'...I have been a word among letters.'
--the Book of Taliesyn, VIII
What's in a word? Or a name? What special power resides in a word, connecting it so intimately to the very thing it symbolizes? Does each word or name have its own 'vibration', as is generally believed by those of us who follow the Western occult tradition? And if so, how do we begin to unravel its meaning? Just what, exactly, is in a word? Well, LETTERS are in a word. In fact, letters COMPRISE the word. Which is why Taliesyn's remark had always puzzled me. Why didn't he say he had been a 'letter among words'? That, at least, would seem to make more logical sense than saying he had been a 'word among letters', which seems backwards. Unless...
Unless he was trying to tell us that the word is NOT the important thing -- the critical thing is the LETTERS that make up a word! The Welsh bard Taliesyn was, after all, a pretty gifted fellow. He certainly put all the other bards at Maelgwyn's court to shame. And over the years, I've learned never to take his statements lightly -- even his most enigmatic statements. Perhaps he was really suggesting that, in order to understand the true meaning of a word or name, one must first analyze the letters that comprise it. Of course, this is certainly not a new theory. Any student of arcane lore would at once recognize this concept as belonging in the opening remarks of any standard text on numerology. But to read the same meaning behind a line of poetry penned by a 6th century Welsh bard may be a bit surprising. Is it possible that the Celts had their own system of numerology?
Let us begin the quest by asking ourselves what we know about numerology in general. Most of our modern knowledge of numerology has been gleaned from ancient Hebrew tradition, which states that the true essence of anything is enshrined in its name. But there are so many names and words in any given language that it becomes necessary to reduce each word to one of a small number of 'types' -- in this case, numerological types from 1 to 9 (plus any master numbers of 11, 22, etc.). This is easily accomplished by assigning a numerical value to each letter of the alphabet, i.e. A=1, B=2, C=3, and so on. Thus, to obtain the numerical value of any word, one simply has to add up the numerical values of all the letters which comprise the word. If the sum is a two digit number, the two digits are then added to each other (except in the case of 11, 22, etc.) to obtain the single digit numerical value of the entire word, which may then be analyzed by traditional Pythagorean standards.
The problem has always been how to be sure of the numerical value of each letter. Why SHOULD A equal 1, or B equal 2, or Q equal 8? Where did these values come from? Who assigned them? Fortunately, the answer to this is quite simple in most cases. Many ancient languages used letters of the alphabet to stand for numbers (Roman numerals being the most familiar example). Ancient Hebrew, for instance, had no purely numerical symbols -- like our 1, 2, 3, etc. -- so their letters of the alphabet had to do double duty as numbers as well. One had to discern from the context whether the symbol was meant as letter or number. This was true of classical Latin, as well. Thus, in languages such as these, it is easy to see how a number became associated with a letter: the letter WAS the number.
It is a bit more difficult to see how the associations in 'modern' numerology came into being. The modern numerological table consists of the numbers 1 through 9, under which the alphabet from A through Z is written in standard order:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 --------------------------------- A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
This arrangement seems somewhat arbitrary, at best. At the very least, it is difficult to sense any 'intrinsically meaningful' relationship between a letter and its numerical value. After all, our modern alphabetical symbols and our modern numerical symbols (Arabic) come from two completely different sources and cultures.
For this reason, many contemporary numerologists prefer the ancient Hebrew system because, at least here, there is a known connection between letter and number. However, when we attempt to adapt this system to the English language, a whole new set of problems crops up. For one, the entire alphabet is arranged in a different order and some of our modern letters have NO Hebrew equivalents. Thus, based on the Hebrew alphabet, the only letters for which we have numerical values are the following:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 ------------------------------------ A B G D H V Z P Y K L M N W Q R S T
Obviously, a modern numerologist wouldn't get very far with this table. In order to compensate for the missing letters in the Hebrew system, most modern textbooks on numerology 'fill in' the missing letters by 'borrowing' numerical values from the Greek alphabet, thus mixing cultural symbols in an eclectic approach that is not entirely convincing.
Another problem is the exclusion of the number 9 from the table -- which modern textbooks often 'explain' by saying that the Hebrews did not use the number 9, since it was a 'sacred' and 'mystical' number. The real truth, however, is far less esoteric. The fact is, the Hebrew alphabet DID have letters with the numerical value of 9 -- the letters Teth and Sade. But, since Teth and Sade do not have equivalents in our modern English alphabet, the 9 value must be left out.
And finally, it is once again difficult to see any INTRINSIC relationship between a Hebrew letter and the number it represents. Why should one symbol stand for 1, or another for 2, or yet another for 3, and so on? The whole superstructure seems somewhat shakey.
But let us now turn our attention to a Celtic alphabetic system called the 'Ogham'. This alphabet is written by making a number of short strokes (from 1 to 5) below, above, or through a 'base line' (which in practice tended to be the edge of a standing stone). Thus, A, O, U, E, and I would be written, respectively:
Of course, in this system it is easy to see how a letter becomes associated with a number, since the numerical value of each letter is implicit. Thus, A=1, O=2, U=3, E=4, and I=5. (It is true there is much disagreement and confusion among modern scholars as to how the Ogham alphabet should be rendered. Further, a number of different Oghams seem to have been employed at various times by different Celtic cultures. But this confusion usually centers on whether the strokes should be above, below, or through the base line -- NOT on the number of strokes used. On that point, there is general agreement. And though orientation to the base line is important, it is not essential to our discussion of numerology, since we need only concern ourselves with the NUMBER of strokes used.)
Thus, based on the work of such scholars as P.C. Power, S. Ferguson, D. Diringer, I. Williams, L. Spence, and D. Conway, I have synthesized the following table of Celtic numerology:
1 2 3 4 5 --------------------------------- A D T C I B G U E N H L V F P M O W J Q X K R S Y Z
Using this table, the student of Celtic numerology would then proceed to analyze any word in the generally accepted manner. One should not be concerned that the numbers 6, 7, 8, and 9 do not appear in this system, as the Ogham alphabet had NO letters with these values (as opposed to the Hebrew alphabet which DID have letters with the missing 9 value, as mentioned earlier). Another consideration is that the Ogham alphabet is just that -- an alphabet. It never represented any particular language, and historically it has been employed by many different languages. Again by contrast, the Hebrew alphabet was structured for a particular language -- Hebrew -- and many problems arise when we attempt to adapt it to a language for which it is not suited.
Although the Ogham alphabet only has letter values from 1 through 5, all of the numbers from 1 through 9 (plus any master numbers of 11, 22, etc.) will be used in the final analysis (just as in the Hebrew system). To understand how this works, let us try an example. We will use the name of the Welsh goddess Rhiannon:
R + H + I + A + N + N + O + N 5 + 1 + 5 + 1 + 5 + 5 + 2 + 5 = 29 2 + 9 = 11
Most numerologists will agree that 11 is a 'master number' or 'power number' and therefore it is not further reduced by adding the two digits (although, if one does this, 1 + 1 = 2, and 2 is considered the first even and feminine number in the numerical sequence, certainly appropriate for a Welsh Mother Goddess). Viewed as an 11, the analysis is usually that of someone who is on a 'higher plane of existence' (certainly appropriate for a goddess), someone who brings 'mystical revelation'. Often this is someone who feels slightly distant from the people surrounding him or her, and who has trouble feeling any real empathy for them (which seems to fit a faery queen who has come to live in the land of mortals). Also, this is sometimes the number of the martyr, or of someone unjustly accused (which is certainly true of Rhiannon's story as told in the 'Mabinogi', in which she is falsely accused of destroying her own son).
By way of contrast, the 'modern' system would have Rhiannon be a 3, a somewhat inappropriate masculine number (not that all feminine names should always yield a feminine number -- but one would at least expect it to do so in the case of an archetypal mother goddess). The Hebrew system would yield an even more inappropriate 4, that being the number of the material world and all things physical (and since Rhiannon hails from faery, she is definitely not of this material plane.)
By now, some of my more thoughtful readers may think they see some inconsistency in my approach. Why have I gone to so much trouble to point up the flaws in traditional systems of numerology (even going so far as to suggest an entirely new system), only to fall back on interpretations of the numbers that are strictly traditional? The reason is this: all of my objections thus far have been limited to METHODOLOGY. When it comes to interpreting the meaning of the numbers, I have no quarrel with the traditional approach, since here we enter the field of universal symbolism. All systems of numerology, be they Hebrew, modern, Oriental, or whatever, tend to attach the same interpretive meaning to the numbers. When Three Dog Night sings, 'One is the loneliest number that you'll ever know...', it is a statement which is immediately understood and agreed upon by people from widely diverse cultures. And the same holds true for all other numbers, for we are here dealing with archetypal symbols.
It is worth repeating that, although I believe this system to have a firm theoretical basis, it is still in an embryonic state -- highly tentative, highly speculative. To the best of my knowledge, it is also an original contribution to the field of numerology. While some writers (notably Robert Graves in 'The White Goddess') have dealt with the numerical values of Ogham letters, I believe this article is the first instance of employing it specifically as a system of numerology. I have spent many long hours working with Celtic numerology -- putting abstract theory to use in practical application -- but much work remains to be done. For this reason, I would be happy to hear from readers who are interested in the subject and who would like to share their own experiences and thoughts.
Document Copyright © 1978, 1998 by Mike Nichols
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