In a few systems of alphabetic writing, scribes used the same symbols for sounds as they did for numerals. In other words, they didn’t have distinct symbols for numbers from their alphabet; where English speakers have the letters A through Z and the numerals 0 through 9, other languages might use the same character to represent 4 as they would the sound for “D”. Thus, a string of characters might be read either as a word or as a number, depending on the context. Most of the world uses distinct numerals nowadays due to influence from modern technology and science, but this wasn’t always the case.
The practice of ascribing numerical values to words by interpreting the characters as numbers instead of sounds is old, and is called gematria in Hebrew and isopsephy in Greek. Words, phrases, or names that had the same numerical value were thought of to be the same or have the same essence on a different level. Although we normally refer to this as numerology in English, this is an inappropriate generalization of this kind of study, since numerology also studies the general occult properties of numbers and their correspondences.
Hebrew gematria (from Greek γεωμετρία, “geometry”) relies on the Hebrew script, which has 22 letters, plus another five which are distinct final forms of several of the letters, yielding 27 letters total. Each of the letters is assigned a value corresponding to a multiple of 1 through 9, as below.
Here, the first nine letters are given the values 1 through 9, the next nine given the values 10 through 90, and the last nine given values 100 through 900. The last five letters are final forms of the letters kaph, mem, nun, peh, and tzaddi. This is only one of many schemes used to assign numerals to the Hebrew letters, but this is the most common. So, given this scheme, the word for Mercury in Hebrew, Kokab כוכב, is assigned the value 48.
K + V + K + B
20 + 6 + 20 + 2
In another example, the word for wine, yayin יין, and secret, sod סוד, both have the same value of 70 (50 + 10 + 10 and 60 + 6 + 4). Thus, because they’re numerically the same, they have the same effect or essence when compared or conceived of on another plane of existence. In Hebrew culture, gifts are sometimes given in multiples of 18, the value of the Hebrew word for “life”.
Greek isopsephy (ἴσοψῆφία, literally “same pebble”, as in the same idea of Latin calculus, “little stone”) is another system similar to Hebrew gematria when applied to the Greek alphabet. The Greek alphabet, having come from the same origin as the Hebrew alphabet, also used letters as numerals, and likely did so earlier than Hebrew. A big difference is the number of characters: Hebrew has 22 letters with 5 extra, adding to 27, while Greek has 24. To make up for the lost characters, Greek used three obsolete letters for the sole purpose of transcribing numbers: digamma (Ϝ) for 6, qopppa (Ϙ) for 90, and sampi (ϡ) for 900. Digamma was a “w” sound, qoppa a uvular “k” sound like Hebrew qoph, and sampi was probably a lengthened “s” or “ks” sound.
Although not used to quite the same extent as gematria, isopsephy can still be seen in some religious or graffitic examples. Consider that infamous Number of the Beast, 666: in the original verse, it says that the wise man may count the Beast’s number, but “count” is rendered with a word with the same “pebble” root as isopsephy. The Greek alphabet comes into better use in astrology since, with 24 letters not counting the obsolete ones, it matches up well with divisors and multiples of 360.
As for English or languages that use the Roman script, well, I can’t say much about it. Unlike Greek or Hebrew, Latin (the original language of the Roman script) never used its letters for counting, and has added and removed several letters across the course of its lifetime that never really matched up in a good way with the schemes given above. Agrippa tried to fix this by creating two new values “Hu” and “Hi”, with “Hu” becoming “W”, but “Hi” was never really used, and so this system fell apart. Aleister Crowley developed a scheme that assigned the 26 letters the values 1 through 26, but this spawned other attributions and different orderings of the values to letters. While I don’t discount a usable Roman gematria, I haven’t seen a convincing example of it being used for a language other than Greek or Hebrew.
However, the esoteric use of letters has an ancient history, and extends far past the well-known use of gematria and isopsephy that is commonly known. In the classical era, the use of the Greek alphabet led to many advances in mathematics and the occult, including connections with the Qabbalah and astrology. One important method of this is called stoicheia, or “elements”. It attributes each letter of the Greek alphabet four things:
- a shape (the actual drawn letterform)
- a sound (the vocalized utterance of the letter)
- a number (used in isopsephy)
- a force (a planet, sign, or element)
These four qualities, these four elements or stoicheia, are all very tightly linked with each other. The influence of Pythagoreanism in mathematics allowed for vibrations in the air that produced sound could be ascribed to numbers, and each note or harmony was assigned to a different heavenly sphere or star at the time of creation. The letterforms were taken, ultimately, from the ancient Egyptians by way of Phoenician and proto-Semetic writing, and the Greeks held the Egyptians to be among the wisest of the wise in the world. In this way, the four elements of a given Greek letter are tightly connected with each other, and so a given interpretation of a word in the Greek script can be interpreted in four different ways.
The occult use of stoicheia focuses on that last element, that of forces. In the Greek alphabet, there are 24 letters (not including the archaic digamma, qoppa, and sampi). In the occult, there are seven planets, five elements (including aether), and twelve signs in the Zodiac. Adding them up, we get 24. The occultists of yore were able to ascribe each of these to a different force on a one-to-one basis in a way that makes sense.
The oldest of these attributions are those of the planets. The Greeks, Copts, and other Hermetic magicians are well-known for having attributed the seven vowels of the Greek alphabet to the seven visible planets and their spheres. The attribution of these letters can be seen throughout the PGM and ancient Greek forms of Qabbalah, especially in certain holy names and voces magicae. In this system, the attributions are:
- Α, alpha, for the Moon
- Ε, epsilon, for Mercury
- Η, eta, for Venus
- Ι, iota, for the Sun
- Ο, omicron, for Mars
- Υ, upsilon, for Jupiter
- Ω, omega, for Saturn
Going to the elements next, there are two systems in use for this, but I prefer one that makes a bit more phonological sense. In the Greek alphabet, there are five consonants that are different from the rest. Although letters like beta or gamma are “simple” and are composed of only one phoneme, letters like “phi” or “ksi” are composed of several phonological units (letters like phi, theta, and khi were originally aspirated or “breathy”, and not the soft sounds we now have in modern Greek). The attributions for the planets in this system are:
- Θ, theta, for Earth
- Ξ, ksi, for Water
- Φ, phi, for Air
- Χ, khi, for Fire
- Ψ, psi, for Aether or the Quintessence
The rest of the letters, the “simple” consonants, are twelve in number and are ascribed to the signs of the Zodiac in order around the ecliptic:
- Β, beta, for Aries
- Γ, gamma, for Taurus
- Δ, delta, for Gemini
- Ζ, zeta, for Cancer
- Κ, kappa, for Leo
- Λ, lambda, for Virgo
- Μ, mu, for Libra
- Ν, nu, for Scorpio
- Π, pi, for Sagittarius
- Ρ, rho, for Capricorn
- Σ, sigma, for Aquarius
- Τ, tau, for Pisces
So, we end up with the following table that describes the different stoicheia of all the letters of the Greek alphabet:
|Θ||[tʰ] (breathy t)||Earth||9|
|Υ||[y(ː)] (German ü)||Jupiter||400|
|Φ||[pʰ] (breathy p)||Air||500|
|Χ||[kʰ] (breathy k)||Fire||600|
Now, using this table isn’t that hard. Take the holy name ΙΑΩ, for instance, which is spelled iota-alpha-omega. This name is composed of the letters representing the Sun, the Moon, and Saturn, and has the value 1 + 10 + 800 = 811. Altogether, it refers to all the power present in the heavenly spheres, from the furthest reaches of Saturn to the innermost reaches of the Moon. Indeed, ΙΑΩ is often seen as a shorthand for the longer formula ΑΕΗΙΟΥΩ (1294) or even ΑΕΕΗΗΗΙΙΙΙΟΟΟΟΟΥΥΥΥΥΥΩΩΩΩΩΩΩ (8425), which represents all the forces of all the planets.
You can even apply this to other words as well to get interesting meanings, and is a good recourse when isopsephy doesn’t return useful results on its own. One of my favorite magical words is ΑΚΡΑΜΑΧΑΜΑΡΙ (or ΑΚΡΑΜΜΑΧΑΜΑΡΕΙ in its more common PGM form). Here, we start to get into more interesting combinations, where we can combine planets with signs or elements and see what results. In this case, we go pairwise:
- ΑΚ, alpha-kappa, Moon in Leo
- ΡΑ, rho-alpha, Moon in Capricorn
- ΜΑ, mu-alpha, Moon in Libra
- ΧΑ, khi-alpha, Moon with Fire
- ΜΑ, mu-alpha, Moon in Libra
- ΡΙ, rho-iota, Sun in Capricorn
It doesn’t matter whether a given syllable is vowel-consonant or consonant-vowel, so ΑΚ and ΚΑ would both resolve to Moon in Leo. Analyzed using stoicheia, the word might be interpreted as “the heat of the Sun rises up from the cold foundations of the heavens to be filtered through the light of the Moon with and over others, to be turned into pure Fire in its manifestation”. Indeed, this word comes from a Hebrew phrase meaning “take off the wards” so as to exact one’s Will in the world without restraint or impedance from any kind of interference. Its lunar qualities help in the manifestation and focusing of energies from the heavens down into our sphere, but the real force comes from the Sun hidden down in the nadir of the celestial sphere burning upwards towards us. Since there is no central letter to act as a fulcrum, the central pair of letters, ΑΧ, indicates that this word is closely associated with elemental Fire.
Another example is the Greek rendition of the Hebrew name for god, “Tzabaoth”, which is ΣΑΒΑΩΘ:
- ΣΑ, sigma-alpha, Moon in Aquarius
- ΒΑ, beta-alpha, Moon in Aries
- ΩΘ, omega-theta, Saturn with Earth
In this case, the strength and force of the world arranges itself into directed legions across different peoples. The word’s meaning in Hebrew, meaning “hosts” or “armies”, can easily be linked to this type of analysis.
Taking another name, let’s try a person’s name. A common female name, and one well known throughout the world, is ΜΑΡΙΑ, Maria.
- ΜΑ, mu-alpha, Moon in Libra
- ΡΙ, rho-iota, Sun in Capricorn
- ΙΑ, iota-alpha, Sun with Moon
- Α, alpha, Moon
In this case, we don’t have an easy pairwise distribution of letters, so we can extend that iota across two pairs or keep it with the rho and let the final alpha stand alone on its own. Here, we have images of compassion for others with support (Moon in Libra) while ruling from the earth (Sun in Capricorn); indeed, Mary is often seen with snakes, chthonic but salvific symbols known throughout the Mediterranean world. The strong emphasis of that final Moon shows the motherly and generative qualities associated with the name. The midpoint between Capricorn and Libra, where the Sun and the Moon might meet each other equally, is astrologically the same point that the Pagan festivals of Samhain or Beltane, the point of separation by death of the God from the Goddess (Mary being divorced from her Son by crucifixion) or the point of their reunion (both being assumed into Heaven).