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Significance of the number 3 in fairy tales


This is an archived string from the SurLaLune Fairy Tales Discussion Board.


Maybe a theory that prehistoric people were able to count only “one, two, many”.
… the “three” in one context means “typical, average”.
… It happens three times, there is a pattern. 


Author Comment
Unregistered User
(9/3/01 11:31:27 am)
Significance of the number 3 in fairy tales

An assignment recently received was to research the significance of the number three in fairy tales…three little pigs, goldielocks and the three bears…..

Please provide comments.


Unregistered User
(9/3/01 12:40:14 pm)

Hello Betty,


this is a question with many answers… I will try to give you some ideas:

1. Remember the words “three’s a crowd”? With the three little pigs, the three bears, three brothers, the figures become “anonymous”. Take any three brothers in a typical story: They are not a specfic family, like the Miller-brothers or the Smith-brothers, but just “three brothers”. They stand symbolic for any family, and families with fewer or more siblings, as well.
Maybe a theory that prehistoric people were able to count only “one, two, many” explains it better. (Don’t ask what I think about that theory! But that is off-topic anyway.) Still, I think this “counting” conveys my meaning: the “three” in that context means “typical, average brothers”, and it is not important who they are, because they could be exchanged for any other typical, average brothers.

2. If you have the same incident in the story three times, this is done for rythm. And again, it is not a single occurence, or just happening twice by coincidence: It happens three times, there is a pattern. Of course, if you go on and on, the story would grow tedious and boring. But three conveys a message: It is a pattern that is showing, but it happening three times is sufficient to show this to us.

3. (!) The number three is something that dates back a LONG way… In almost every religion, it is a special, and holy number: in Christian faith you have the holy trinity. The ancient Greek and Romans had the three graces, the vikings the three Norns. In Shakespeare you have the three witches. And so on and on. I was running a search on with “three” to find some more ideas and got loads of other “triplets”. Try it!

The “three” is a symbol, and one used in many cultures and religions over the times. It is, I think, still so ingrained in our “symbolic alphabet” that we recognize its meaning in the fairy tale “by instinct”. When we are told “Once upon a time there were three little pigs”, we do not aks: “Which little pigs? Where did they live?” unless we are very, very young children who have not yet learned that symbolism. We know that the storyteller is not relating to any specific pigs, but to an anonymous three who stand there as representatives.

Sorry, I realize I start repeating myself! Better stop here…

Best regards
Best regards
Best regards




Registered User
(9/3/01 12:46:38 pm)
Re: Three

Not sure if it is related to fairy tales and folklore at all, but I remember learning that in many of Shakespeare’s plays, some words/phrases are repeated 3 times so that each side of the audience could be addressed (front and two sides). Perhaps storytellers used this method so their audience could all be part of the action, with each of Cinderella’s trips to the ball addressing a child or group for example. Again, not sure, but maybe a good hypothesis to research?


Dandelion wishes,



Laura McCaffrey
Registered User
(9/3/01 3:13:55 pm)

_The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable_ points out that Pythagoras called three the perfect number, basically because it expressed all – beginning, middle, and end.


Betty, what are your thoughts on the symbolism of the number three? I’m curious as to what you come up with.
Laura Mc


Unregistered User
(9/4/01 10:30:40 am)
Watch it!

Be careful, the #3 is really a Western/European concept. Other cultures (notable Native American) have different magical numbers.




Unregistered User
(9/4/01 11:16:58 am)
Not only a European concept

I know embarrassingly little about native American mythology, but I found the “magic three” not only in European but also in Asian culture, for example in Buddhism and in Chinese mythology/ folk lore. In Hinduism, you have the “Trinity” Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva. So, I believe it to be not only a Western concept. Still, I guess I am typically European: Before reading your mail, I did not think further than Europe and Asia, and in fact I have no idea if there are similar concepts in Africa or Australia, that is, if there is something like numerology in their mythology and if the three does play a part there. And, as I mentioned, I know preciuos little about the Americas. Still, I know at least the Maya had “a thing for numbers”. But I have to confess, I do not know if the three was special for them.
I feel quite bad for not looking farther than the tip of my nose… That is another thing I love so much about this board: it always broadens your horizon!
Best regards,



Unregistered User
(9/4/01 2:53:20 pm)
RE: Three

I think you summed it up really well, Lotti.


I absolutely love the interaction numbers – particularly three and seven – in stories. I use them with great deliberation – that is, I’m very conscious of their symbolic and rhythmic meanings – in my own stories.

Personally, I’ve always liked the synaesthetic meaning of numbers. (I won’t get into what I think “Five” smells like.) But I’d sure be interested in comparing notes on what other’s feel the numbers mean to them.

By the way, I book marked an interesting article on numbers a while ago, if anyone’s interested in a Jungian interpretation:



Unregistered User
(9/4/01 3:59:58 pm)

I am no authority on numbers whatsoever, but I live with someone who is part Cherokee; his grandmother tells me that to southeastern Native American tribes (his family is in the Georgia Tribe of Eastern Cherokee), the cosmos is divided into three parts: the Upper World, this World, and the Lower World. This makes the number three of particular supernatural significance, though I must say I don’t know how that manifests. While the numbers four (the directions) and seven (in beadwork particularly) show up more, three does sometimes appear as a symbolic theme in motifs, ritual, and ceremony/song . .. for what it’s worth . . .



Registered User
(9/7/01 9:01:39 pm)

why isn;t this posting?



Registered User
(9/7/01 9:02:50 pm)

sorry about that — was irked and experimenting, and i’m too sleepy to see the proper way to edit the message, apparently …




Unregistered User
(9/8/01 12:02:53 am)
significance of three

Remember, too, that the third brother or sister is disadvantaged in some way, yet this is the protagonist (who prevails.)
Think of Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Three Little Pigs . . .
I think there is something to be said for the theory that the child compares himself to his very competent parents, and feels discouraged.
The tales offer encougagement.


2 thoughts on “Significance of the number 3 in fairy tales

  1. Children’s stories must include fairy tales. These stories are more than just happy endings; they teach actual moral lessons through the characters and virtues depicted in them. Thank you!

  2. I simply love discussions about the number three… both its recurring presence in different topics and its absence. And while it is true we can find other-than-three as a recurring number in other than European cultures, let us not overlook the fact that when we take stock of the different numbers to the extent be actually itemize them in some other-than mental listing method, we can find that out of the infinity of numbers at our human disposal, we are relying on only a few numbers. Be it your favorite number is 0, or 1, or 2, or 3, or 7, or 13, or 111, 222, 333 (with respect to the assumed presence of angels), human cognitive activity appears to use only a very few number patterns.

    When we find this same number pattern usage in Biology (such as the triplet DNA code ), and the three families of fundamental atomic particles in physics, as well as those trying to establish a three-patterned (quantum) computer; let us note that Nature too is engaging in this same activity. This usage of only a few numbers as recurring patterns suggests we are being subjected to a conservation related to the incremental deterioration of the planet. (The Earth’s rotation is slowing, the Sun is burning out, the Moon is receding). The solar system has a shelf life. As biological creatures we must adapt to the ongoing deteriorations and thus resort to a recurrence of rationalizations already seen in Religious beliefs, Government policies, and Business S.O.Ps.

    As the planet deteriorates and resources become more scarce, one must wonder if the recurring number patterns being used by Nature will change and thus affect human cognition to the point there will be a change in the number pattern being exhibited in writing? One feature of writing with a “three pattern” that is not typically mentioned is to correlated language with hearing. When we look at these subjects together, we again see a recurrence of the “three” pattern such as the Subject- Object- Verb word order and the presence of three membranes to the ear drum, three semi-circular canals, and three bones, etc., If the Ear was designed with a different prominent pattern, one must wonder if our language, and thus our writing would reflect such a pattern. For those interested in alternative representations of the threes phenomena, here are three links:

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