The Mystery of Numbers

THE MYSTERY OF NUMBERS, a kind of cultural/historical overview of the various views of numbers that have prevailed throughout the world from the early years of human civilization, began as a translation of the German study DAS MYSTERIUM DER ZAHL, by Franz Carl Endres. The book was chosen because of its comprehensive nature, and Annemarie Schimmel decided to add material to it in order to expand its scope. Ultimately, Schimmel expanded the book to such an extent that it was decided that Endres should no longer be listed as the book’s author.

THE MYSTERY OF NUMBERS consists of two main sections. The first, a thirty-four-page introduction in seven sections, provides basic background in such subjects as the origins of number systems, Pythagorean number theory, Cabala, superstitions regarding numbers, and number games. The explanations are brief, but they provide a good starting point for those readers who are interested in particular areas of number theory or number symbolism. The second main section, which is the heart of the book, is “A Little Dictionary of Numbers.” This section consists of relatively brief chapters that discuss single numbers or groups of numbers. For example, each of the numbers one through twenty-two has a chapter of its own, and there are such chapters as “Twenty-four to Thirty-nine” and “Seventy and Seventy-two: Plenitude.”

Each chapter contains much fascinating number lore, and Schimmel, a professor of Indo-Muslim culture at Harvard University, does a fine job of using information from numerous cultures. In discussing the number three, for example, she discusses the Christian trinity, Pythagoreanism, Taoism, Indian religious concepts, Norse myths, and Zoroastrianism, to name only some of the sources on which she draws.

THE MYSTERY OF NUMBERS contains many fascinating black-and-white illustrations, and it includes a useful index.