The Magnificent Seven

Lucky seven. Seven chakras. Seven virtues. Seven deadly sins. Seven wonders of the world. Seven days in a week. But what is it with all these sevens?

Take the rainbow, with its seven colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet:

Close up of a rainbow over Whitby as viewed from my workshop window.When you look at a real one as opposed to a cartoon, that division into seven is not at all obvious and certainly not evenly spaced. Red and yellow are clearly there... but where exactly does the red become orange as opposed to red, and where does the orange become yellow? There is no distinct boundary.

As for the greeny bluey purpley end of the spectrum... well there are several shades of green, not a whole lot of blue, and if you can find a boundary between indigo and violet then you have better eyesight than me.

As far as the spectrum and rainbows are concerned we have Sir Isaac Newton to thank/blame for dividing it into seven... although originally he specified only five divisions... adding orange and indigo later... in order to match the number of colours with the number of musical notes in the major scale.

Isaac Newton painted by Godfrey Kneller and looking non too happy about the number of colours in his rainbow.I kid you not and if you haven't heard that before I'm guessing you expected something more scientific, especially when you consider that there's no concrete reason why there should be seven notes in a musical scale either; that's just a western tradition and other cultures have different numbers of notes in their musical scales.

So why WAS this icon of 17th century science, so hung up on the number seven that he felt it necessary to squeeze a couple more colours into his spectrum?

Well, I believe it all comes down to there being seven days in a week, as that seems to pre-date pretty much anything else.

The seven day cycle that we call a week, is widely attributed to the Babylonians. However it's possible that a similar cycle was developed independently by other cultures.

Chakra Pendant as sold via Brighid's Pagan JewelleryWhy? Because like many civilisations before the invention of television, the Babylonians spent the dark evenings making little Babylonians and/or observing the stars.

All cultures that have done this have noted patterns of stars, and have watched them track across the sky during the course of the night. The whole sky seems to move as a single mass... and the following night, the same patterns, make the same journey, all over again.

Over a period of weeks it becomes apparent that the entire sky shifts a little further north or south... and observation over a period of years makes it apparent that this is an annual oscillation.

This was not merely curious, but potentially useful, because by observing these shifts in relation to landmarks, it is possible to chart our progress through the year, and thus predict how much more chilly weather is to be endured before planting crops, and when might be the best time to book summer holidays and get the best deals.

Now in amongst all of this orderly movement of the night sky, there are a few celestial bodies that do their own thing. The sun and moon are obvious examples because although they have their own observable and predictable paths across the sky, they move independently of the seemingly fixed backdrop of stars.

With the naked eye, it is possible to identify five more such celestial deviants, giving a total of seven... and the theory goes that the Babylonians set up a seven day cycle in their honour, and thus invented "the week", which also makes for a rather nice division of the moon's (approximately) 28 day cycle.

Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn - not to scale.

Those other five celestial bodies are: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. However those are the Roman names for them because, as you might expect, when the Romans took over, they kept the seven day cycle, but changed the names to those of their own gods.

Thor fights for a four day week on behalf of the Norse gods.As time went on, the system came into use in Northern Europe where, although we kept the Roman names for the planets, we changed some of the names of the days of the week to honour the Teutonic gods. Thus we have:

Sun's-day
Moon's-day
Tyr's-day (Tyr - Norse god of war)
Woden's-day (Woden = Odin)
Thor's-day (You must know Thor?)
Freyja's-day (Some say Friggs-day)
Saturn's-day

With a couple of thousand years worth of seven day cycles having gone on before he was born, and all of the other stuff that had been tied into it by then, it's hardly surprising that Sir Isaac considered the number seven to be somehow magical, or indeed that we continue to consider it to be so today.

Additional Notes

It always surprises me how many people aren't aware that opposing faces on six sided dice add up to seven. 1+6, 2+5, 3+4. That's how they are made. Also: if you roll a pair of dice, your safest bet is that you will roll a 7, as that's the most likely total.

The Chakra Pendant shown in this article can be purchased at Brighid's Pagan Jewellery.