Three, as emblematic of the Trinity, has always been considered a sacred number, and long before the Christian era God was worshiped as a triple Deity. This is true not only of the Assyrians, Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, but also of the ancient Scandinavians, the Druids, the inhabitants of Mexico and Peru, as well as the Chinese and Japanese.
So from earliest times the Hindus have worshiped their triad of Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva. In Holy Writ we find three sister virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity; and in classic mythology are trios of Graces, Fates, and Furies, the three-forked lightning of Jupiter, the threeheaded dog, Cerberus, and the trident of Neptune. The tripod was anciently a symbol of prophecy and of divine authority, and the triangle was originally the pagan emblem of a holy triad.
The peculiar significance of the number three was due partly to the fact of its being the first uneven number containing an even one; and from the importance formerly attributed to it may have originated the familiar saying, "The third time never fails."
In the several codes of ancient Welsh laws are numerous so-called triads, of which the following are curious examples:--
Three things which a villain is not at liberty to sell without permission of his lord; a horse, swine, and honey. Three things not to be paid for though lost in a lodging-house; a knife, a sword, and trousers. There are three animals whose tails, eyes, and lives are of the same worth; a calf, a filly for common worth, and a cat, excepting the cat that shall watch the king's barn.
Among the ancient Irish, also, considerable importance was attached to the number three. Thus we read that among the household officials of the High King of Erin were three royal jugglers, three jesters, three head charioteers, three equerries, three swineherds, three janitors, and three drink-bearers.
Multiples of the mystic number three were much employed by witches in their incantations, and they are even now favorites with the Chinese, who have a saying that one produced two and two produced three, while three produced all things. This partiality is illustrated in the dimensions of the Temple of Heaven in Pekin, where three and nine constantly recur.
In a book entitled "Varieties," by David Person (London, 1635), being "a surveigh of rare and excellent matters, necessary and delectable for all sorts of persons the author comments at some length on the significance of certain triads. Among others he mentions three things incident to man,-- to fall into sin, which is human; to rise out of it again, which is angelical; and to lie in sin, which is diabolical. Again, three powerful enemies, the world, the flesh, and the Devil, which constantly assail man, should be opposed by three efficient weapons, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Thomas Vaughan in his "Anthroposophia Theomagica," has much to say concerning the virtues of numbers. "Every compound whatsoever," he says, "is three in one and one in three." In speaking of a natural triplicity, however, he does not wish to be understood as referring to "kitchen-stuff, those three pet principles, water, oil, and the earth, but to celestial hidden natures, known only to absolute magicians."
In Northumberland smooth holly leaves, gathered late on a Friday, are collected in a three-cornered handkerchief and carried home. Then nine of the leaves are tied into a handkerchief with nine knots, and placed under the would-be diviner's pillow, and, as a result, interesting revelations from dreamland are confidently anticipated. In another magical ceremony, a maiden before retiring sets three pails of water on the floor of her bedroom, and pins three holly leaves on her left breast. She will then, conformably to the popular belief, be awakened from her first nap by three loud yells, followed by three horse-laughs, whereupon the form of her future husband will be revealed to her.
The supposed efficacy of these rites doubtless depends chiefly upon the use of the magical holly, but the repetition of odd numbers is also characteristic of charms, incantations, and mystic procedures in all ages and throughout the world.