Friday, August 08, 2008


This evening we will witness (via TV) the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. They are scheduled for the eighth minute of the eighth hour of the eighth month of the eighth year.

To mark this occasion a sometime NY Times columnist, Ben Schott, has produced an op-ed with various serendipitous facts concerning eight, and those who have been fascinated by the number. Among the latter is the crazy Syro-Roman emperor Elagabalus (d. 222), who give banquets with 8 old men, 8 bald men, 8 men blind in one eye, and so forth.

We also encounter a list of 8 virtues expected of a Knight Templar, 8 causes of anger, and other such.

But in all his rummaging about Schott misses the fundamental discovery that launched octomania in the Western world. That is the finding of the basis of the musical octave ascribed to the early Greek thinker Pythagoras, who determined that if two bars, one half the length of the other, were struck, the difference in sound would be a full octave. This regularity, Pythagoreans felt, united the larger world, the macrocosm, with the microcosm of everyday experience. In a word, it disclosed the Music of the Spheres, and that music was bssed on the number 8.

Eventually the Christians gave the matter a new twist, when they adopted the seven-day week. As the start of a new week, the number 8 represented a new beginning--a resurrection, as it were. It is for this reason that Early Christian baptisteries were usually eight-sided.



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