Vol. XXXIV No. 9 — September 1956

The Significant Numbers

The Short Talk Bulletin of June 1925, is concerned with the numbers three, five, and seven as they appear in and are a part of the Fellowcraft Degree of Freemasonry.

Here these numbers are considered as significant in all the degrees of the Ancient Craft.

Three is the “number of the triangle” and the triangle is man’s earliest symbol of an Unseen Power, the first closed figure — therefore significant of endlessness without a beginning. As has been many times stated in this publieation, “three” appears throughout Symbolic Freemasonry in almost countless places.

It has always been a revered number. From earliest known history it has played an important part in religions, philosophies, Ancient Mysteries, systems of learning. The Great Light makes much of it; David had his choice of “threes” — three evils extending over three years, or three months or three days. “Three” occurs in the Old Testament more than four hundred times, a greater number of references than for any other number except seven. In one Masonic degree (not one of the three degrees) important use is made of Ecclesiastes’ “a three-fold cord is not easily broken.”

The three Lesser Lights are related to Sun, Moon, and Venus, the "three” of the ancient Chaldean astronomers.

No less than three can form a lodge, which is a direct throw back to ancient Roman doctrine that three were required to make a College. Solomon and the two Hirams were a quorum in the Temple. An early old Manuscript Roll (the Carmick) depicts the lodge as a triangle. The square and compasses on an altar are so laid as to form two triangles, each with one side missing, signifying their union. Three distinct knocks are required to alarm a certain door and three blows of a gavel raise the lodge to its feet. Even an early exposé of Freemasonry was entitled Three Distinct Knocks (!).

It may be here emphasized that while some religions have found truth in a trinitarian godhead — instance the “Father, Son and Holy Ghost” of many Christian sects — there is no trinitarian meaning to the Masonic emphasis on three, unless the reader desires to consider any reference to three as trinitarian! Freemasonry has but one Supreme Power that it denominates as the Great Architect of the Universe. While the triangle is His symbol and the number three the “symbol of the symbol” it is not from trinitarian implication but from a practice of antiquity so old that no man may say when first the triangle was a “word” for Deity.

If three is to be considered as trinitarian, it must be remembered that a trinity is by no means confined to Christian creeds. The Hindu Trimurti consists of Brahma, the Creator, Vishnu, the Preserver, and Siva, the Destroyer. The world was supposed by the ancients to be under the rule of three gods, viz. Jupiter (heaven), Neptune (sea), and Pluto (Hades). Jupiter is represented with the three-forked lightning, Neptune with a trident, and Pluto with a three-headed dog. The Fates are three, the Furies three, the Graces three, the Harpies three, the sibylline books three times three (of which only three survived); the fountain from which Hylas drew water was presided over by three nymphs; the Muses were three times three; the pythoness sat on a three-legged stool, or tripod; and in Scandinavian mythology we hear of “the Mysterious Three,” viz. “Har” (the Mighty), the “Like-Mighty,” and the “Third Person,” who sat on three thrones above the rainbow.

Man is threefold (body, soul, and spirit); the world is threefold (earth, sea, and air); the enemies of man are threefold (the world, the flesh, and the devil); the Christian and Masonic graces are threefold (faith, hope, and charity); the kingdoms of nature are threefold (mineral, vegetable, and animal); the cardinal colors are three in number (red, yellow, and blue), etc.

In Freemasonry the equilateral triangle is emphasized, especially in the placing of the three Lesser Lights, but some grand lodges do make of them the right-angled triangle of Pythagoras. This triangle is the basis for the “Pythagorean Problem” on the discovery of which he is said to have cried, “Eureka!” and sacrificed a hecatomb. That problem is the geometrical statement that when any two dimensions of a right-angled triangle are known, the third can be calculated. The sum of the squares of the two sides at right angles each with the other is a number, the square root of which is the length of the hypotenuse or line connecting them. Suppose a right-angled triangle of which one leg is three inches, one four inches in length. The square of three is nine, the square of four is sixteen, the sum of the squares is twenty-five, the square of the root of twenty-five is five, which is the length of the hypotenuse. This mathematical wonder is at the base of all terrestrial and celestial measurement, its importance too great to evaluate here.

Two equilateral triangles interlaced form the Shield of Solomon (sometimes called the Shield of David) and when one is dark and the other light, are symbolic of good and evil, day and night, the Chinese Yang and Yin, etc.

“Even Jove nods” and the learned and revered Albert Gallatin Mackey seems to have done so when he finds a triangle in the flap of the familiar Masonic apron, and, because it is mounted upon either a cube or an oblong, developed a Masonic significance in its shapes and angles. Anyone can draw any triangle or square anywhere and contend “this is Masonic” but the statement has no validity. The modern square or oblong Masonic apron with a triangular flap is a manufacturer’s solution to the problem of making the most aprons from the least cloth in the least expensive way. Ancient aprons of which our modest lamb skin or white leather apron is a descendent were animal skins, worn to protect clothing and person; gradually they became conventionalized as almost square and with rounded flap and corners. Modern sewing methods developed the square corners Hence the lack of authentic symbolism of triangle and square in the modern Masonic apron!

“Five” as a number is important in the Fellowcraft Degree; more so than in first and third degrees, and has less in a background of antiquity than either seven or three.

It does appear in Freemasonry at other times and places than in the Winding Stairs and as a reference to the five human senses.

The Pentalpha is perhaps the most important reference to five in the Masonic philosophy; the “five pointed star” which anciently was a Pythagorean symbol of health. It appears in many ancient coins and documents and early Christians considered it as referring to the five wounds in the body of the Carpenter of Nazareth; two on hands, two on feet, one in the side.

Freemasonry emphasizes five also in the five points of fellowship, the greatest number of candidates permitted at one ceremony (Old Charges) the quorum in Solomon’s Temple in the Fellowcraft Degree, the steps and senses in the second ceremony and generally — although usually without consciousness on the part of those who confer degrees — weave it into our ceremonies as did the Pythagoreans as the union of the first odd and the first even numbers (excluding one, or unity.)

This Bulletin would be too large for printing were it to include all the ancient reference to the number seven, or the importance always attached to this number by our ancestors both near and remote.

Jacob’s Ladder in Freemasonry is sometimes pictured with only three rounds — faith, hope and charity — largely because of the lack of skill of early artists; Amos Doolittle, in Jeremy Cross’s True Masonic Chart has only the three rounds, but he does delineate the “seven stars” — the Pleiades.

Seven are (ritualistically) required for a lodge of Entered Apprentices. If the theory is correct that Freemasonry originally had but one degree, which gradually split first into two and then three, seven was probably the original quorum for any Masonic meeting.

Seven days to the week is an astronomical, not a religious division of time; the moon encircles the earth in twenty-eight days, thus making a new quarter visible every seventh day. The Biblical six days for creation, with God resting upon the seventh day, carries out the astronomical derivation of the week. Mackey has “the symbolic seven is to be diffused in a hundred ways over the whole Masonic system.”

Pythagoreans and other followers of ancient systems of numerology considered seven as particularly important because it is not produced by the multiplication of any whole numbers — four is twice two, six is twice three, eight is twice four or four times two, ten is five multiplied by two, etc., but seven is not the product of any multiplication of whole numbers, and consequently, indivisible by any whole number.

These pages might be continued indefinitely with a recount of the “hundred ways” in which seven is spread through history, religion, philosophy, superstition, if not in so many places in Freemasonry. Enough has been compiled and follows, it is believed, to show the importance that all peoples during all recorded history have attached to the mystical numbers three, five and seven.

In taking them for her own and making them part of her system, Freemasonry has but borrowed anew from ancient beliefs, as she has borrowed in so many places and from so many eras.

Among the Babylonians and Egyptians were seven sacred planets. The Hebrew verb to swear means literally “to come under the influence of seven things”; thus seven ewe lambs figure in the oath between Abraham and Abimelech at Beersheba (Genesis 21:28), and Herodotus describes an Arabian oath in which seven stones are smeared with blood.

There are seven days in creation, seven days in the week, seven graces, seven divisions in the Lord’s Prayer, seven ages in the life of man, and the seventh son of a seventh son was always held notable.

Among the Hebrews every seventh year was sabbatical, and seven times seven years was the jubilee. The three great Jewish feasts lasted seven days, and between the first and second were seven weeks. Livitical purifications lasted seven days; Baalam would have seven altars, and sacrificed on them seven bullocks and seven rams; Naaman was commanded to dip seven times in Jordan; Elijah sent his servant seven times to look out for rain; ten times seven Israelites went to Egypt, the exile lasts the same number of years, and there were ten times seven elders. Pharaoh in his dream saw seven kine and seven ears of corn; Jacob served seven years for each of his wives; seven priests with seven trumpets marched around Jericho once every day, but seven times on the seventh day; Samson’s wedding feast lasted seven days, on the seventh he told his bride the riddle, he was bound with seven wither, and seven locks of his hair were shorn; Nebuchadnezzar was a beast for seven years, etc.

In the Apocalypse are seven churches of Asia, seven candlesticks, seven stars, seven trumpets, seven spirits before the throne of God, seven horns, seven vials, seven plagues, a seven-headed monster, and the Lamb with seven eyes.

It is interesting, if not important, to note that Freemasonry’s ages of man are youth, manhood, and old age (three steps on the master’s carpet). Shakespeare (As You Like It) divides man’s life into seven stages; infancy; schoolboy; lover; soldier; the judge; the “lean and slippered pantaloon”; second childhood.

What is especially noteworthy here is that both the dramatist whose knowledge of human nature has made him quotable the world around, the Freemasonry, which for as many or more years has lived because of its knowledge of the human heart and what is necessary for it, both take a sacred and important number to epitomize a lifetime.

Three, five, seven have been woven into the warp and woof of man's fives since man learned to count. It would have been extraordinary if not impossible for Freemasonry to have avoided so common and widespread beliefs. But it is worthy of comment that Freemasonry’s use of the significant numbers is neither religious nor superstitious, but based upon observed facts and concepts that came from nature before they are translated into ritual.

The Masonic Service Association of North America