The origins of Enneagram
Like you, I have a past that has shaped me
In this chapter, I talk about my origins because our history matters.
Like many family trees, it’s a story with its own share of mystery. It fades in and out of historical record and often lacks clear boundaries between fact and speculation. Yet I remain rather proud of it; it’s an unusual history, to say the least.
But here’s an important reader’s note: if you’re impatient to get on with your personal session, do jump to the next chapter. For those who stay, however, there’s an intriguing story to be told.
Like the bee who gathers nectar from different flowers, my ancestry has gathered insight from many sources, both across the millennia and across the world. Our brief survey of my origins will straddle 2600 years of history; involve some remarkable people and visit countries as varied as Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, Russia, Spain, Persia, Turkey, France, U.S.A., Italy, Mexico, England, Tibet, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile. (You may soon be calling me the world’s greatest travel guide.)
So let the house lights be lowered as the curtain opens on Enneagram’s personal history.
We start in Chile.
If there was a moment when I first appeared in my present form, it would be through the work of Oscar Ichazo in the 1960’s. Based at the Arica Institute in the Chilean desert, it was he who brought together ideas which had previously remained separate. Out of this fusion of understanding the Enneagram of personality types was born.
At first, his teaching was an oral tradition amongst his followers, shared in groups and through individual guidance. The sense of discovery and excitement was immense, however, and it was only a matter of time before someone broke ranks and published the material. The damn burst and Enneagram books flowed. Mainly from North America, they found a world ready and waiting for their wisdom.
The genius of Ichazo was in gathering truths around my symbol. As he said, ‘The knowledge that I have contributed to the school, came to me from many sources that I have encountered in my peculiar quest.’ The story I now tell confirms this. My evolution was the original work, not of one person but of many; and it was work which took place over many hundreds of years.
First, I tell the history of my symbol and second, the history of the ideas attached to it. They sit together now in sweet unity but this has not always been so. They have come together gradually over a long period of time.
The origins of the Nine-pointed symbol
Pythagoras, the Greek mathematician from around 600BC, is credited with making the earliest representation of the nine-pointed star. Pythagoras had a particular love for the triangle and saw it as the determining shape in creation. He didn’t know it at the time, but he’d stumbled on what later mathematicians called the Law of Three. We’ll return to that but for the moment, we watch Pythagoras at work. He put three triangles together, three times three and so created a nine pointed shape. It is the first historical record of such a thing. 2500 years later, Ichazo called the Enneagram ‘The 9th seal of Pythagoras.’
The symbol then disappeared from history’s view. This is not to say it disappeared. It probably lived on in more secretive streams of knowing, including certain Middle Eastern wisdom schools; later, it would emerge in the East again. But to the watching world, the symbol was hidden.
Its first recorded re-appearance was in 13th century Europe when the Catalan Ramon Lull (1232 – 1315), used a form of it in his Ars Magna, published in 1305. Lull was a hedonist turned Franciscan monk. Seducing married women had been his previous passion but his energies were now spent in a different cause. He used the nine-pointed symbol to portray nine aspects of God, using, like Pythagoras, three triangular divisions, placed on a cardinal point. This version differed from later developments of the sign; it used letters rather than numbers and was also static, suggesting no movement. To this extent, it may appear only distantly related to the symbol now. We will return to Ramon. For now, however, we note this: here was a man attempting to combine the age-old logic of spirituality to the artistic form and again finding 3 and 9 to be significant.
Three centuries later, the symbol made another appearance in Europe through the work of Athanasius Kircher. (1601-1680) Kircher has been called the last Renaissance man. Artist, priest, mathematician, decoder of hieroglyphics and natural scientist, he was celebrated at the time and since for his wide interests and versatile knowledge. A contemporary of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, his art, like Lull’s, was in the mathematical tradition – an attempt to define God and human growth by numbers. For students of my history, his cover of Arithmologia, published in Rome in 1665, is of particular interest. On the cover is a nine pointed symbol, depicting nine orders of angel in three triangular divisions, each with a seemingly different expression on their face. It is not contained within a circle but does feature below it, a cherubim holding a board displaying the numbers 1 - 9.
So three centuries after Lull lived, his spirit and insights continued to be nurtured in a Europe savaged by the 30 years war. The fighting and subsequent famines often endangered Kircher in his travels but he was fortunate - he survived the terrors and created his nine-pointed angel symbol.
In search of my symbol’s past, we now leave Europe and travel to Central Asia. In some ways, I regard this place as home, both for its psychology and its maths.
We start in the city of Samarkand in Afghanistan. It was in Samarkand in the 14th century that the modern theory of numbers emerged and where the Law of Seven came to be expressed. A glance at the lines of health on my symbol will reveal the numbers 1 – 4 – 2 – 8 – 5 – 7 – 1 linked in recurring sequence. Mathematicians amongst us will appreciate that these numbers are also the remainder, when any integer is divided by seven – when the recurring sequence is always the same.
Here then, is the question: did the Law of Seven join with the Law of Three at this time to form the particular symbol we now know? I suspect this was an important, if hidden, moment in Enneagram history.
So what are the Laws of Three and Seven? How do they work in real life? Put simply, the first describes the process of events; the second describes the quality of events. And both turn out to be supremely practical.
As we have noted, Pythagoras had already announced the Law of Three. It’s a law that describes the process of all interaction, revealing the forces necessary for creation. Firstly, the active/creative force; secondly, the receiving/opposing force and third, the reconciling/preserving force.
The Law of Three is familiar to the artist, for instance. The artist has a vision for the painting and starts to paint. This is the first law. But the paint and canvass somehow conspire to oppose the vision as it is. What the painter wished to do now becomes impossible. This is the second law. Out of this crisis arises a third state, which is the ultimate picture, the resolution - and this is the third law. Such patterns of action will be familiar to us in our daily lives: action, opposition, resolution. They are in continual play amid the constant adjustment and readjustment of existence.
The Law of Seven is different. This law comes into effect after the event has begun, and describes how things then proceed. This law is concerned with the inner states of the process; with its essential quality. So it is not concerned with how something happens but whether it is a good happening. It can be applied to events and can also be applied to humans: ‘You exist – but what is the quality of your existence?’
When applied to humans, at the top of the Law of Seven is the conscious human; at the bottom is the mechanical human and in between, various levels of psychological and spiritual health. The suggestion is that the triangle of the Law of Three was overlaid with the Law of Seven and that the dynamic psychological symbol we now have was born in Central Asia.
This hypothesis is contested by those who dislike mysterious Eastern origins. It’s supported, however, by two key witnesses. Ichazo himself said he learnt of the symbol from Sufi teachers in Afghanistan and the same claim was made by another important figure in my history - George Gurdjieff. We will consider him briefly now.
It was the Russian Armenian Gurdjieff who introduced my symbol to the modern world. He did this through ‘The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man,’ which he founded in 1910. I still smile when I see the name because little that he undertook in life was harmonious. But then he believed in shocking people into truth.
Neither did the Institute have harmonious beginnings, starting life amid revolutionary upheaval in Moscow. It was there and in Petrograd that Gurdjieff gave the first presentation of my symbol to a private group of pupils in 1916. He explained it to them as a synthesis of the Law of Three and the Law of Seven. It was an important moment in my family history: I had made it to the 20th century. Revolution and war then forced change. Travelling via Istanbul, Berlin and Dresden, Gurdjieff moved the school to Fontainbleu, near Paris in 1919. Here his work continued and it was in 1922 that he choreographed and taught the first of his many sacred dances. Accompanied by especially composed music, the dancers would move in various ways through the perpetual motion of my symbol’s lines and numbers.
Gurdjieff, a contemporary of Freud, was an interesting figure. As a writer, former Russian intelligence officer, (possibly) entrepreneur, bully, explorer, psychologist, choreographer and multi-lingual spiritual teacher, he is not a man easily pigeon-holed. But he held my symbol in high regard believing it held within it all the secrets of the universe. He called it a ‘fundamental hieroglyphic of a universal language.’ If one understood the symbol, he claimed, then libraries became useless; through this symbol, he said, you could read the world.
From where did this understanding come? Like Ichazo, Gurdjieff located his teachers in Afghanistan. He said that he learnt about it there when staying with the Sarmoun Brotherhood, a secretive Sufi wisdom school. We hear more of these groups in Kabbani’s book, The Naqshbandi Sufi way, in which the author describes a Sufi symbol in which ‘each one of the nine points is represented by one of the nine saints who are at the highest level in the Divine presence.’
Such reports are significant. Two hundred years had now passed since Kircher drew his symbol in Italy; and five hundred years since Lull published his. Yet here, on a different continent and in a different religious setting, we find his symbol replicated with some accuracy. As I say, some followers of Gurdjieff dismiss the notion of Sufi origins, viewing it as unhelpful mystification of a precise and rational tool of self-renewal. But speaking in favour of such a link, are the mathematicians of the 14th century, and a steady trickle of witnesses ever since, including figures as key as Gurdjieff and Ichazo.
There we leave the nine-pointed symbol for the moment.
Extract from The Enneagram: A Private Session With the Worlds Greatest Psychologist by Simon Parke, published by White Crow and available from Amazon and all good online bookstores.