What is it about “3” of anybody that is so intriguing?
Three Wise Men, Three Musketeers, Three Stooges, Larry, Darryl and Darryl; Ed, Ed, And Eddy, the list goes on.
And Then There Were Three seems to be a much used phrase as if it had some ominous significance as opposed to any other number there might “then be”.
“And Then There Were Five.” —Nope, doesn’t cut it. Why?
My guess would be that it’s so very convenient for drama, which involves the creation of some conflict, and it’s resolution.
It gives the storyteller a very natural mechanism. With just one, there’s no real conflict — you need at least protagonist and antagonist. With two, you can only resolve the conflict if one side is naturally weaker, which is less dramatic. Adding a third element can let both sides remain equal, yet resolve conflicts.
Mathematically, these sorts of connections and relationships are studied by group theory. In group theory, two objects are nearly as trivial as one — there’s still only one possible unique structure (the “finite simple group of order 2” from the song). When you add a third object, things get lots more interesting — it forms the dihedral group of order 6 (D3).
Once you add a fourth element, the possibilities start grow too fast. The channel capacity of the listener is quickly exceeded, and the story get to be “too complicated”. You could probably manage four, but five would be “right out”. I can’t really think of many stories with four central characters.
Three also has so many rich symbolic possibilities, explicitly recognized by Hegel with his dialectic:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thesis,antithesis,synthesis, not the least of which is father, mother, child.
Three is symbolically very important, and there’s likely a certain amount of hardwiring in the brain going on. An event occurring once is just a random event. If it occurs twice, it’s a coincidence. Three times, and it’s a pattern—but a dynamic pattern (contrasted with say, 4, the number of wholeness and stability)—a pattern which is self-sustaining / regenerating, and potentially infinite.
So, as Scott mentioned, you get thesis, antithesis, synthesis—mother, father, and child; but you also get past, present, and future as represented by the three fates of Greek mythology, the three Norns of Norse mythology, or the maiden, mother, and crone, of celtic mythology.
There’s also the symbolism of the human frame: mind / head, heart, and body / gut; each of which is emphasized in the three body types of Greek medicine—ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph; thought, emotion, and action.
A particularly good example of this is Classic Star Trek—with Spock (mind / ectomorph), Bones (heart / endomorph), and Kirk (body / mesomorph). Acting in concert, these three aspects of the self can accomplish anything.
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