Pondering on the numbers that crop up in fairy tales (and in everyday life!)

Pondering on the numbers that crop up in fairy tales (and in everyday life!)

In European folklore, we rarely find numbers bigger than thirteen. After all, fairy tales were first an oral tradition; the stories were retold generation after generation, purely from memory, and higher numbers would be tricky to control!


You’ll likely have noticed that three is one of the most common numbers to appear in stories. Fairy-tale kings often have three daughters or three sons, a genie grants three wishes, brave heroes have to complete three tasks, the underworld is guarded by the three-headed Cerberus, and three good fairies visit Sleeping Beauty. Aristotle wrote that the number three expresses wholeness: it has a beginning, a middle, and an end and therefore represents a complete set, requiring nothing further. If we think about it, natural sequences often present in threes: birth, life, and death; past, present, and future. A musical chord is only complete when it has three notes or more. The accomplishment of three tasks is  sufficient to persuade us that our hero is not just lucky but genuinely able and deserving of the princess. A first success could simply be good luck, a second perhaps pure chance, but if the fairy-tale character succeeds for a third time, then this demonstrates that they have truly succeeded and possesses genuine prowess. Three wishes are enough to encompass all our desires. The number three is considered magical all over the world and in many religions, and we frequently apply it in our everyday lives, too – how many times, for instance, have you said: “On the count of three...”? 


Nine is closely associated with three – three times three is nine. The number nine is especially common in Celtic legends. Did you know that many traditional stories from Central Europe feature kingdoms that can only be reached “over nine mountains and across nine rivers”? Meanwhile, cats have nine lives, the magical island of Avalon is ruled by nine maidens, and a nine-headed dragon is one of the fiercest beasts in Japanese folklore. Three threes are even more magical than one!


Did you think that was enough use of numbers? Not at all! Enter the number seven… There are seven colours in the rainbow, seven ravens, seven dwarfs… So, why seven? There are several possible explanations. Scientists have shown that the human brain is capable of recognising sets of seven objects at first sight, without needing to count them. Seven is also a significant number in some religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as in Judaism, where it is thought to represent completeness. Christians believe that God created the world in seven days and that people should nurture seven virtues and avoid seven deadly sins. In music, too, seven is a number associated with wholeness and perfection: the most commonly used musical scale consists of seven notes. Indeed, if you ask someone what number they find lucky, more often than not they will say “seven”, and did you know that the number seven is actually considered a “lucky number” in mathematics? 


The number twelve has been part of human existence for centuries, and many of us still find the need for a “dozen” in our day-to day-life. We buy bread rolls, eggs, sausages, and tumblers by the dozen. A clock measures twelve hours, a year has twelve months, twelve major chords can be played on a piano, Jesus had twelve apostles, there are twelve zodiac signs in the Chinese horoscope, and Buddhism has twelve links of cyclic existence. There are plenty of twelves in the traditional stories, too: Cinderella has to run when the clock strikes twelve! The number twelve signifies order, structure and cyclicity. And it also comes just before thirteen…


In many countries, especially in the West, the number thirteen tends to be associated with bad luck. Coming after the sensible number twelve, it gives the impression of somehow being 'spare’ or excessive. A thirteenth child brings bad luck to the first twelve; something must be wrong if a clock strikes thirteen. In real life, we tend to be extra vigilant on Friday The 13th. In fact, there’s even a special word for that particular fear: Paraskavedekatriaphobia.

Have you noticed these numbers appearing again and again in stories? Children usually accept this phenomenon without question. After all, anything is possible in a fairy tale, so there’s no need to ask why the prince had to cross seven rivers and not just five, or why there are three fairy godmothers and not four. If the story says so, then that’s how it is! 

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