Significance of the Number 3 in Fairy Tales
Numbers do not exist. They are creations of the mind, existing only in the realm of understanding. No one has ever touched a number, nor would it be possible to do so. You may sketch a symbol on a paper that represents a number, but that symbol is not the number itself. A number is just understood. Nevertheless, numbers hold symbolic meaning. Have you ever asked yourself serious questions about the significance, implications, and roles of numbers? For example, “Why does the number ten denote a change to double digits?” “Is zero a number or a non-number?” Or, the matter this paper will address: “Why does the number three hold an understood and symbolic importance?”
My interest in this topic began by observing the common usage of the number three in fairy tales. Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, and the three sisters in Cinderella are classic and well-known examples in which the number three is used. This paper seeks to uncover the mystery of the number three by analyzing the possible reasons the authors use “three” in fairy tales.
Explanations for an author’s use of the number in question can be grouped into three categories (pardon the irony). First, what I call the Cultural Approach assumes a smooth transition for “three” from culture and history into the works of the author. It explains the use of “three” by referring to social conditioning, an idea that society can influence a person to follow a certain pattern or belief even though there is no intrinsic reason to do so. Second, the Psychoanalytical Approach assumes that “three” weighs on the writer’s mind not because of society, but rather due to ways that are a part of the uncontrollable subconscious or natural thought process. While these two approaches are interesting, they seem to lack a sense of simplicity that is implied and required when discussing fairy takes. Therefore, I offer what I call the Utility-Based Approach, which attempts to explain the prominence of “three” by noting its usefulness in telling fairy tales. Indeed, the Utility-Based Approach proposes that “three,” being the smallest possible number that denotes a group, is a useful entity when recalling a tale whose audience is assumed to either (1) desire mental relaxation, or (2) lack advanced/complex mental capabilities.
“Three” has a logical reason for its important role throughout history. It is not merely the number that happens to fall between two and four. “Three” is the union of oneness and duality. It is the first number that is a combination of various previous numbers (assuming, as most societies have done, that zero is not a number). One and two are special as they are representations of ‘oneness’ and ‘otherness’, but three starts the procession of all other numbers to follow (the set of numbers, 3 --> infinity, that can be the sum of a variety of previous numbers)...