A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the story on numerology?

November 15, 2005

dear cecil,

i am a student at Palisades high school and was assined a reopt on numerology if you have any informaion could you please post it on your website or send it to me at my email address?

SDStaff Dex replies:

We normally don't do homework help, but since you wrote this three years ago, we figure we'll make an exception. Of course, if you're still in that same class (not unlikely, given your spelling), you might be able to use this Staff Reopt.

First we need to define numerology. At a broad level, numerology is the idea that numbers are important to understanding the universe. This can take a variety of forms even today:

  • Science obviously believes numbers are important. The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, pi, shows up in an astounding variety of scientific formulae and situations. Other important numbers include the speed of light c, the gravitational constant g, and so forth.
  • Religion and superstition often assign importance to numbers. People play their "lucky numbers" in lotteries, or avoid unlucky numbers (like 13.) Three, seven, and ten are often viewed as "good luck" numbers in Western culture, while six, eight, and nine are viewed as lucky in China. Some find conspiracy or end-of-the-world theories are based on numeric coincidences (more later).
  • Literature tends to use numbers from religion and superstition, to add levels of meaning. For example, the number three (an oft-repeated number from the Bible) appears often in Western literature, everywhere from the three little pigs to Macbeth's three witches.

Let's start with the ancient Babylonians, source of many number traditions. The Babylonians revered certain numbers — for example, 12 has many divisors and there are twelve new moons each year (usually), so they devised a calendar based on the number 12. That's why today we have 12 months in our calendar, 12 zodiac signs, 12 inches in a foot, etc. — see Cecil's  column here.

The Babylonians used a sexagesimal (based on 60) system for numbers. Five and 12 were important, as exact divisors of 60. That's why we have 360 degrees in a circle.  Seven was important, because 12 – 5 = 7, hence seven days in our week.

The Babylonian gods were represented by numbers and sacred figures — Marduk was 11, Shamash was 20, Mu was 60, and so forth. In the 8th century BC, Sardon says that the perimeter of his palace (16,283 cubits) was equal to his name, implying that the Babylonians were drawing some sort of connection between numbers and names.

From Babylon we move to ancient Greece, roughly the 6th century BC, and a chap named Pythagoras. You know Pythagoras from the famous mathematical theorem about triangles, of course. He was born around 590 BC, possibly in Phoenicia, and seems to have traveled widely. He settled in southern Italy where he founded a religious/philosophical/mystical society around 520 BC, later called the Pythagorean School. He died around 500 BC.

The doctrines of the Pythagoreans were secret. Generally, they adhered to a strict ritualistic lifestyle wearing white clothing, eating a primarily vegetarian diet, and so forth. The purpose of the school was to understand the universe in terms of numbers. They thought that the world is built on the power of numbers, and that some of that power (magical, if you will) is inherent in the numbers themselves. They believed the universe is a harmonious whole, and that numbers (and geometry) are the keys to understanding the workings of the world.

To the Pythagoreans, the first ten digits were critical. One is the monad, the symbol of unity, stability, and wisdom. Two is the symbol of duality, polarity, and darkness. Three is peace and piety. Four is the base root of all life, the fountain of nature. Five is health. And so on.

The circle is the perfect form. Odd numbers are imperfect, and unity is the number that adds to even numbers to make them odd, or to odd numbers to make them even.

The Pythagoreans tied numbers (and geometry) into their life style and philosophy. To the Pythagoreans, anything (whether tangible or intangible) could be ultimately reduced to numbers and geometry. We can look down smugly on their simplistic notions, but think for a minute: all of modern science develops from the concept that mathematics can be used to describe the physical universe. That was the contribution of the Pythagorean school.

By the way, the Pythagoreans also developed the musical octave, tying numbers to music. (If you pluck a taut string, you get a musical note; if you double the length of the string, you get a note exactly one octave lower.)

The ancient Greek alphabet had 27 letters, but there were no separate symbols for numbers. Thus, numbers were assigned to each letter: 1-9, 10-90, 100-900. That is, the first nine letters (an ennead) represented numbers 1 through 9; the next represented 10, 20, 30, etc., up to 90; and the last nine letters represented 100, 200, etc., up to 900. Archaeologists have found Greek coins and scrolls that use this system, dating back to the end of the fourth century BC.

If letters of the alphabet were used for numbers, then any name or word could be converted to numbers by adding the values of the separate letters. The Greeks called that process isopsephia.

Now we turn southward, from Greece to ancient Judea. Certainly by 1000 BC, Jewish storytellers and the earliest books of the Hebrew bible imparted meaning to numbers. For example, the number 40 appears often in the bible, to reflect generational change (or a change in the world). The number seven occurs over 500 times in the Hebrew Bible, to denote perfection. Ten is a number of completion, and so on.

Jewish scholars either borrowed or independently invented the Greek concept of isopsephia, which they called gematria. We don't know for sure the origin of the name — probably from the Greek geometria (earth-measures or geometry) or perhaps grammateia (letter-play).

The ancient Hebrew alphabet had 22 letters (depends on how and when you count, since some "final letters" were added later). The first nine letters represent numbers 1-9, the second nine letters represent 10-90, and the last four letters give 100, 200, 300, and 400. Higher numbers must be made from combinations of earlier amounts, so 800 = 400 repeated twice, etc. (One argument that the Hebrews did not invent gematria is that their alphabet runs out at 400, whereas the Greek alphabet gets us to 900.)

The earliest Hebrew coins we have that use letters as numbers are dated a bit before 100 BC. Prior to that time, the Jews used Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian numeric systems. But starting around around 100 BC and through around 600 AD, the use of Hebrew alphabetic numeration became increasingly common.

Jewish gematria starts with the observation that in the Bible, God creates the universe using words (a radical departure from other creation mythologies.) Consequently, words have power. There's the obvious power of words used in conversation, that can injure or heal feelings in human relationships. But the biblical creation story implied an inherent power of words to mold or change the physical universe.

The idea of converting words to numbers began as a tool for what we might call analysis of the biblical text: to decode hidden messages, to gain deeper insight into God's message, and perhaps to gain mystical insights.

Two quick examples of gematria and the variety of uses:

  • Textual interpretation: In Genesis 28:12, Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching from earth to heaven; the numerical value of "ladder" is the same as the numerical value of "Sinai"; hence the Ten Commandments revealed at Sinai are like a ladder leading from earth to heaven.
  • Medical: The word for "pregnancy" in Hebrew has numerical value 271, which is the number of days in a normal pregnancy. (Cool, eh?)

Numerology soon moved from simply understanding biblical texts to mysticism and the use of words/numbers to achieve higher spiritualism or to work magic. The writings of Philo of Alexander (roughly 25 BC to 40 AD) are the earliest known that use numerology as a path to the occult, with a spattering of ordinary mystification.

From those beginnings, Jewish mysticism (usually called Kabala, sometimes spelled Cabala or Qabala or other variants) flourished primarily in the 11th-13th centuries AD. The word Kabala itself means "hidden wisdom." Kabalists rearranged the letters of biblical texts into squares and other geometric forms to read vertically, backwards, upside down, etc., to find hidden meanings in God's words. (Aside: The most recent incarnation of this concept is the book The Bible Code. There's little new under the sun.)

The Kabalists enjoyed "magic squares," invented in ancient China, and brought to the Arabic world in the 10th century and thence to Europe.

For the Kabalist, one is unity and the symbol of God. Reversing the Pythagorean notions, Jewish mysticism teaches that two is dangerous, reflecting duality; and even inviting demons. Three is the number of perfection. So, don't do something twice, do it three times. The magic properties of three came from Judaism through Christianity (the Trinity) to suffuse Western culture.

To the Kabalists, the number 5 can heal illness (by performing some ritual or drinking some potion or whatever five times, for instance.) The number 7 protects against evil magic, and so on. Thus, tying numbers to the physical universe was viewed as a means of changing or dealing with both natural and magical forces.

By the 14th and 15th centuries, Christian Kabalah arose. Christian Kabalists studied Hebrew literature and used the Hebrew text of the Old Testament to find clues or evidence that support Christian theology. Thus, the already noted frequent use of the number three in the Hebrew Bible as a prelude to the Trinity. Another quick example: the Hebrew word for "He created," the second word of the book of Genesis, is B-R-A, which can be read letter-by-letter: B stands for Bayn meaning Son, R stands for Ruakh, meaning Spirit; and A for aba meaning Father. Get it? This type of reasoning was ultimately dropped around the 1700s as not compatible with Christian dogma.

However, the fascination with numbers continued through the centuries. As fewer people learned Hebrew or Greek, there were efforts to use English in numerology. There's the basic problem that by the time English was developed, there were already separate symbols for numbers, borrowed from Arabic. There is therefore no generally agreed scheme for converting words to numbers. Modern numerologists have several different interpretations of how to convert the English alphabet to numbers, but usually some matrix such as:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9




This is very different from the ancient Greek and Hebrew approach, of course. Some Christian systems omit 9 from the tables, since 9 = 3 x 3 and is thus the Name of God.

From a cynical point of view, when everything stays in the realm of numbers from 1 to 9, it's a lot easier to set up astounding numerical correlations.

In modern times, numerologists are no longer so concerned with the magic that can be done by converting words to numbers. However, the belief in the mystic importance of numbers can still be found. For example, one reader told Cecil about a website that notes that the Supreme Court decision to remove the Ten Commandments from the Alabama courthouse was made on August 27, 2003. The sum of the digits of 8-27-2003 is 22 which is 2 x 11, and of course September 11, 2001 has an 11 in it, and was the date of the tragic attacks against the United States. The mystic connection between 11s proves conclusively that the United States Government has declared war on God.

OK, so there are a lot of loons out there.

Bottom line: there are only so many numbers in practical use. No, don't tell me about the infinite cardinality of the integers. We're usually dealing with numbers less than 1000, say; if your numerological result is more than 1000, you tend to add the digits to get a nice small number. And some systems only use numbers from 1 to 20. So, when you convert everything to one or two-digit numbers, lots of coincidences are bound to arise.

Did people actually take this sort of thing seriously? Do they still? Well, obviously, there are a few who still do. However, even going back many centuries, the play of numbers and words was often seen as an amusement, even in biblical interpretation, rather than as something dreadfully serious.

Nowadays, most people playing with numbers this way have their tongues firmly in cheeks. One of the books by Dr I J Matrix (a nom de plume of Martin Gardner) contains the following gem, which seems as good a place to end this report as any:

The King James translation of the bible was published in the year 1611, when Shakespeare was 46. In the 46th psalm, the 46th word from the top is "Shake" and the 46th word from the bottom (discounting the liturgical instruction "selah") is "spear." What more proof could you need that Shakespeare wrote the KJV?

Partial bibliography:

Ifrah, Georges. From One to Zero: A Universal History of Numbers, 1985.

Diringer, David: The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind, 1968.

Menninger, Karl. Number Words and Number Symbols: A Cultural History of Numbers, 1969.

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