Numerology attempts to connect numbers to the hidden secrets of the universe. The practice may involve interpretations of a person’s name, a passage of text, or even the dimensions of a building. Although the term “numerology” dates only to the early 20th century, versions of it can be found in some of the oldest human civilizations.

The Ancient Origins of Numerology

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Letters and numbers have been intertwined almost since the beginning. According to historian of mathematics Georges Ifrah in The Universal History of Numbers, ancient Arab, Greek, Jewish, Persian, Turkish, and other cultures wrote numbers using letters (for instance, both the Greek alpha and the Hebrew aleph can also mean “one”). Many of these cultures saw larger connections between letters, numbers, and the natural or supernatural world — one might stand for God, four for the seasons or the phases of life, etc. According to Ifrah, this kind of thinking can be found at least as far back as Babylonian writings of the second millennium B.C.E. Texts of that era gave a numerical value to each of the main deities — Anu, god of the sky, was 60; Enlil, god of the earth, was 50; Ea, god of water was 40; and so on.

In general, according to Ifrah, the first nine letters of the ancient alphabets were assigned the values one through nine, and the following nine letters were assigned the values of 10 through 90 (proceeding by 10s), while the remaining numbers were assigned a value by hundreds. For example, in Hebrew the letters yud he vav he — often transliterated in English as Yahweh, the name of God — equals 10 + 5 + 6 + 5, or 26, which was then considered a divine number.

The Pythagoreans, a Greek Numbers Cult

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Most sources agree that the Western interest in number symbolism was codified by the Pythagoreans. The name Pythagoras may be familiar from elementary school lessons about the Pythagorean theorem, but scholars today aren’t sure if Pythagoras was one person who flourished in the 6th century or a composite figure, or even if he definitely discovered his theorem.

But the Pythagoreans — an ancient Greek school obsessed with the mystical correspondences of numbers — definitely existed. For them, there was an order to everything in the universe, and that order could be expressed by numbers. One of the biggest Pythagorean achievements was discovering a relationship between musical harmony and whole number ratios, which they figured out by experimenting with the vibrations of stringed instruments. But much of the rest of their thinking consisted of what today looks like pure mysticism. One represented unity and, for many, God; two was duality, the Devil, and female; three was male; four was justice; five was marriage; 10 was the perfect number, etc.

The Pythagoreans were also enthralled by the differences between even and odd numbers, according to scholars Annemarie Schimmel and Franz Carl Endres in The Mystery of Numbers. They divided everything in the universe into two categories: the odd (the right side, the limited, masculine, light and goodness) and the even (the left side, the unlimited, the female, crookedness, darkness, and evil). This idea continued with the philosopher Plato and with the ancient Roman Virgil, who claimed “Numera deus impare Gaudet” (or, “the deity is pleased with the odd number”). Even Shakespeare, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, wrote “There is divinity in odd numbers.”

Gematria — Hebrew Numerology

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Around the same time the Pythagoreans began devising their mystical mathematical systems, Jews were using gematria to study the Torah and more. In essence, gematria is a way of explaining the meaning of a Hebrew word or a group of words by referring to their numerical value. For example, Ifrah notes how the Hebrew words yayin (wine) and sod (secret) both have the numerical value of 70, which has led rabbis to say that “the secret comes out of the wine” — an idea echoed in the Latin phrase in vino veritas (“in wine lies the truth”).

Gematria became an important component of the kabbala (Jewish mysticism), which in turn influenced the Western occult tradition. The practice is also used in Rabbinic literature such as the Talmud, and even in sermons and teachings today. Jews are also the only people practicing this kind of numerological analysis — the Greek isopsephy (“adding the numbers”) and Muslim khisab al jumal (“calculating the total”) were similar attempts to find meaning by “translating” the numerical values of letters, words, and phrases and finding patterns in their relationships.

The Gnostics, the Middle Ages, and Beyond

ombstones at the Ancient Bogomil Cemetery (a Christian neo-Gnostic religious and political sect founded in Bulgaria at 10th century,
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The Gnostics sects that were active in the late Hellenistic and early Christian world also used numerology, drawing on Pythagorean and Platonic ideas. One of their key aims was to find the formula — and so, they believed, the real name — of God. The Gnostics and others also looked for numerical patterns in the Bible and in the names of Jesus and other figures. In fact, numerology played an important part in Christian thought from the early church fathers onward; even St. Augustine gave the idea his stamp of approval when he declared “numbers and combinations of numbers are used in the sacred writings to convey instruction under a figurative guise.”

Numerological analysis of the Bible and more continued throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when it was elaborated by scholars such as Cornelius Agrippa and the Catholic theologian Petrus Bungus. Agrippa looked at numbers in nature and Christian symbolism (three was the trinity, four the elements, five the wounds of Christ), while Bungus took great pains to demonstrate that Martin Luther’s name added up to 666, the number of the Beast in the Book of Revelations.

Modern Numerology

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Numerology today can be used to try to understand a person’s character or predict the future, using ideas that go back to the Pythagoreans. The modern practice was popularized by Cheiro, the pseudonym of “Count” Louis Hamon, who worked as fortune-teller for some of the rich and powerful in London and New York in the late 19th and early 20th century. Cheiro developed a system of so-called “fadic” numbers — a number of destiny for each person that could be calculated by adding all the digits in their birth date.

Modern numerology sometimes also strives to find meaning by assigning numerical values to a person’s name or their birthplace, and these basic numbers for each person are interpreted a bit like an astrological sign. Chinese numerology works differently, and is based in part on the sounds numbers make when said aloud, which may resemble auspicious or inauspicious words. (The number eight, for instance, is considered especially lucky because it sounds like the Mandarin and Cantonese words for wealth.) Other forms of numerology have examined the dimensions of the Great Pyramid of Giza (part of a field known as pyramidology), and even the “Golden Ratio” in nature. Whatever the details, it is one occult practice that can truly claim to go back to the dawn of recorded history.