Seven — The Vehicle of Life

In all religions and amongst all nations of antiquity, seven was regarded as a sacred number. Plutarch, in discussing the symbolism of this number, says: ‘And what need is there to talk about the others when the seven, sacred to Apollo, will alone exhaust the whole day, should one attempt to enumerate all its properties’.231 

According to Jewish interpretation of biblical texts, there are seven Spirits of God,232 and generally throughout the Scriptures prophetic times are denoted in sevens.233 The great significance of the number is explained by some in lunar terms as representing the four phases of the moon’s cycle, which lasts for seven days. However, the most common explanation for the mystique surrounding the number is that the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians recognised seven planets, including the sun and the moon. The ancients regarded the planets as divine, still reflected in some of the names of the seven days of the week: Saturday dedicated to Saturn, Sunday to the sun-god, Monday to the moon-god, Tuesday to Tuisto or Tiw,234 Wednesday to Wotan or Woden, Thursday to Thor, and Friday to Freyja or Frigg. Another point of distinction is that the number seven has the added attribute of being indivisible and, hence, unrelated to any other number in the sequence of one to ten, adding to its perceived supernatural quality.

The association of seven with the spirit of God seems universal. Christians speak of the ‘sevenfold gifts of the septiform spirit’, the Christian Church has seven sacraments, and there are seven divisions in the Lord’s Prayer. In Hebrew religious ritual and custom, the Biblical menorah has seven branches, the three great Jewish feasts lasted seven days, whereas seven weeks separated the first Jewish feast from the second, and Levitical purifications lasted for seven days. 

The prominence of the number seven is evident in all the ancient traditions. The Assyrian Tree of Life has seven branches; Ormuz, the Persian supreme God of Light, was said to sit at the head of a hierarchy of seven Holy Immortals; the ancient Egyptians expressed the name of the Supreme Being by a word consisting of seven vowels; the cave of Mithras had seven doors; the Vedas describe the Hindu god Indra with seven rays bedecking his brow and seven great rivers flowing from him; Brahmins speak of seven prophetic rings, on each of which the name of a planet was engraved; the Hindu god Agni is represented with seven arms; in ancient Japanese lore, there are seven gods of luck; Muslims believe in seven heavens of which the seventh is the holiest. The list of examples goes on and on. 

Similarly, seven is a number mentioned repeatedly in the Old Testament, linked with countless occurrences, and the Hebrew word ‘to swear’ means literally ‘to come under the influence of seven things’. Therefore, seven ewe lambs figure in the oath Abraham makes to Abimelech;235 Aaron is consecrated for seven days;236 atonement at the altar of the Lord lasts seven days;237 sin offerings are to be made for seven days;238 after touching a dead man, one is unclean for seven days;239 for seven days, the Lord had ‘smitten the river’ punishing the Egyptians.240 Again, the list might continue endlessly, but enough examples have been shown to verify the number seven as sacred in ancient religions.

The Pythagoreans called the number seven the vehicle of human life: there are seven days in the week, seven planets, seven phases of the moon, seven metals, seven ages of man, seven notes, seven virtues, seven graces, and seven deadly sins. In Greek mythology, the number was sacred to the God Apollo; there were seven Argive heroes who made war on Thebes, which had seven gates; the flute that the god Pan played had seven pipes; the lyre touched by Apollo had seven strings. 

The number’s holiness led to its expression of symbolic perfection and completeness. This, however, is not to be taken literally, which is why we speak of the ‘seven wonders of the world’ when, in reality, there were many more, and why we still speak of the ‘seven seas’ and say we are in ‘seventh heaven’ when describing pure bliss.

Seven also features in superstitious beliefs. For example, every seven years, our body is believed to change its physiological make-up. This notion probably gave way to the myth of the ‘seven-year itch’, said to tempt adults, who have been in the same relationship for seven years, to find a new partner. The idea also forms the basis for the belief that to break a mirror incurs seven years of bad luck – because it takes seven years for the body to renew itself, hence seven years for the bad luck incurred, when breaking a mirror, to wear off. Parents with unruly children used to console themselves with the thought that everything would change after the child reached the age of seven. The seventh child in a family was believed to possess second sight and always be lucky, whereas the seventh son of a seventh son was purported to have the gift of healing and, therefore, would make a good doctor. On a more sinister note, a German superstition contends that when seven girls in a row are born of a marriage, then one of them is sure to be a werewolf241 – a comforting thought indeed. 


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