Odd numbers are intimately associated with the black art, for witches' incantations are commonly repeated three or nine times. Who ever heard of a witch performing any of her mystic rites exactly four or six times? Apropos of this may be quoted the following story, taken from the advance sheets of a work entitled "Golspie," edited by Edward W. B. Nicholson, M. A., Bodley's Librarian in the University of Oxford, England, and loaned by him to the writer. The book contains much interesting folk-lore of the extreme north of Scotland:--
A woman who lived near Golspie was always telling her neighbors that a woman whom they all believed to be a witch had cast an evil eye upon the cow and herself. "Her milk and butter were spoiled," she said; and she also told them that in a dream she saw the witch in the shape of a hare come into her milk-house and drink the milk. One day when she was in the wood for sticks, her neighbors went into her byre, and seeing a petticoat on a nail, cut a number of crosses on it and put it in the cow's stall. Then they tied nine rusty nails to a cord with nine knots on it. This cord they tied to the chain on the cow's neck, and then went away. Shortly after the woman came home, she went into the byre, and seeing the petticoat, nails, etc., ran out to her neighbors screaming, and calling to them to go and see what the witch had done on her. To make sure that it was the witch's work, she showed them the unequal number of nails and knots. Then she took everything that she thought the witch had handled, and made a fire of them, saying that she could no longer harm any person, because her power was destroyed by fire.
The employment of odd numbers in magical formulae is exemplified in the following recipe for a drink against all temptations of the Devil, used by the Saxons in England:--
Take betony, bishopwort, lupins, githrife, attorlothe, wolfscomb, yarrow; lay them under the altar, sing nine masses over them, scrape the worts into holy water, give the man to drink at night, fasting, a cup-full, and put the holy water into all the meat which the man taketh. Work thus a good salve against the temptations of the fiend.
A Hindu woman, on returning with her young child from a strange village, is careful, before entering her own dwelling, to pass seven small stones seven times around the baby's head, and throw them away in different directions, in order thus to disperse any evil which may have been contracted during her trip.
And as a preliminary to other mystic procedures, in order to avert the Evil Eye, the Hindus wave around the patient's face seven pebbles taken from a spot where three roads meet, seven leaves of the date-palm, and seven bunches of leaves of the bor tree. It may not be surprising that such mysterious rites, whose efficacy depends chiefly on the magical potency of certain odd numbers, should be popular among the natives of India, but it is noteworthy that these numbers are equally influential in Christian lands. A multiplication of examples might serve to emphasize this fact, but would occupy too much space. Charms and formulas are commonly thrice repeated, probably in reference to the Holy Trinity.
Of all the numbers arithmeticall,
The number three is heald for principall,
As well in naturall philosophy,
As supernaturall theologie.
The Bavarian peasant, in passing through a haunted place, considers himself amply fortified against evil if he takes the precaution to carry three things; namely, (1) a new knife which has never cut anything, marked on the blade with three crosses; (2) a loaf of bread baked on Epiphany Eve; (3) a black cat.