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The Number Seven

Seven was frequently used as a mystical and symbolical number in the Bible, as well as among the principal nations of antiquity (the Persians, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, &c.). The reason for the preference of this number for sacred use has been found in its consisting of three—the number of the sides of a triangle—: four—the sides of a square, these being the simplest rectilineal figures :—or In other equally vague circumstances. The real reason, however, seems to be astronomical, or rather astrological, viz., the observation of the seven planets and the phases of the moon—changing every seventh day.

As instances of the use of this number in tiie Old Testament, are found the Creation completed in seven days, wherefore the seventh day was kept sacred; every seventh year was Sabbatical, and the seven times seventh year ushered in the Jobel-year. The three Regalim, or pilgrim festivals (Passah, Festival of Weeks and Tabernacles), lasted seven days; and between the first and second of these Feasts were counted seven weeks. The first day of the seventh month was a ' Holy Convocation.' The Levitical purifications lasted seven days, and the same space of time was allotted to the celebration of weddings and the mourning for the dead. In innumerable instances in the Old Testament and later Jewish writings, the number is used as a kind of round number. In the New Testament we have the churches, candlesticks, stars, Crumpets, spirits, all Co the number of seven; and the seven horns, and seven eyes of the Lamb. The same number appears again either divided into half (3J years, Rev. xiii. 5, xi. 3, xii. 6. &e.), or multiplie'l by ten—seventy Israelites go to Egypt, the exile lasts seventy yea'rs, there are seventy elders, and at a later period there are supposed to be seventy languages and seventy nations upon earth.

To go back to the earlier documents, in a similar way the dove sent out the second time seven days after her first mission, Pharaoh's dream shows him twice seven kine, twice seven ears of corn, &e. Among the Greeks the seven was sacred to Apollo and to Dionysos, who, according to Orphic legends, was torn into seven pieces; and it was particularly sacred in Euboea, where the number was found to pervade, as it, were, almost every sacred, private, or domestic relation. On tin: many ancient speculations which connected the number seven with the human body and the phases of its gradual development and formation, its critical periods of sicknesses—partly still extant us superstitious notions—we cannot hero dwell. The Pythagoreans made much of this number, giving it the name of Athene, Hermes, Hephaislos, Heracles, the Virgin unbegotten and unbegetting (i. e., not to he obtained by multiplication), Dionysos, Rex, &e. The 'seven sacraments,' the 'seven Free Arts,' the 'seven wise men,' and many more instances, prove the importance attached to this number in the eyes not only of ancient but even of modern times. That it played an immense part in the superstitions of the middle ages need hardly be added.

The seven sages of Greece, Thales of Miletus, Pittacus of Mytilene, Bias of Priene. Solon of Athens, Cleobulus of Rhodes, Myson of Chen, and Chilon of Sparta, were all living in the first half of the sixth century BC, and represent a definitely marked period of the Hellenic middle age. Their wisdom was of a peculiar brand, not much to the taste of Socrates' times; and yet, despite all the injustice to the wise men of Plato's and Aristotle's days, the syndicate, once formed, held its own by grace of tradition and of pedagogy.

The numerical question — that is, the question whether a particular set of studies should be seven or some other number — would appear to a modern scholar or divine a trivial point as compared with the question whether the studies were good in themselves. St. Augustin thought differently. Nothing in his eyes could override the numerical question. It can, however, be demonstrated beyond the possibility of reply that seven was not in his opinion the proper number for such pursuits as the medieval liberal arts. Seven was in his opinion a number consecrated to religion. In the 'De Civitate Dei,' seven is said to be the number which represents the perfection of the universal church. St. Augustin's peculiar opinions did not prevail. His voice was not regarded, and seven was introduced in cases where he would not have tolerated it. Cassiodorus, a devoted admirer of the saint, made the liberal arts seven, in defiance of the saint, little more than a century afterwards, and Justinian with his coadjutor declared formally that seven was an admissible number for secular purposes.

After this time devout authors disregarded the sanctity of the number seven. The legend of the Seven Sleepers became famous, and Gregory of Tours wrote on two sets of seven wonders of the world. The only explanation of this which can be suggested is that Augustin's opinions prevailed in a diluted form. Seven was highly esteemed because he had rated it so highly, but it was not thought so extraordinarily sacred as he deemed it.

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Page last modified: 16-12-2017 18:44:31 ZULU