The Three Rule: Superstition Or Ominous Part Of Our History?

Posted: September 10, 1997

First, Princess Diana dies.

Then Mother Teresa.

Now, ex-Phillies star Richie Ashburn.

OK, so Ashburn wasn't a mega-celebrity outside Phillies land or a living saint to any but diehard baseball fans. For Philadelphians, though, his death is probably enough to make some wonder if there's something to the old superstition that ``bad things come in threes.''

Folklorists say the belief that good or bad things come in threes is an ancient superstition that remains a strong modern belief.

``All cultures have ritual numbers but they don't have the same ritual numbers,'' explained Alan Dundes, a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of Southern California at Berkley.

He said Americans have a propensity to

see things in threes.

For Native Americans, it's four, and for the Chinese, it's five.

``It is very deep in our culture in terms of religion - the father, son and holy ghost,'' said Dundes, whose book ``Interpreting Folklore'' has a chapter on the significance of the number three in American culture.

``It's in our names. We have three names . . . We say, ``It's as easy as one, two, three,'' he said. ``You just take it for granted that . . . all this stuff is somehow in threes.''

Then, there are all the three-oriented phrases like ``the third time's a charm,'' ``going down for the third time,'' and ``Tic tac toe, three in a row.''

Plus, there are numerous three-worded phrases: ``win, lose or draw,'' ``we shall overcome'' ``fat, dumb and happy'' and ``snap, crackle and pop.''

The importance of the number three comes from many ancient sources.

But Dundes, who describes himself as a Freudian, said he believes it's sort of a subliminal symbol of male genitalia.

``It's like putting a masculine stamp on things,'' he said.

Folklorist Claudia de Lys writes that it springs from the basic observation about the mystery of birth.

``If lucky, the contact of two persons brought forth life, so that three meant life or action in everything,'' de Lys writes in a ``Treasury of American Superstitions.''

She believes the concept that three bad things happen together is based on the psychological need to believe that a bad cycle will end.

So, should Hall-of-Famer Ashburn even be counted with Princess Diana and Mother Teresa? The answer is probably - but only if you are a sports fan from Philly.

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