“Why this triplication?” asked one of our students. We were reading The Frogs, where threes recur in the visit of Dionysus and Xanthias to the underworld.

When Charon’s boat pulls in, Dionysus protocolically greets him three times; he calls for Xanthias three times on the other side of the lake; and later he reminds Euripides that the triple address is customary when talking to the dead.

Odysseus, sailing away from the defeat by the Cicones, says: ‘Nor did I let the curved ships pass on before calling three times on each of our hapless comrades who had perished on the plain…’ (Odyssey IX.64-66)

And on the last night of Troy, Aeneas says that when he heard Deiphobus had been slain and his body was not to be found, he set up an empty tomb for him on the shore and called upon his spirit three times. (Aeneid VI.505-6)

There is a feeling of satisfaction with a group of three, as if it suggests completion, or even perfection. It is a tenet of rhetoric that the tricolon is satisfying to both ear and mind.

There is more than the connection with the underworld. Our student made a list, which included:

  • Aglaia, Thalia, Euphrosyne
  • Clotho, Lachesis, Atropos
  • Medusa, Stheno, Euryale
  • Zeus, Poseidon, Hades
  • Har, Jafenhar, Thridi
  • Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar
  • Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego
  • Pompey, Caesar, Crassus

And this was not to mention the Second Triumvirate, or the Three Musketeers, or the Theological Virtues, or the primary colours, or the Trivium, or the Trisagion—or for that matter the three goddesses who contended for the golden apple.

The Pythagoreans, it is said, regarded three as the perfect number. Pythagoras himself is credited with the discovery that the musical scale has a numerical basis and that harmonic intervals can be expressed in ratios: all this being the beginning of how, and why, number and proportion may affect the human psyche subliminally.

The student who asked the question is both a musician and a mathematician.

Next post: Latin nouns and their genders.

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