by Dustin Pike
In this article I will be dissecting the notion that letters and numbers have shared an integral relationship with each other since their very beginnings, which, in ancient Greek times, was called ‘Gematria’ or ‘Isopsophy’. The basic idea is that since numbers, and their inter-relationships, form the key to every science, it would make perfect sense to have an alphabet based on the same principles. In this manner each letter-form of a given alphabet should correspond to a distinct numerical value, giving every word, phrase, sentence, etc. a certain mathematical significance. People in the modern era often forget that math and geometry were closely guarded secrets in times of old, with even the amount of days in a year concealed under the names of Mithrais and the terrible Abraxas (each name adding up to 365 respectively). This methodology has been used since Assyrian and Babylonian times, and one of the oldest recorded uses occurs in an inscription of Assyrian ruler Sargon II (727–705 BC) stating that the king built the wall of Khorsabad 16,283 cubits long to correspond with the numerical value of his name.
For further evidence of this kind of number-language. The Tanakh of the Hebrews (24 books divided into 3 sections which include the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim) is quite possibly the most famous source material for Gematria, while the Zohar, Sefer Yetzirah, and I-Ching all form a close resemblance. Those responsible for these texts clearly had the wisdom to realize that even the most well fertilized of crops, without the aid of a stable ground, falls victim to violent rains and lengthy gusts of wind. The point of all this is that ideas, in order to transverse the ages, had to be communicated with universal language. This is why artists of any craft will tell you that form and function must be intricately linked in order to be of any long term service.
As stated above, there is perhaps no greater source of this kind of understanding than the Hebrew system. Each of the 22 letter-forms represents a specific number, and contains within itself a whole system of correspondences (see Hebrew Alphabet Correspondence diagram). For this reason the more seasoned students of the Qabalah said that every number was, in one sense or another, infinite. Even though this may seem like a contradiction of terms, one can at lease admit the fact that in-between each number there exists an infinite continuum of subdivision. Sure, 2 follows 1, but what of 1.1, 1.2, 1.3…and so on? This type of dissection could go on forever, but what remains constant is the reliance on a base 10 numeral system, or that is, 0-9. Using this insight, the Hebrews organized the way they communicated in accordance with what they viewed as the language of nature.
To give a basic introduction to the Hebrew version of Gematria, the system with which I am most familiar with, one must also have a steady grasp on the Tree of Life (םייחה ץע) diagram and its relative significance for these purposes. The 10 emanations of the tree, which symbolize the 10 digits of the numerical system, have a total of 22 paths which connect each emanation along 3 vertical ‘pillars’ and 7 horizontal ‘planes’. There is such an extensive amount of information behind this diagram that I dare not venture into it here however it is enough to say that a thorough understanding of these connections is critical for these purposes. Now let us take a common example of this system at work, Chai, or יח, meaning ‘living’ or ‘alive’. We know that י has the value of 10, and ח has the value of 8, making the sum total 18. Our total of 18, in the eyes of the Qabalist, shares influence with all other words or phrases whose value also equates to 18. Thus ‘the ancient serpent’, אטח, and even ‘hatred’, הביא, are connected in respect to their correspondence with 18. Our inspection doesn’t end there, as י is identified as ‘The Hermit’ of the Tarot, which is the title given to the zodiacal sign of Virgo, and represents the secret seed of life, or spermatozoon. Upon the Tree we see that this Hermit is placed between the numbers 4, which is the house of the Jupiter, and 6, the house of the Sun. ח is ‘The Chariot’, the title given to the zodiacal sign of Cancer, which is connected with the mysteries of the Holy Graal, and implies influence or enchantment. We have here a connection between the numbers 3, the house of Saturn, and 5, the house of Mars upon the Tree (See Hermit and the Chariot image). This inspection can be continued indefinitely, but we would then plunge ourselves into the abyss of madness.
Let us also take one of the more well know acronyms in art history and see if we can’t make its meaning a bit more luminous. We have I.N.R.I, which one should see in almost every depiction of Christ upon the cross (See Examples of I.N.R.I image). Historians have found it to stand for ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jews’ when translated from the Latin ‘Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum’, which is only partly correct. The philosophers of days long gone would also say ‘Igne Natura Renovatur Integra’, meaning, through fire our nature is reborn whole, and ‘Intra Nobis Regnum Dei’, Inside ourselves is the kingdom of God. There is indeed further meaning when viewed from the perspective of Gematria. I is י, which, as stated above, is connected with Virgo, or virgin. This sign happens to be the sigil of the mighty virgin mother of the Egyptians, Isis. The second letter, N, is connected with נ, whose title in the system of Tarot is ‘Death’, and represents the zodiac sign of Scorpio. The meaning inherent is change by putrefaction, which the Egyptians would have depicted as the great dragon, Apep, or the Greeks with Apophis. For the third letter, we have R, or ר, which is identified as ‘The Sun’ in Tarot whose planetary significance should be obvious. Redemption and freedom are the ideas implied, and here we have the Osiris of the Egyptians, slain and risen. As for the fourth letter, we are again given the sign of the virgin and the process seems willing to repeat itself. The symbolism of birth, death, and re-birth are thus immediately apparent.
This type of practice attempts to take the surgical rigidity of mathematics, and combine it with the fluidity of one’s own imagination. Here is the root of art itself! However, like any relevant system, there is of course the issue of dogma. I would make the argument that dogma, in the holistic sense of the word, is merely our faculty for behavior and thought patterning without which we might repeatedly throw ourselves into a roaring fire. Both good dogma and bad rest in the eyes of the beholder, so whether one permits this style of analysis into their vocabulary becomes the question. It should be declared that I am in no way attempting to force upon the reader any one way of thinking. In fact, with this system, every way of thought is shown to be equally valid in one case or another. To those who have long pondered over the meaning of these many things, I hope I have sparked at least an interest in the subject. For further reference on this subject, see the Reference Image.