The Significance of Three

I have an obsessive/compulsive relationship with the number three that has been in place for most of my life. For many years, it was so subtle that neither I or loved ones noticed.  It existed in childhood but was overlooked.  I have now been a parent for nineteen years, and it is something my children have noticed and remarked on all of their lives.

Sometimes it is obvious, like when they were younger I could only give them three cookies at a time.  Every time.

Sometimes it is less obvious. My daughter quietly observed me for several months before finally telling me that I often repeat things verbally over the course of a week and when I do, I always repeat it three times and then no more.  I often tap things three times before I can use them. I will listen to a song three times before I feel ‘done’. The number three always seems to be there and I perceive it as a kind, friendly number. It baffles me, though. I can look backwards and find patterns of three throughout my entire life, yet I can not find the source of this obsession. I have synesthesia which may have something to do with it. I have lived with synesthesia all my life, but I was well into adulthood before I realized that not everyone experiences the world the way I do. My daughter has it as well. My two sons do not.  But back to my lifelong patterns of three: I’d like to know what triggered it.

I will probably never know.

I take comfort in the fact that the number three has had special significance in multiple cultures since antiquity.  Sacred trinity. Threes in fairy tales, threes in myths.  So, of course, I have to find examples of my special number in my beloved Pre-Raphaelite art.

My favorite instances of three are derived from mythology and folklore. The Three Graces, the Three Fates, the Hesperides, and the Graiae. It is not lost on me that they are all female. I have sought strong female figures all my life.

'Garden of the Hesperides',  Sir Edward Burne-Jones
‘Garden of the Hesperides’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Above is Sir Edward Burne-Jones’ painting of the Hesperides.  The Hesperides were three nymphs, sometimes called Daughters of the Evening.  Mother Earth gave the goddess Hera a tree which bore golden apples when she married Zeus. This tree was later guarded by the Hesperides, as is seen in Burne-Jones’ work. Even though the Hesperides guarded the tree, Hera did not trust them as they ate many apples. So she placed a dragon there as well, seen spiraling around the tree like a serpent.

Fredric, Lord Leighton's painting of The Hesperides is equally beautiful.
Fredric, Lord Leighton’s painting of The Hesperides is equally beautiful.

Shades of the Garden of Eden, there. A paradise complete with serpent. We all lay with serpents.  We don’t always see them.

'The Three Graces', Sir Edward Burne-Jones
‘The Three Graces’, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Above is Burne-Jones’ study for the Three Graces. The term had another meaning for those involved with the later phase of Pre-Raphaelitism.  Three Victorian beauties of Greek heritage were involved with the Pre-Raphaelite circle. They were collectively known as ‘The Three Graces’:  Maria Zambaco, Marie Spartali Stillman, and Aglaia Coronio.  All of them were models, but they were artists in their own right. See What is the Pre-Raphaelite Woman? 

In ancient Greek times, three was echoed incessantly. Especially in a tri-form goddess.


Hekate, a tri-form goddess
Hekate, a tri-form goddess

Singer Florence Welch replicates this triple-goddess-image in her own work:

florencewelch-300x237 (1)

Study of three females dancing, Sir Edward Burne-Jones
Study of three females dancing, Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Early in his career Dante Gabriel Rossetti illustrated  a ballad by William Allingham titled “The Maids of Elphen-Mere”. Incidentally, this particular illustration had a profound impact on a young Ned Burne-Jones before he even met Rossetti or became an artist. The image captivated him and without it his career could have taken a different path.

'The maids of Elphen-Mere', Dante Gabriel Rossetti
‘The maids of Elphen-Mere’, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Three white Lilies, calm and clear,
And they were loved by every one;

I see patterns of three in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s work. Here in Astarte Syriaca, there is a beautiful group of three:

Astarte Syriaca, Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Astarte Syriaca, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

I have been lucky enough to see Astarte Syriaca in person and it is so strong and compelling when right in front of you. It is a large work that inspired me, awakened me.  She has  strong arms that are capable of anything, a steady gaze that could cause enemies to wither, a countenance that tells me that this Goddess fears nothing. She is calm and resolute. She is in control. I would like to draw upon that strength. (Also see Those Rossetti Lips)

'Rosa Triplex'. Dante Gabriel Rossetti
‘Rosa Triplex’. Dante Gabriel Rossetti
John Melhuish Strudwick, 'In The Golden Days'
John Melhuish Strudwick, ‘In The Golden Days’

John Melhuish Strudwick painted a composition of three above in The Golden Days, but he also drew upon Greek mythology to paint The Fates, or the Moerae, who measured out our lives with golden thread.

'A Golden Thread', John Melhuish Strudwick
‘A Golden Thread’, John Melhuish Strudwick

Perhaps the number three is part of my own golden thread. I have decided that instead of questioning it, I shall accept it as a delightful and interesting part of who I am. The part that harkens back to history for meaning and purpose. Three is a number that is sacred in every culture and I have embraced it as my own.  It is not lost on me that I have three children or that I search for patterns of three in art. Three, three, three.

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”–Robert Frost

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2 Replies to “The Significance of Three”

  1. I think that the number three is logically the one number that shows intention. Do something once it is probably a coincidence, twice is rare but still might be by chance – THREE shows intention, which in my world means a kind of magic, a way to show there is an actor and a purpose. Marvellous 🙂

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