Literacy and Numeracy were born in Mesopotamia as conjoined twins. And it wasn’t until the second-born twin – Numeracy – convinced our forebears that it would be better alone as the Hindu-Arabic Numeral System that the two were cleaved apart. Both twins survived the operation – performed in 8th century CE – that split them and, ever since, have led separate lives.
But, before Numeracy’s defining moment, numerals were predominantly alphabetical. At any rate, they were within the Assyro-Babylonian-Greek system of alphanumeric code which is, as the name suggests, a composite of earlier writing codes. The classical Greek alphabet emerged in the 8th century BCE as an adaptation of the earlier Phoenician alphabet. This was an abjad writing system of all consonants and no vowels and it was understood as the job of a reader of Phoenician script to insert vowel sounds as appropriate. But, on adoption of the Phoenician alphabet, the Greeks designated new roles for some consonants so that these became vowels. However, underlying this innovation was an original sense of something missing that needed to be filled in by the individual. Apart from this, the letters of the Phoenician alphabet were assigned numerical values, although there was also a written numeral system consisting of strokes. But, nevertheless, the classical Greek alphabet developed with the implicit idea that words and names with shared numerical values bore some relation to each other and that, contrarily, values were in relationship with words and names. Moreover, it was understood that these relationships had something to say about the essential qualities and innate dispositions of numerically/semantically related things. In other words, numbers and words carried coded information about the occult nature of the cosmos. The name for this understanding is gematria.
Now, gematria isn’t about attaching deep meaning to single letters. Such depth comes out of the construction of words and phrases because meaning is relational and additive. But, still, I’ll consider the value of the first letter of my given name, Helen. No prizes, this begins with the consonant /h/ which is breathed as herb is pronounced in English-English with a voiceless glottal fricative. It derives originally from the Phoenician het which is the eighth letter of their abjad but returns to base as the hieroglyph for “courtyard”. It became the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet too as eta. Both het and eta carry the numerical value 8.
And the Phoenician het looks like a boxy version of our number 8. This, as both a value and a shape, is inherently positive in a way that has to do with right timing – which is what good fortune is essentially all about. As a gematriacally-meaningful coincidence of value, shape and timing, the figure of eight is traced by the annual path of the midday sun and called an analemma. This figure was known, at least, in ancient Greece, but it was the Roman engineer, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (who lived in the last century before the Common Era) who explained how to reconstruct the eight-shaped curve for the sundial at any time of the year. Tying in with eight’s association with serendipity, the reason the sun traces an annual figure of eight is entirely due to the fortunate fact that the earth’s axis is tilted in respect of the sun. This fact produces the ecliptic (and our seasons and, thereby, the type of world capable of nurturing us) and, from our perspective, gives the sun declination at all times of the year except the equinoxes. If the earth’s axis was either perfectly upright or perfectly vertical there would be no ecliptic and the Sun’s annual path would then have the shape of a zero. But, as the earth’s orbital tilt is, the invisible path of the Sun has the shape of the figure 8 when the noontime position of the Sun in the sky is plotted over a year. This is such that the lowest and highest points of the 8 are the winter and summer solstices while its waist amounts to the equinoxes. The north–south factor of the analemma shows the Sun’s declination or, put another way, the latitude on the Earth at which the Sun is directly overhead. Its east-west orientation shows the difference between solar time and local mean time. Thus, the figure of eight and its relationship to the annual path of the sun shows us that we are blessed.
In terms of numerical value, the ancient Egyptians of Khmun (translation: “eight-town”) revered the Ogdoad there. These were the eight deities – four couples of four male gods and four female goddesses – who created Atum, the Sun-God. In preparation, they put together a structure similar in looks to a swan’s nest with the primeval waters lapping it. On this ‘nest’, they placed an egg and from this young Atum eventually emerged to begin the process of creating the world as we know it.
Pythagoras also honoured eight and understood its qualities as foundational to existence. Particularly, he revered the octave which is the seven-tone journey of 8 diatonic degrees from one musical note to another (above and below). The first and last notes are related by being half or double in sound frequency. But what he claimed was that he had proof that the octaval interval gave our planet its shape because his experiments showed that, when an octave is sounded, the sand on a plate of glass arranges itself in the form of a circle. What he knew of the octave, Mesopotamian musicians from Ur understood before him, at least in their own way. We know this because, while neither the Akkadian nor Sumerian words for “octave” are known to us, still, their stringed-instrument tuning systems substitute the number 1 for 8 and 2 for 9 to represent the octaves of strings 1 and 2.
Following on but dipping now into Neo-Platonism, we have the concept of the Harmony of the Spheres. This also speaks of the octave’s harmonic seven-tone journey but this time in mathematical, religious, astrological terms. The journey, which is heavenly, moves away from the sun (unity) along a path which is either masculine and heading towards cold, dry darkness (Saturn) or feminine and heading towards cold, moist darkness (the moon). Both endpoints are polarised death, but of differing natures, and they lead to rebirth because they don’t get to 8 but, instead – since we’re speaking of the octave – to One and unity with the sun. The fact is, in Neo-Platonism, 8 is the Octad: completion. But it is experiential completion because, by being divisible by two into four and four into two, it is related to the Dyad. As such, the Neo-Platonic Octave counts in the earth which is the sphere of appetitive urges and irrationality. It is the place where the zodiac, the animal-bearing ecliptic, lives out its divine destiny in a cycle of growth and decay.
So, no surprise to the Chinese, the number eight has to do with material existence and, hopefully, good fortune, prosperity and wealth. Thus, in dealing with what is earthly and manifest, the number eight is, by nature, mundane – albeit that, because each of us contains the entire cosmos, our material existence is simultaneously the spiritual story of the entire universe. In these terms, when the 360 degrees of the circle are divided by eight we have our quarter days, as the summer and winter solstices and vernal and autumnal equinoxes, and our cross-quarter days, which are the midpoints between these. The cross-quarter days mark turns in the seasons – give or take given differing latitudes – while the quarter days mark the midpoints of the seasons. This eightfold division is the guts of the agricultural calendar which, ever since the Agricultural Transition which started something in the region of 12,000 years ago, has powered human cultural development. Of course, the moon also adds to seven-tone-journey-symbolism through her quarter phases, but I’ll leave that for another time since this blog has been entirely the sun’s moment and I don’t want to take away from that.
But now I feel I have come full circle in a gematriacal sense. Personally, I have added together 8, the sun’s annual journey, and the Phoenician het so that they are now the sum of each other. Encompassing each other as they do, they are a harvest-filled courtyard and, through this association, farming, agriculture and earthly wealth. Now I’ll leave you to reckon all things eight for yourselves.