During my Junior Poet panel I was asked a question about the first line of Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves – my exemplary poem which I have discussed elsewhere – involving medieval numerology. It starts with a string of six unimposing adjectives, then an ellipsis (“…”), then on the eighth beat, the adjective “stupendous.” The professor drew a parallel between this and the six days of creation, the day of rest, and the “eighth day” that is ETERNITY. 8=eternity.
I’d never heard of anything like that, though, and so answered with a “nope, never heard of that, sorry, interesting though.”
Anyway, that got me thinking a bit about numerology in general. What are we to make of using certain numbers to symbolize metaphysical concepts? And, even if we do decide it’s a good move, are we to take those symbols as anything more than conveniences?
I tend towards it being a good idea, mainly because my attitude is “the more symbols the better,” and many of them are so intuitive they will be used anyway. But, is there anything more to them?
From what I’ve read, a traditional Christian numerology would go something like this:
- unity – duh
- duality – duh
- divinity – Trinity, duh
- creation – 4 cardinal direction, 4 elements; humanity – one more than 3, so not divinity, and the 4 humors
- law – the Pentateuch
- incompleteness – one less than 7; humanity – man created on 6th day; evil – 3(divinity)x2(duality)=opposition to God
- perfection – on the 7th day God rested; concord between earth and heaven – 3(divinity)+4(creation,humanity)
- eternity, super-perfection – one more than 7
- super-holiness – 3(divinity)x3(divinity) (from Dante’s Vita Nuova)
- government – 10 Commandments, 5(law)x2(duality)
- Israel – 12 Tribes, etc
- treachery – Judas was the 13th at the Last Supper, one more than 12
Then there’s more stuff like 40=tribulation, 100=even more perfection, 666=lots of evil, etc. But I don’t like those because they’re relics of the base 10 system (which as I’ve said before is bad because it’s not universal). So – what about these?
I think my attributions for 1, 2, and 3 are not only inarguable, they’re unavoidable – the numbers don’t just represent those things, they are those things. Heck, my faith demands that I treat the number 3 with a strange sort of mysticism; God is triune and yet united. Here the symbols are not just symbols, they have real substance.
What about the rest of them? 4 as “creation” is fairly omnipresent – corners of the earth, elements, cardinal directions, humors – and it makes sense with it coming after 3=God. But in the end, is it any more than a convenient symbol? We no longer believe in the 4 elements or humors. On the other hand, creation really is determined by 4 dimensions – height, width, depth, time. So I’m willing to grant 4 a tentative place in canon of “real numerology.” And the same with 6, 7, and 8, all of whose meanings can be derived from only what we’ve said 1-4 are. But those associations are weaker.
I don’t really buy 5 and 10 as law and government, though – both because those are based entirely on revelation, not nature, and so seem are more likely to be human inventions, and because I don’t like the numbers 5 and 10 to begin with. (Personal grudge, I suppose.) 9 as super-holiness seems suspect as well; if squaring a number had that effect, why isn’t 4, uh, what, super-dualistic? I don’t even know what 11 would be; 12 as Israel I’ll buy as a useful symbol, but not as anything sacramental in nautre; and the same with 13 as treachery.
The issue with all of this, of course, is that different cultures have different numerologies. For example, in Oriental cultures 4 is death (though actually that works here, with 4 as creation/man… OK, take a different example). And if different people find different symbols in numbers, can any of them really be inherent?