The number seven has ever been regarded as having a peculiar mystic significance, and its manifold virtues have been the theme of elaborate monographs. Alike in Holy Writ and among the earliest historic peoples, in classic antiquity and in the mythologies of many nations, this number has been most prominent, and to this fact may reasonably be attributed a portion of the luck associated with odd numbers in general. A complete enumeration of familiar examples of the use of this favorite number, although germane to our subject, would be beyond the scope of this sketch, but a few instances may be, appropriately given.
The origin of the respect accorded this number by the nations of antiquity was probably astronomical, or more properly astrological, and arose from their observation of the seven great planets and of the lunar phases, changing every seventh day.
Saturn is first, next Jove, Mars third in place;
The Sun in midst, fifth Venus runs her race,
Mercury sixth, Moon lowest and last in band,
The Planets in this rank and manner stand.
It was a saying of Hippocrates that the number seven, by reason of its mystic virtues, tended to the accomplishment of all things, and was the dispenser of life and the fountain of all its changes; for as the moon changes its phases every seven days, so this number influences all sublunary beings. The phrase "to be in the seventh heaven" was derived from the seven planets, which were believed by the Babylonians to be carried around upon as many globes of crystal, the seventh being the highest. In the writings of the Cabalists of old are likewise portrayed seven heavens, one above another, and the seventh or highest was the abode of God and the higher angels. The ultimate source of the sanctity of the number seven has, however, been ascribed to the septentriones, the seven ploughing oxen, stars of the constellation of the Great Bear.
An ingenious but not especially plausible reason alleged for the popularity of this number is the fact of its being composed of three, the number of sides in a triangle, and four, the number of sides in a square, thus representing two of the simplest geometric figures.
Certain Biblical critics of a speculative turn of mind have concluded that its prominence as a symbol is due to the emblematic significance of its component parts, three and four; the former representing Divinity, and the latter Humanity: in other words, "the union between God and man, as affected by the manifestations of the Divinity in creation and revelation."
In some portions of a great work on magic, discovered by Mr. A. H. Layard among fragments of clay tablets in the ruins of a palace in ancient Nineveh, are many incantations, formulae, and conjurations, in which the number seven occurs repeatedly.
As familiar instances of the prominence of this number in former times may be cited the seven wise men of Greece, the seven gates of Thebes, and the legend of the seven sleepers of Ephesus.
Other examples are given in the following "seven heroic verses" sent by a certain Mr. Michelburn to one Mr. Crisp, who owed the former seven shillings:--
Friend Crisp, I send you verses only sev'n,
The number's od, God numbers lovs unev'n;
Sev'n Hills at Rome, sev'n months of Nilus are,
Sev'n sacred Arts, the World's sev'n Wonders rare,
The week sev'n dais, the Heav'ns sev'n Trions show.
But one thing rests, sev'n shillings you me ow,
Which that you'l pay, sev'n Verses I bestow."
In ancient Ireland every well-to-do farmer had seven prime possessions,--a house, a mill or a share in it, a kiln, barn, sheep-pen, calf-house, and pigsty.
The number seven appears more than three hundred times in the Scriptures. God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, and throughout the Old Testament, as well as in the Apocalypse, the constant recurrence of this sacred number is noteworthy. Thus we read of the seven fat and seven lean kine of Pharaoh's dream, and also, in the account of the Fall of Jericho (Joshua vi. 4): "And seven priests shall bear before the ark seven trumpets of rams' horns: and the seventh day ye shall compass the city seven times, and the priests shall blow with the trumpets."
According to a popular mediaeval tradition, Adam and Eve remained but seven hours in Eden.
Seven archangels are mentioned and in the Bible and in Jewish writings,--Michael, who was the special guardian and protector of the Jews, and in whose honor the Festival of Michaelmas is celebrated on the twenty-ninth day of September by the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches; Gabriel, the messenger who appeared to the Virgin Mary and to Zacharias; Raphael, spoken of in the Book of Tobit as the companion and guardian of Tobias, and conqueror of the demon Asmodeus; Uriel, an angel mentioned in the Book of Esdras; Chumuel, who, according to Jewish tradition, wrestled with Jacob; Jophiel, who expelled Adam and Eve from Eden, and who was the guardian of the "tree of the knowledge of good and evil;" and Zadkiel, the angel who is supposed to have stayed the hand of Abraham when the latter was about to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Samson's strength resided in seven locks of his hair, representing the seven rays of Light, the source of Strength. And the shearing of these seven locks by Delilah, a woman of low character, has been described as a triumph of Evil in suppressing Light.
According to Herodotus, the Arabs of the desert had a peculiar method of confirming a vow of friendship. Two men stood on either side of a third, who made incisions with a sharp stone on the palms of their hands, and, having dipped in the blood therefrom some portion of a garment of each, he proceeded to moisten with it seven stones lying on the ground.
The age of the world, in the opinion of learned men of former times, was properly divided into seven great epochs; namely, the first, from the creation of Adam to the Deluge; second, from the latter event to the time of Abraham; third, from Abraham to the Exodus of the children of Israel; fourth, from that time to the building of Solomon's Temple; fifth, from then to the Babylonish Captivity; sixth, the period between that and the coming of our Lord; and seventh, from the beginning of the Christian era to the end of the world.
According to astrologers, man's age was divided into seven parts, governed by seven planets. The first part, Infancy, comprised four years, and was ruled by the Moon, a weak, moist, and changeable body. Next came Childhood, a period of ten years governed by Mercury, a planet indifferently good or bad, according to the character of the planets with whom he was associated. Following this came Youthhead, from fourteen to twenty-two, over which Venus presided. Next was Adolescence, lasting twenty years and ruled by the Sun, and in this age man attained his full strength and vigor. The fifth, from forty-two to fifty-six, was called Manhood, and was under the dominion of Mars, a bad star. At this time men began to wax angry, impatient, and avaricious, but were more temperate in their diet, and more discreet. The next period of twelve years was called Old Age, governed by Jupiter, a noble planet, whose influence rendered men religious, chaste, and just. The seventh was Decrepit Old Age, ruled by Saturn, and comprising the years from seventy-eight to ninety-eight.
In the Lambeth Palace Library there is a manuscript of the fifteenth century in which the seven canonical hours are compared with the seven periods of human life, as follows:--
Undern, School Age.
Mid-day, the Knightly Age.
Nones, or High Noon, the Kingly Age.
Midovernoon, Elderly Age.
Evenson, Declining Age.
In the "Secrets of Numbers," by William Ingpen, Gent. (London, 1624), the number seven is described as the most excellent of all for several notable and curious reasons, and prominent among these was the alleged fact that the Soul consists of seven parts, namely, Acuminie, Wit, Diligence, Counsel, Reason, Wisdom, and Experience.