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the symbolism of seven and other mystical numbers


part II - Symbolism and the Teachings of Freemasonry

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

In all ages and by all peoples the number seven has been regarded as a symbol of perfection.


Mystical or sacred numbers


The word mystical comes from the Greek adjective mustikos, which is derived from the noun mustes, which literally means close-mouthed. The noun is closely associated with the verb muo, which literally translates as “I shut my mouth and close my eyes” and hence signifies secrecy. In ancient times mustes was the word used to denote an initiate into a religious sect. The Greek word mukos and the Sanskrit word mukas are associated words that both mean dumb, whence the English word mute was derived through the Latin word mutus. In its original usage the word mystical was applied to any language, symbol or ritual that was only understood by those who had been initiated into sacred rites by the priesthood. The early philosophers adopted the word mystical, using it to designate the inner or esoteric doctrines of their schools. The symbolism derived from numbers probably is the oldest and most widely diffused of all arcane methods used to communicate profound concepts. A belief in the power of numbers, sometimes for good and sometimes for evil, was the foundation of many superstitions. Numbers are used symbolically in nearly all religions and references abound in the sacred writings. The doctrine of numbers was fundamental to the philosophy of Pythagoras. He was born at Samos in about 582 BCE and studied extensively in Egypt and the Near East, where numerical symbolism had long prevailed, from whence he brought the theories that were the basis of the system he taught in the school he established at Cretona in Italy.


The eminent American masonic author, Dr Albert G Mackey, was one of the most erudite scholars, renowned for the extent of his research. Of the many books he wrote, his Encyclopedia of Freemasonry is still regarded as a standard reference work, almost a century after it was first published. He summarised the universal interest in numbers and their relevance to freemasonry in the following words:


“Among the Greeks and Romans there was a superstitious veneration for certain numbers. The same practise is found among all Eastern nations; it entered more or less into all the ancient systems of philosophy; constituted a part of all the old religions; was accepted to a great extent by the early Christian Fathers; constituted an important part of the Cabala; was adopted by the Gnostics, the Rosicrucians and all of the mystical societies of the Middle Ages; and finally it has carried its influence into Freemasonry. The respect paid by Freemasons to certain numbers all of which are odd, is founded not on the belief of any magical virtue, but because they are assumed to be the type or representatives of certain ideas. That is to say, a number is in Freemasonry a symbol and no more. It is venerated, not because it has any supernatural efficacy as thought by the Pythagoreans and others, but because it has concealed within some allusion to a sacred object or holy thought, which it symbolises.”


The symbolism of numbers in ancient Egypt


Numbers played a very important role in the ancient Egyptian culture that prevailed for almost four millennia. Richard H. Wilkinson defines that role in his book entitled Symbol & Magic in Egyptian Art, when he says:


“Just as verbal and “visual” puns were felt to reflect an important aspect of reality, the relationships between the abstract numbers found in myth and in nature were also seen as meaningful patterns reflecting divine planning and cosmic harmony.”


Although one was a symbol of individuality and pre-eminence, it also had an element of plurality reflecting the Egyptian belief that, when the creator saw his own image in the primordial darkness, he beckoned it with the creative word and produced his offspring, from whence the world was populated. Thus one also represents the male and female duality of the deity. Two is the number of duality, which is a fundamental concept in the Egyptian view of life and the universe, thus complementing the unity in duality expressed in one. The combination of one and two produces three, the number of plurality that is reflected in the concept of body, soul and spirit and the triune essence of the deity. The number four signifies totality and completion and it appears repeatedly in Egyptian art and ritual, especially in relation to the four cardinal points, the four pillars of the sky and the four quarters of heaven. Seven is the sum of three and four and thus connotes plurality, completeness and totality, which symbolises perfection.


Significant numbers in the Hebrew tradition


Because the initial letter of the Tetragrammaton or Ineffable Name is Yod, the Hebrews have always regarded it as a symbol of the Deity. As Yod has a numerical value of ten, the number ten has always been regarded as an important number. Another significant number in the Hebrew traditions is fifteen, which is revered as sacred. This is because the word Yod He is the two-lettered name of God translated as Jah, but usually rendered as the Lord in English language Bibles. Jah has the numerical equivalent of fifteen, as Yod is ten and He is five. In reverence for the two-lettered name of God, the number fifteen is usually written as Teth Waw, Teth being nine and Waw (or Vau) being six. In their original sense Yod signified a hand and He signified the window of God’s house, suggesting the dedication of human endeavour to God’s service. Teth signifies a snake or serpent, an ancient Egyptian symbol of Divine Wisdom when extended and an emblem of eternity when looped with its tail in its mouth.


Another meaning of Teth is the building material clay, whilst Waw is a symbol of unity, so that these characters also imply dedication to the service of the one true God. The character Teth is generally regarded as a mystery letter, because it has the same sound as Taw (or Tau), the twenty-second and last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Moreover, Taw signifies a cross and it was the “mark of Cain” placed on Cain’s forehead to indicate that, although guilty, he was to be spared. Like the Hebrews, most of the ancient mystics held the number fifteen in the highest regard, because it is the product of three and five. In this context three is regarded as a perfect number and a symbol of completeness, whilst five signifies unity in diversity and represents the number of manifest planes of existence, or divisions of the material nature of the universe, usually described as the physical, the subconscious, the mental, the spiritual and the heavenly.


The esoteric teachings of Judaism are encompassed in the Kabbalah (or Cabala). Tradition says they were revealed to Adam in their perfection, but were lost and again revealed from the time of the second Temple of Zerubbabel. The teachings are founded on a contemplation of the transcendent yet all pervasive nature of God when considered in relation to ten sefiroth, which are the divine emanations of Ein Sof, the infinite God in his transcendence. The interactions of the sefiroth are often portrayed diagrammatically as an intricately interlaced tree of life, in which the three highest sefiroth are an ethical triad comprising the supreme crown, wisdom and intelligence. The lower seven constitute the trunk and branches of human reality and comprise love, power, beauty, endurance, majesty, foundation and kingdom. The teachings of the Kabbalah were produced in a literary form during the Middle Ages, when many of the most important aspects were set out in a collection of books referred to as the Sefer ha-Zohar, which is the Book of Splendour. It is a mystical commentary on the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, also on some of the Hagiographa, the third section of the Hebrew scriptures.


Three sections of the Book of Splendour are important in the present context. They are the Three Strands of Spirit and Highest Grade of Faith, which are doctrinal discourses on the book of Genesis, in conjunction with the related Three Aspects of the Soul, which is a doctrinal discourse on the book of Exodus. Briefly, the three strands or aspects of the mortal soul are regarded as separate entities, each with its own abode, but linked to form a unity. The Neshamah is the innermost or holy soul, which is the vehicle through which one strives to achieve a pure and saintly life. It is associated with the Ruah or spirit that shall return to God who gave it and also with the Nefesh or natural soul that resides in every human being. Closely associated with these three strands of the mortal soul is a fourth or heavenly component, called the supernal soul. The supernal soul is related to the Sepharim and may be regarded as a part of them. The Sepharim are the three creative attributes of the self-existing, almighty and everlasting God. The three Sepharim are derived from the root word Samech Pey Resh, or Sephir, which means to count or to tell. The three Sepharim literally signify firstly number or concept, secondly the word and thirdly the writing of the word. However, it is said that to the Creator these three aspects actually are the entity itself, for which reason some ancient Rabbis said that:


“Idea, word and work are one and the same to God”.

According to the cabalistic teachings, when the body dies the Ruah ascends to a holy place that is called the Lower Garden or Mount Zion, while the Neshamah ascends to the higher domain from whence it emanated, but that the Nefesh must hover over the body for seven days to consummate its transition. If the Neshamah is found to be unfit to be readmitted into its domain, the Ruah cannot enter the Lower Garden and the Nefesh cannot reunite with them, so that all three continue to float in space and undergo suffering. Immortality can only be achieved if the Neshamah achieves a sufficiently holy state to allow it to unite with the Nefesh after mortal death and ascend to the heavenly abode with the Ruah, where all three unite with the supernal soul. This concept is very closely allied to the ancient Egyptian beliefs concerning death and resurrection, from which it most probably was derived. The ancient Egyptians believed that when the divine spirit Ka left the body, it released the soul Ba to begin its life in the hereafter. If the deceased had led a blameless life, the divine spirit Ka and the soul Ba were ultimately reunited in the hereafter with the eternal and intangible sheath Khu and the shadow or umbra of the body, the Khaibit, before ascending to the heavenly Duat.


Another important exposition on the cabalistic teachings that is given in the Sephir Yezirah, or Book of Creation, concerns the use of numbers as symbols. The creation is discussed having regard to the ten sefirot, or divine emanations from Ein Sof, as well as the derivation of the cosmos as reflected in the Hebrew alphabet. Some of the alphabetical and associated numerical symbolism will now be examined. Seven consonants in the Hebrew alphabet may be aspirated to produce a hard sound, or not aspirated so as to produce a softer sound. They are Beth, Gimel, Daleth, Kaph, Pey, Resh and Tau. These seven double consonants are said to serve as models of hardness and softness and of strength and weakness. When written, the letters are distinguished by a dot if a hard sound is intended. When aspirated to produce a hard sound they are said to symbolise wisdom, wealth, fruitfulness, life, dominion, peace and beauty in that order. When not aspirated they are said to symbolise the opposite characteristics, which are foolishness, poverty, barrenness, death, dependence, war and ugliness. These seven double consonants are also said to designate a host of other well known things that commonly are referred to in groups of seven, such as worlds, heavens, seas and days of the week.


The three Hebrew letters Aleph Mem Shin are of special significance, because they are taken together to represent the three primary elements of air, water and fire, with the hissing fire above, the still water below and the breath of air between them to establish and maintain equilibrium. The twelve simple letters of the alphabet are arranged in four groups of three, which are said to represent the functions of the human organs in various groups. In this context four is a symbol of the material aspects of the body and three is a symbol of cohesion within each of the groups. The four groups of letters are He Waw Zayin, Heth Teth Yod, Lamed Nun Samech and Ayin Sadeh Qoph, to which are assigned the following interpretations. The first group is speaking, thinking and walking, or creative activity. The second group is seeing, hearing and working, or responsive activity. The third group is coition, smelling and sleeping, or survival conduct. The fourth group is anger, swallowing and laughing, or reactive behaviour.


The number seven


The number seven was venerated in all of the ancient mysteries, which suggests some common basis for its distinction. The Pythagoreans called seven the perfect number because it was made up of three and four, representing the triangle and the square, which they considered to be two perfect figures. The number seven is revered among Jews and Christians and is frequently alluded to in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The first reference is in Genesis, which records that after the six days of creation the Lord rested on the seventh day and declared it holy. The traditions recorded in the Old Testament include the ritual sprinkling of a bullock’s blood seven times and the burnt offering of seven lambs. From when it was first used in the tabernacle in about 1280 BCE, during the Exodus under Moses, the menorah or golden candlestick of seven branches has been a symbol of the Israelitish identity. The Pesach, which is the Jewish Passover or Festival of Unleavened Bread, originally was two separate festivals, one for the flocks and one for the harvest. In about 620 BCE King Josiah combined the two festivals as a pilgrimage festival lasting for seven days, during which mazzah or unleavened bread must be eaten at least on the first night.


The Sukkot or Feast of Tabernacles also lasts for seven days and is intended to be a reminder that the Lord required the Israelites to dwell in sukkah or booths when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. It is significant that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, begins at sunset on the ninth day of Tishri, which is the seventh month of the Jewish ecclesiastical year. According to the aggadah, or rabbinical teachings, this was the day when Moses received the second tablets of the law. When King Solomon built the first temple in Jerusalem it was completed in seven years. The miraculous feeding of four thousand by Jesus was achieved with seven loaves and a few fish, but seven basketfuls were collected afterwards, signifying that Jesus can completely satisfy. The early Christian church had seven deacons and the Revelation to John was addressed to seven churches. The seven golden candlesticks, seven seals and seven stars mentioned in the Revelation signify the consummation of God’s plan.


Referring again to Dr Albert G Mackey’s Encyclopedia of Freemasonry, we find the following summary of the use of the number seven among the ancients:


“It is singular to observe the important part occupied by the number seven in all the ancient systems. There were, for instance, seven ancient planets, seven Pleiades and seven Hyades; seven altars burned continually before the god Mithras; the Arabians had seven holy temples; the Hindus supposed the world to be enclosed within the compass of seven peninsulas; the Goths had seven deities, namely the Sun, the Moon, Tuisco, Woden, Thor, Friga and Seatur, from whose names are derived the days of our week; in the Persian mysteries there were seven spacious caverns, through which the aspirant had to pass; in the Gothic mysteries the candidate met with seven obstructions which were called the Road of Seven Stages; and finally, sacrifices were always considered as most efficacious when the victims were seven in number.”


In classical mythology, the Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione and sisters of the Hyades. They were transformed into stars, but one of them became invisible out of shame because she married a mortal. The Pleiades is a star group is in the shoulder of the constellation Taurus. It is from this story that the name pleiad is frequently given to groups of seven, especially illustrious persons. The Hyades were seven nymphs, also the daughters of Atlas and Pleione, who like their sisters were placed among the stars in the constellation Taurus and supposed by the ancients to bring rain when they rose with the sun. The Hyades is a V-shaped cluster of stars that form the face of the bull in the constellation Taurus, but only twelve of more than two hundred stars in the cluster are visible to the naked eye.


Symbolic numbers in freemasonry


Among the ancients, three was a number of perfection and completeness. It is for this reason that the equilateral triangle or sacred delta has always been a symbol of the deity, being said to typify the self-existent, all-powerful and eternal aspects of the deity. The Yod within an equilateral triangle also signifies the deity, but it has the additional significance of service to the deity, because the Yod in the Hebrew alphabet represents a hand. The All-seeing Eye is often substituted for the Yod. These symbols and also the radiated triangle, which is a triangle placed within and surrounded by a circle of rays, are all used in speculative freemasonry. In religious applications the rays usually surround the triangle without entering it, when it is called a Glory and is an emblem of God’s Eternal Glory. In masonic applications the rays often emanate from a small circle in the centre of the triangle, so that the triangle appears to be enshrouded in the brilliance of the rays, when it is a symbol of the Divine Light. In Christianity the triune aspects of the deity are the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, called the Holy Trinity. In Hinduism the equilateral triangle is revered as a personification of the Trimurti, the creative, preservative and destructive aspects of the one true God that is without form or quality, eternal, unchangeable and occupying all space. These three aspects of the divine are known as Brahma, Vishnu and Siva.


The material world is typified by the square that represents passive matter, which is in contrast to the force that is symbolised by the triangle. It naturally follows that the square is an emblem of the earth and humanity, whereas the triangle is a symbol of heaven and the Deity. The square, when surmounted by a triangle, depicts the elevation of a cubical stone that has a pyramidal apex. This is the form of the broached thurnel depicted on the earliest English tracing boards of an apprentice. The broached thurnel is still shown on French tracing boards and is called “la pierre cubique a pointe”. When seen in elevation the shape of the broached thurnel resembles a mason’s apron with the flap turned up, as worn by operative freemasons. The broached thurnel symbolises the union of force and matter and the oneness of God and man, which implies perfection. It has nine solid angles, which are one at the apex, four at the junction of the pyramid and the cube and four at the base of the cube. Because nine is the square of three, the number nine was especially revered by the ancients, who considered it to signify the attainment of perfection on the three lower planes of existence, these being the body, the mind and the natural soul.


In speculative freemasonry three, five and seven are numbers that are of special significance, each having its own interpretation as well as sharing interrelated characteristics. An axiom of the ancient Roman Artificers especially relevant to freemasonry is that “it requires three to make a college”, from whence was derived the requirement of three to form a lodge. These are the three principal officers, who are the master and his two wardens, all of whom must be present for the opening, working and closing of the lodge. The ancients regarded the number five as representing the five elements, the five senses and the five divisions of the material nature of the universe, but five also was considered to signified incompleteness because it did not include the two latent spiritual planes required to complete the planes of existence. In freemasonry five are required to hold a lodge, without which number a lodge cannot exist. The five required are the three principle officers and also two fellows of the craft, because the latter are experienced craftsmen and therefore are symbolic of the material world. Because the number seven includes the latent spiritual planes, the ancients considered it to be a perfect number, signifying the completion or consummation of life. This is why it is said that seven members are required to make a lodge perfect, these being the three principal officers and two fellows of the craft already mentioned, together with two entered apprentices whose initiation is symbolic of rebirth and entrance into the spiritual plane. There also are the seven liberal arts and sciences called Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy, the study of which tend so effectively to polish and adorn the mind.


Although it is not a universally accepted concept, many consider that the winding staircase is comprised of three flights or sections, respectively having three, five and seven steps, making a total of fifteen steps. This aspect is referred to in several Scottish tracing boards where various explanations are given, including an allusion to the three required to rule a lodge, the five noble orders of architecture and the seven liberal arts and sciences. Among the early ritualists of speculative freemasonry, several were erudite scholars who were knowledgeable in the Hebrew scriptures. This is one of the reasons why many Hebrew words and concepts are of special significance in the rituals of speculative freemasonry. It is beyond question that those early ritualists were well aware of the significance of the number fifteen in relation to the sacred or two-lettered name of God that is translated as Jah.


For this reason it is logical to assume that a total of fifteen steps would have been chosen specifically for the winding stair leading to the middle chamber, where certain Hebrew characters signifying God immediately arrested the craftsman’s attention, nowadays represented by the letter G in lodges of speculative craft freemasonry. Those Hebrew characters comprise the Tetragrammaton, being the Yod He Waw He that signifies Yahweh, the great and unpronounceable name of God that is usually rendered as Jehovah in English language Bibles. It is important to note that although Yah or Jah comprises the first two characters of the Tetragrammaton, it is not an abbreviation but a name in its own right, which is called the two-lettered name of God. It is also significant that three parties each of five trusted craftsmen were chosen to search for the missing master, because their efforts resulted in the establishment of a substitute word.


The numbers twenty-seven and eighty-one also are symbols used in speculative freemasonry. Twenty-seven was important to the ancients because it is the cube of three, which they considered to be a perfect number. In Hebrew twenty-seven is represented by the characters Kaph and Zayin, which respectively represent the palm of the hand and a weapon. These are appropriate symbols for the degree of Excellent Master, in which twenty-seven is a significant number, although there is no known record of twenty-seven being chosen as a significant number for the degree because of those characters. Eighty-one derives its importance from being the square of nine, which itself is the square of three. Coincidentally, eighty-one also equals twenty-seven tripled. Although nine is a significant number in some of the advanced degrees, the ancients considered it to be a bad omen. They regarded nine with terror and called it the fatal number. To them nine was a symbol of versatility and change, as well as being an emblem of the frailty and uncertainty of human existence, on which account they avoided all numbers that are derived from nine. The Pythagoreans also detested the number eighty-one.

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