The magic of numbers

Numbers carry meaning in many cases. The amount of dangles on a pendant is a well-known example, but numbers are also rendered visually in arrangements or designs. These do not immediately jump out, yet their presence is highly meaningful. In this post we’ll go over several of the more meaningful numbers and the way these are visualized.

In jewellery, symmetry and evenness are preferably avoided by using uneven numbers for dangles and other elements. Usually, the number of bells and dangles on a particular pendant or amulet will be uneven, believed to be a way of warding off the evil eye. In some regions, an even number is considered to be outright dangerous as the symmetric perfection of an even number will, it is believed, attract the evil eye.

Three is considered to denote the sacred cycle of life (birth, existence and death) and spells are often recited three times. Many festivities last for three days to enhance their efficacy and good fortune, and triangles, having three sides, are considered a powerful charm. Three is also the old conjunction of man, woman and child and as such was an important number in Antiquity. Many deities were grouped into trinities or triads, and one deity could also be venerated in three forms. Those three forms would be based on the cycle of life and death, and usually are some manifestation of beginning, middle and end. Three-sided symbols or forms made of three's are said to have great power: the six-pointed star of hexagram is a double triangle, for example.

Five is the number most commonly used in jewellery, and some cultures consider the fifth day of the week, Thursday, to be sacred, believing that anything undertaken on this day has more chance of success than activities undertaken on other days of the week. Five is associated with the five pillars of Islam, the five fingers of the hand and the five daily prayers. Five also has a profound cosmic meaning. Five, when rendered as four plus one such as in this Kabyle tabzimt or fibula, visualizes humankind in the center of the four cardinal directions, and as such is a metaphor for Creation.

Seven has been symbolic since ancient Egypt, where the goddess Isis, renowned for her magical powers, is surrounded by seven scorpions. Many shrines in North Africa and Southwest Asia need to be circumambulated seven times. This also holds true for the Kaaba in Mecca, which pilgrims circle seven times counterclockwise. Seven has a cosmic meaning as well: in Antiquity, the seven visible planets were an important element of astronomy and astrology.

All these numbers are repeatedly worked into general jewellery decoration as well. [1] Triangles with three points, squares with four points, crosses with five points (the intersection is seen as a point as well), and their combinations, all provide geometrical decorations generally designed to ward off evil. When worked into a magic square, they combine their powers into an effective amulet tailored for the person wearing it.

So you see, the arrangement of elements in jewellery may be general in that it is a standardized patterning, but it finds its origin in the highly meaningful rendition of numbers.

This post is based on the chapter 'The Evil Eye and Other Problems' in my book Desert Silver.


[1] Westermarck, E, 1904. The magic origin of Moorish designs, in: The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol 34

Lead image has been created adapting works from The British Libary and HmmlOrientalia.

Materiality of Magic-series

In the Materiality of Magic-series, I will be sharing more on these capacities of jewellery and personal adornment. It is in these expressions that we learn about the people themselves: what they feared, hoped and wanted, what their life looked like. In this way, jewellery offers us a view from within, an intimate glimpse on the life of its wearer. To me, that is the true power of jewellery and personal adornment.

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