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Isopsephic interpretation

Subject: Isopsephic interpretation
Date: Fri, 17 May 1996 10:27:54 -0700 (PDT)

"Isopsephic" is described in the OED thus --

Of equal numerical value; said of words in which the numerical values
of the letters (according to the ancient Greek notation) made up the 
same amount.  Also as sb. (in pl.) Isopsephic verses.  So isopsephism
(aIs&schwa.U'psi:fIz(&schwa.)m), isopsephic relation.
  1882 FARRAR Early Chr. II. 291 note, They [the Greeks] called verses
isopsephics when their letters made up numerically the same sum...On the
Gnostic gems the word Abraxas is used as isopsephic to Meithras (the Sun)
because the letters of both names = 325. 1886 FARRAR Hist. Interpr. 
ii. 98 This method resembled the Greek isopsephism and consisted 
in establishing mystic relations between different conceptions, 
based on the numerical equivalence of value in the letters by 
which they are expressed.

I think this makes it clear that the practice of making (or finding)
connections based on numerical equivalences is not, historically, unique
to Hebrew.  In fact, it occurs not only in alphabetic languages (it
is a traditional practice in India, for example) but also in Chinese.

Also, the word "gematria" has been used in English for some centuries --
as one can see from the OED examples:

gematria (gi:'meItrI&schwa.). Also 7 gematry. [Rabbinical Heb. gematriya, 
a. Gr. gamma-epsilon-omega-mu-epsilon-tau-rho-iota-alpha- GEOMETRY.   
(The suggestion that it represents 
Gr. gamma-rho-alpha-mu-mu-alpha-tau-epsilon-iota-alpha- 
is unfounded.)] A cabbalistic method of interpreting the Hebrew 
Scriptures by interchanging words whose letters have the same numerical 
value when added.
  1686 GOAD Celest. Bodies II. i. 156, I am perswaded..that there may be
something in Cabala, Gematry, something in the mysterious Force of 
Numbers, in Critical Days, Climacteric Years, &c. 1730-6 BAILEY 
(folio), Gematria, the first kind of arithmetical cabala, in use 
among the cabalistical Jews.  1884 GOW Gr. Mathem. 44 The supposed 
antiquity of gematria depends  solely on a conjectural and improbable 
comment on Zechariah xii. 10.   There is in fact no clear instance 
of gematria before Philo or  Christian writers strongly under Philonic 
influence  (e.g. Rev. xiii. 18; Ep. Barn. c. 9). 1892 Edin. Rev. July 77 
Belief in the gematria or mystic value of letters in the Scriptures.

The idea that isopsephic interpretation of English words was original
with Crowley is, to say the least, unhistorical.  (It is odd that
the image of Crowley has such an obsessive, fascinating power for so 
many people that he either becomes the source of everything admired
or of everything detested, as though he were an irruption of the utterly
holy (or demonic), rather than a human being.)

Isopsephia, like punning, is an ancient and commonly occurring 
*literary* device (though punning does not depend on writing, and
isopsephia does, so punning could better be called a rhetorical rather 
than only literary, device).

Like any device for making (or finding) meaning, it can be (and 
has been) used in any number of ways, secular or sacred, 
straight-laced or libertine, moralistic or antinomian, superstitious 
or philosophical.

I'm more than a little bemused to see people who present themselves
as knowledgable about esoteric traditions carrying on a discussion
that resembles nothing so much as would-be litterateurs enmeshed
in a controversy about whether rhyme and alliteration were holy or
unholy, were innately Republican or perhaps a perverse invention of
the Kennedy family, or whether the occurrence of alliteration invalidated
or supported the arguments of a scientific paper, should be shunned 
as a source of heresy or embraced as an infallible indicator of 
truth, and so on.

LeGrand Cinq-Mars

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