven of famine. When the sluggard is spoken of as wiser in his own conceit than seven men that can render a reason, the number would seem to be selected without any special purpose. The fiery furnace for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego was heated seven times hotter than usual, with rather more significance; just as the old law bade man forgive his brother seven times seven, and the newer law seventy times seven. At the destruction of Jericho seven is curiously emphasised. Seven priests bore seven trumpets seven days, and on the seventh surrounded the walls seven times. Balaam when sacrificing prepared seven altars. Turning to Job, we see his friends sitting with him seven days and seven nights, and offering seven bullocks and seven rams as atonement. King Ahasuerus in the seventh year of his reign feasted seven days, and on the seventh directed seven chamberlains to find a queen, who was allowed seven maidens to attend her. For leprosy, seven dips in Jordan were enjoined upon Naaman. The lamps of the Tabernacle numbered seven. Seven different persons are brought back to life. Enoch was the seventh after Adam, and Christ (also ‘translated’) the seventy-seventh. From the Cross He spoke seven times. He appeared seven times. Another striking instance is when Christ cast out seven devils. Frequently seven appears to be typical of thoroughness and completeness.
The Apocalypse likewise revels in this revered number. It may also be noted that the apostles planted seven Churches in Asia, and that the sacred books or Bibles of the world are seven in number —namely, our Christian Bible, the Koran, the Eddas of the Scandinavians, the Five Kings of the Chinese, the Tripitaka of the Buddhists, the Vedas of the Hindus, and the Zend-Avesta of the Persians.
Continually as we contemplate the moon, seldom do we heed the fact that she has seven phases, and even sometimes forget that the rainbow, too, is septenary in character. Yet our ancestors gave serious, albeit possibly superstitious, regard to these circumstances. But in the mystic realm of music seven notes confront us far too constantly to be callously overlooked, and that dominant seventh is perpetually giving particular evidence of itself. Wynn Westcott points out that seven pipes are seen in the instrument played upon by the older deity Pan. Dice, though of ancient origin and found in very early Egyptian tombs, were not originally numbered. This evolution of a considerably later period obviously keeps the gambler also perpetually in mind of seven. Anciently, the symbol of the universe was a ship with seven pilots.
Conspicuous in the field of fiction is that attractive old Syrian legend which tells how those seven Christian youths of Ephesus fled from the rage of Decius and lived in a cave until discovered; then, when great stones were, by the enemy, rolled before its mouth, they fell asleep, the story says, for one hundred and ninety-six years, to woken once more living testimonies of a resurrection from the dead. The Island of the Seven Cities is another curious legend regarding a fabulous land of the Atlantic which gave refuge to a body of Christians in flight from the Saracen conquerors, who had, at the instigation of their seven bishops, committed themselves to It is somewhat singular, considering the pre-eminent position this number has for ages occupied, that the bishops who at a memorable epoch of English ecclesiastical history so stoutly stood on their trial for freedom should have numbered neither more nor less than seven. Was this one of those cases one ought to set down to coincidence? Whether or not, wherever one turns one stumbles on seven. One more instance will suffice, of the poet who advocates:
Seven hours to law,
To soothing slumber seven,
Ten to the world allot,
And all to Heaven.
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