Number 21 – The Number Between Eternity and Time

Wednesday 21st, March 2012 / 10:30

By Wolfgang Held, extracted from The Quality of Numbers One to Thirty-one“, published 1/03/12 by Floris Books.

Wolfgang Held was born in Germany in 1964. He worked for many years in the Mathematics and Astronomy section of the Goetheanum, where he now runs the publicity department. His latest book, ‘The Quality of Numbers One to Thirty-one’ explores the fascinating characteristics of numbers in relation to our lives. Throughout March we will be featuring selected edited extracts from this book. Today, the 21st of March, we are looking at the number 21.

The cannons thundered 21 times when the Crown Princess of Sweden said ‘I do’ in June 2010, and 21 times when President Obama was sworn in. And there is a 21-gun salute when the Queen Elizabeth visits a foreign state. Why 21?

When sailing ships were equipped with cannon in the fourteenth century, they were not allowed to enter harbour primed for battle. They therefore fired off the powder from their cannon without cannon balls, and this sign of peace led to the gun salute. Seven such shots were fired since these early battle ships each had seven cannon. Possibly because cannon on land could fire more quickly, the seven salute shots became 3 × 7 shots, and have remained so to this day.

But there are also deeper reasons for this twenty-one-fold thunder: twenty-one is a grand number, less in terms of quantity than due to its inner properties. It is the product of three and seven. Beside the three totals produced from opposite numbers when playing dice (1 + 6, 2 + 5, 3 + 4 = 21), three and seven are also both powerful numbers in their own right. Three is the number of the spirit, of the divine Trinity, and seven the number of development, of time. Thus 21 is the union of spirit and time. At the age of 21 the human spirit stands fully within time, or in other words in the earthly here and now, and has reached the age of majority in the fullest sense.

Whenever an enumerated list appears in religious texts, the number invoked is rarely chance. Probably the biggest single list that appears in the Bible itemises 21 qualities of wisdom in the Book of Wisdom, in the Apocrypha. These are, one can say, a 21-gun salute as hymn of praise to the divine value of wisdom. A spirit is said to live in wisdom that is ‘intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent and pure and most subtle’. (Wisd.7:22f) The human capacity for wisdom is nothing other than the faculty for drawing from the world of ideas, the eternal world, something that fills language and memory and is thus introduced into temporal conditions. Eternity is brought into time through the interplay of seven and three, the two factors of 21.

In Tarot cards widely used to interpret or predict destiny, the twenty-first card is highest in worth, and represents the world or the whole universe.

The Quality of Numbers One to Thirty-one by Wolfgang Held is available for £7.99 from Watkins Books

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