Why does the number three have such power in cultures across the world?

Dr. Freud believed there was great sexual and mythical power in three. In his essay, The Theme of the Three Caskets, Freud argues we always wish for a choice between three things, not two. Three provides hope against death.

With three choices, once can tempt gold, silver and lead instead of just a simple even picking between life/gold and death/lead.

Freud also believed three was the symbol of male sexual power: Two testis and one penis. The penis is also made of three erectile columns.

Others argue the Arabic inspiration for the number three is a penis and two testis:

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Here are some other cultural totems linked to Three:

  • The Holy Trinity.
  • Three galaxies.
  • Earth is the third planet.
  • We see the world in three dimensions.
  • Elemental colors are red, green and blue.
  • The Third Reich.
  • Macbeth’s Three Witches.
  • Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva.
  • Heaven, Earth, Hell.
  • Reading, ‘Riting, ‘Rithmatic.
  • Three time’s the charm.
  • Red, white and blue.
  • Three Kings.
  • Three Blind Mice.
  • Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
  • He arose on the Third Day.
  • Three Notes in a Chord.

I find three choices more comforting than two or four. Is the oddness of three what we find tempting in the power of three? Why do you think three is such a powerful idea in our universal human culture?

Where did The Power of Three come from and where is it taking us? What examples of Three can you add to the list?

Do you believe in the Power of Three — or is three just a mythical, human, invention with no supernatural bearing on our lives?

28 Comments

  1. Pick a number and you will find a superstition around it.
    Why, in an enlightened age, do we insist on building skyscrapers with no 13th floor, or roads with no number 13?
    There’s even a name for that one – triskaidekaphobia – fear of the number 13.
    Why do otherwise intelligent people believe 11:11 is a message from the spirits?
    Why do a majority of people, when asked to pick a random number between 1 and 10, pick 7?
    Why, in Chinese superstitions, is 8 a lucky number and 14 unlucky?
    I could go on for much longer …

  2. I never thought that was a wordpress thing – you learn something new every day 😉
    3 does seem more prevalent than other numbers in superstition though.
    I would suggest that it is because there is something non-human about it. We are bipeds and have 1 of some things and 2 of most other things. You get to 3 and there really isn’t much that we have 3 of. Anything non-human tends to get associated with religion and superstition at some point (and sci-fi – witness HG Wells’ tripods in war of the worlds).
    Keep an eye out on people’s web pages. I’ve spotted 11:11 a number of times on random pages 😉

  3. urbanspaceman —
    I like that analysis — three is unique to us and so we mystify it. I’m gonna think on that a bit! 😀
    I don’t like that smiley up where it is. It should be at the very bottom — but not all WP.com themes are created equal — and this Cutline theme was one of the first offered…
    Is 12:12 as powerful as 11:11?

  4. Gordon!
    Three is definitely a powerful number. I am also consumed by the idea of a “Third Eye” some claim we have — it’s as if adding a third to a second somehow empowers us with a mysticism that we have not earned or suppressed.

  5. A real shame I missed this one – but it couldn’t be helped – so will just quickly add ………..
    The Wiccan Rule of Three – The rule of three is simple but very powerful: Whatever you do comes back to you threefold.
    Tripod – has already been mentioned
    Triangles are pretty strong supportive structures.

  6. David,
    this is a fascinating topic. i’ve noticed instances of threes in songs and poems and even good prose and speeches and felt their ability to move something within us. never quite understood why though.
    Friends, Romans, Countrymen…
    Liberté, égalité, fraternité
    3,2,1, get, set, go
    the trident
    Also found it very effective the few times i used it when i used to write advertising copy.

  7. David,
    yes, seven as a number in and by itself. lucky number seven, the seven deadly sins, the seven samurai. there’s also a concept called the tritone in music…
    “On the surface there might appear to be no link between Black Sabbath, Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, West Side Story and the theme tune to the Simpsons.
    But all of them rely heavily on tritones, a musical interval that spans three whole tones, like the diminished fifth or augmented fourth. This interval, the gap between two notes played in succession or simultaneously, was branded Diabolus in Musica or the Devil’s Interval by medieval musicians. ”
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4952646.stm

  8. A thought occurs – binary systems are common, for example we are bilaterally symmetrical and tend to experience phenomena in opposite polarities. Could 3 have special meaning because of how we experience living on Earth? Air, Earth, Water provide the bases for most of our experiences. one might conceivably spin out the possible permutations of the admixture of the three elemental limits to our existence in our attempts to find meaning and symbolism.