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The Mystery of Numbers by Annemarie Schimmel

Written by eastern writer on Wednesday, July 23, 2008

there is an integer between three and five, but it is not four, and its true name and nature are not to be revealed.

The Mystery of Numbers is a rather odd book. It begins with a very brief introduction to different number systems and beliefs about numbers, covering the Pythagoreans, gnosticism, the Cabala, Islamic mysticism, medieval numerology and numerical puzzles. The bulk of the book is a kind of encyclopedia of numbers: each of the numbers up to 21 gets its own chapter; after that they are dealt with "en masse". Each chapter is an unordered and pretty much unstructured compilation of beliefs about the subject number, mostly drawn from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. There is no attempt at cross-cultural comparative analysis, or at relating beliefs about numbers to other symbolic systems. Schimmel shows off an immense knowledge of historical and literary detail, but doesn't even try to synthesize it into more than a collection of random tidbits. Here is a typical extract:

In philosophy and psychology, 3 serves as the number of classification: time, space, and causality belong together. Since Plato, the ideal has been taken to be composed of the good, the true, and the beautiful, while Augustine established the categories of being, recognizing, and willing. The Indian Chandogya Upanishad likewise mentions several triadic groups, such as hearing, understanding, and knowledge, and in the later Upanishads, the 3 basic values that express the fullness of the one divine being are sat, chit, and ananda (being, thinking, and bliss).

According to the doctrine of the Zohar, the world was created from 3, namely wisdom, reason, and perception, manifested in the fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For the Cabalists, the uppermost triad of the ten sefirot represents the potencies of perception; the medium triad, the primordial powers of spiritual life; and the lowest triad, the primordial power of vitality. Manichaeism knows 3 ways, and the Temple of the Grail has 3 gates, those of right faith, chastity, and humility.

and so on (the chapter on 3 runs to 28 pages). This is fine for a few chapters, but it soon gets rather tedious.

The Mystery of Numbers is not a book anyone would want to read in one go, and many will find it completely unapproachable; I read the introduction and the first few chapters, then skimmed quickly through the rest. It could be used as a reference, for answering questions like "What is the significance of the number five in this poem?", but the lack of structure will hinder this (though there is a decent index). I thought this was a rather disappointing treatment of what should be an interesting subject.

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Publication Data: The Mystery of Numbers, by Annemarie Schimmel. Oxford University Press, 1994. Paper, 314 pp. ISBN 0-19-508919-7

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