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Introduction to Irish Numerology
by Michael Ragan
© 2000



  As with most cultures of the world, numbers were an integral part of Irish symbology. Modern symbolic thought and the theory of groupings go back only to the idea of the quantitative as the basis for the qualitative. In other words, the modern theory is that the greater the number, the more complex the symbol. Not so with most ancient cultures, including the Irish.
       In their symbolism, the Irish, among many early cultures, considered numbers as more than expression of quantities. They considered them as concepts, each with a particular character of its own. The number value places but a facade on the building, but behind the face oftentimes lies complex idea and thought. Further the greater the value behind the unit one, the more deeply involved becomes the concept. In this piece we will introduce what we hope will later become a much more in-depth analysis.

zero Nialas (n'ieles) : Zero (or naught) does not figure in Irish symbolism. The total absence of anything did not seem to fit into symbolic thought. It is interesting to note that nialas is a modern word. Neither it nor any equivalent seems to appear in Early or Middle Irish references.

one Aon (i:n): The number one is symbolic of being. It is the revelation to humankind of the spiritual essence. It is the active principle, which, when broken into fragments, brings multiplicity. It represents spiritual unity, the solitary and thought. One is associated with Beith (Birch) the first lunar period, the birth of the year and potential. More importantly, it represents the transition from one world to the next. A prime philosophical belief of our ancestors was that "In order to be born, you must first die. In order to enter a better new world, you must first leave the old. Thus, one could say it associates with death, but the Irish saw such transition as a positive step and had little fear "death."

two Dó (de): Two is the echo, reflection, conflict and counterpoise. It indicates passage of time and the first nucleus of matter. It is nature in opposition to the creative being. It is dualism, mortal and immortal opposites and the applied action to thought. The number two month of the year is Luis, the Rowan tree, which symbolizes conception and healing.

three Tri (t'r'i): This is the first formal magical number. It indicates a sense of completion and unity. Universally, it is spiritual synthesis and is the formula for creation of each realm. It is the harmonic product of action (2) which followed (1) thought. Concerned with basic principles, it expresses the growth of unity within itself. The number three occurs frequently in Irish mythology. There were the three sons of Uisnech, the three cup-bearers of Nechtain and the three aspects of the Morrígu. The number three indicates three parts of a unit. One part is generally dominant. The 3rd lunar period is Nion, the ash tree, symbol of frustration as it struggles to advance from the physical into the spiritual realm.

four Ceathair (k'aher'): As with other cultures, the Irish used four to symbolize the earth and terrestial space. For example, one term for the earth in Middle Irish was Ceathair Dúil, literally "four elements." It represents the four seasons (the two parts of each summer and winter), the four points of the compass and the four corners of the green diamond that is Ireland. It signifies the human situation and rational organization. Another derived term is ceatharn, which means a band of fighting men, a bodyguard and a multitude. The 4th month is Fearn, the Alder tree. It signifies material wealth, the filling of the senses and optimism for the future.

five Cúig (ku:g'): Universally, five is the symbol of man. It is the quintessence of acting upon matter. It is the four limbs plus the head and the four fingers plus the thumb. It is the solar number and represents the five stations of the sun. It also symbolizes the four cardinal points plus the center. It is the number of the spiral, the symbol of the journey of spirit. It is the second formal magical number of the Irish. Derived words include cúige (purpose) and cúigeadh (province). Saileach is the fifth moon of the year and is named for the Willow tree. Strong, resilient, yet gracefully sensitive, it speaks of enchantment and the advance from purely material considerations.

six Sé (s'e): Six is the number of ambivalence and equilibrium. Some European thought links the human soul. It is the number of trial and effort and the balance of justice. However, it does not appear significantly in Irish lore. The sixth moon is named for the Hawthorne and signifies cleansing and finding balance. Thus the concept is bringing order and equilibrium with existing conditions before reaching out for the new. It is also two times three - the completion of the second of three cycles.

seven Seacht (s'axt): Seven in universal thought represents "perfect order," a complete period or cycle. The Irish seemed to possess a slight twist to the concept. To them, seven seemed more concerned with principle than order. It symbolized the seven planets in the cosmos and the word was sometimes used in an inexact context to signify "many" or "several." Standing solidly, the Oak month shows a quiet and sustaining strength. It stands against all thrown against it, for it has many talents. The Oak, like the number seven symbolizes strength in diversity, protection and magic.

eight Ocht (ó:xt): Eight, in universal symbolism, signifies the infinite. It is an intermediate form between the square (terrestrial order) and the circle (eternal order). To the Irish, it was a more calculable symbol and represented purity, perfection, the lack of fault and natural goodness. However, it is also a number that does not appear frequently in the myths. The eighth moon is Tinne, symbol of the force of truth and justice. Symbolically, you might say it is the blade the separates evil, leaving only the good.

nine Naoi (ni:): Nine is the most magical number in Irish symbology. It occurs frequently throughout the lore such as the "Nine hazel trees at Segais Well," the "nine" hostages of Niull, the nine waves the Milesians retreated before giving battle to the Tuatha de Danann, etc. The number nine was completeness. It is triplication of the triple and the synthesis of the three elements of human consideration, physical, mental and spiritual. It is new as well as complete. It is no surprise that in the ninth position stands the month of Coll, the Hazel tree, symbol of wisdom as well as nurturing.

ten Deich (d'ex'): Ten is the symbol of abstract creativity. The number figures little in mythology, but a view of its associated lunar period is of interest. The tenth moon is the Blackthorn. Concerns of the month are philosophic and spiritual as the ancients awaited the time of harvest. The message is one of inspiration and intuition and the result of spirit in action.

eleven Aon Deag (i:n deg'): Universally, eleven is considered a number of transition, excess and conflict. The agrarian Irish saw it a bit differently. Here we have the combination of magic and wisdom. If one labors wisely and well, the magic works its abundance. If one lacks resolve and willingness to work, the results are negative. Quite naturally, the eleventh month is Giuis, named for the Pine tree. It is the month of harvest where ones past labors bear its fruit for good or ill.

twelve Dó deag (deg'): The modern view of the number twelve is of cosmic order, notions of space and time and, of course, the zodiac. The Irish viewed the number 12 as the number of preparation for what may be difficult times ahead. This can be seen when considering the twelfth month of the old year. It was symbolized not by a tree as we know it, but by the reed. Now dry, the reed was harvested and used to make solid the thatched roofs that would protect the family during the harsh winter season ahead. This is the number of nurturing needs and drawing together to face the future.

thirteen Tri (t'r'i' deg'): The modern notion seems to be around the unluckiness and evil qualities of the number. Associated are death and birth, being forced to begin anew and generally, unfavorable implications. To the Irish, things were not quite so grim. True, 13 is a symbol of being prepared for difficult times, but it is not the end. It is the state of being prepared, of having all actions taken. It is completion and the willing acceptance of what lies ahead. It is continuance. The last month of the Irish calendar was named for Ruis the Elder tree.
 
       Obviously, the differences between the concepts of the ancient Irish and modern numerologists are considerable. The reason is simple. Modern numerology is based primarily on the Greek fascination with symbolism of the first ten numbers. Pythagoras set the tone when he stated "Everything is disposed according to the numbers." Plato asserted that number was the essence of harmony, and harmony was the basis of the cosmos and man. The philosophy was further advanced by the Hebrews, Gnostics and Cabalists.
       Irish thought was not so handicapped by speculative theory. They took the more pragmatic approach of observation. They believed that the essence of numbers, though critical in determining quantity, had a very particular character of its own, as noted by Cirlot. Thus, there was an order, one leading to the next, in a sense. However, they seemed to pay strict attention to the symbolic meaning of some numbers while virtually ignoring others. As a result, we find major emphasis on three, five and nine. Secondary emphasis seemed to be placed on one, thirteen, eighteen (thirteen plus five), twenty (a score) and twenty-three.
       This is but a preliminary study as considerable research and study remains to be done. We hope that it will trigger the minds of some of you readers as it has ours and an increasing body of work can be compiled.

Limited Bibliography

A Dictionary of Symbols
J. E. Cirlot, English translation by Herbert Read, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. London, 1962
Man and His Symbols
Carl G. Jung, editor after his death, M. L. von Franz, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, 1964
The Metrical Dindsenchas
Edward Gwynn, 5 Vols., School of Celtic Studies, Dublin, 1991
Lebor Gabala Erenn
R. A. S. Mac Alister, 5 vols., Irish Text Society, Dublin, 1938-1941
(An) Irish-English Dictionary
Patrick S. Dineen, Irish Text Society, Dublin, 1979
Foclóir Scoile: English Irish Dictionary
AN GÚM, Baile Áth Cliath, 1986
 

 
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