The Enneagram – A History (Part 1)
“The knowledge of the enneagram has for a very long time been preserved in secret and if it now is, so to speak, made available to all, it is only in an incomplete and theoretical form of which nobody could make any practical use without instruction from a man who knows.” 1 — G. I. Gurdjieff
The Enneagram is quite literally exploding on the Christian scene, and few corners of the Christian landscape have not been impacted. But what is the Enneagram? Simply, the Enneagram is a tool that helps the user to discover their Enneagram number, which is said to represent not only a person’s personality but also the area in a person’s life that is hindering his or her spiritual development. In short, the number defines and identifies who you are and where you struggle. The reason for this series is to show the Enneagram has no biblical foundation and is in fact rooted in occult practices. Supporters claim the Enneagram was stolen from Christianity, but history does not back this up; they propose the numbering system is ancient, but facts don’t back this up; and they teach your identity is found in your Enneagram number, but the Bible doesn’t back this up. In fact, the Bible says that our identity is found in Jesus and that He, not the Enneagram, began a work in us which He will complete. We will get into all of that but first, the we need to examine the Enneagram’s historical origins.
Before delving into the history of the Enneagram, however, we would like to address the claim that the conclusions we draw from our historical analysis commits the genetic fallacy or fallacy of origins. This logical fallacy is defined in the most basic way as the acceptance or rejection of an argument based solely upon its history or source.
While the Bible will not be the only evidence we will provide, we do believe it to be the most important and the most foundational of these evidences. We should note at this point that though the Bible was not written until after many of the Babylonian and Egyptian myths from which the philosophical underpinnings of the Enneagram were supposedly derived, the Bible is however the word of God written under the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit. God is eternal; God is unchanging; God’s word is truth. And because He is eternal, He is unchanging, and since His word is truth, then the Bible is and must ever be the objective truth standard to which all other claims—be they philosophical, religious, social, etc., must submit. Full stop. End of story. You see, because without the Bible as the objective standard anything can be accepted or excused as we will come to see.
What does the Bible say about the Enneagram? Well, nothing, at least not exactly and certainly not by name, but it turns out it has a lot to say about origins, practices, numerology, and identity—all of which make up the Enneagram as a whole. So when the Bible instructs, “do not do as the pagans do,” the objection that a genetic fallacy has been committed crumbles quickly and decisively under the weight of God’s word, and no appeal to a favorite author, pastor, or theologian who said we can and should use a pagan practice will suffice. We do not, in fact, commit the genetic fallacy even in principle, for if pagans claim that prayer is effective, we are quick to agree. However, where a pagan practice has no Biblical precedent, we reject it on Biblical grounds.
The Early Records
While most scholars attribute the Enneagram and its origin to George Ilych Gurdjieff, who in 1916 introduced it to the West, there is speculation among some scholars which places its beginning much earlier—centuries earlier, in fact. The reason we must search for an earlier origin of the Enneagram is because when Gurdjieff was asked where he got the Enneagram, he replied, “Maybe I stole it,”2 and called it, “ancient science.”3 The other clue pointing to an ancient origin of the Enneagram, both the symbol and the philosophy, is from John Bennett’s book, Gurdjieff: A Very Great Enigma:
“Anyone who takes the trouble to examine his teaching and methods, can assign nearly every fragment to some known tradition. We can say that this theme came from the Greek Orthodox tradition, that theme came from an Assyrian or Babylonian tradition, another was clearly Muslim and connected with Sufism and even with this or that particular Sufi sect. One can say of others that they must have come from one or other of the branches of Buddhism. Again, there are indications that he took much from what is called the Western occult tradition, the Platonic and Rosicrucian tradition. But when one examines still more closely, we find that there is something that cannot be assigned to any known traditions. There are certain very important features of which one cannot find any trace in literature.”4
Jerry Wagner, Clinical Psychologist and Department of Psychology and the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University, Chicago says, “Some authors believe they have found variations of the Enneagram symbol in the sacred geometry of the Pythagoreans who 4000 years ago were interested in the deeper meaning and significance of numbers. This line of mystical mathematics was passed on through Plato, his disciple Plotinus, and subsequent neo-Platonists.” [Source] It should be noted here that both the decimal point and the zero, key to the Enneagram system were not used by mathematicians until around the 14th century; so while the philosophical and esoteric teachings, and the significance of numbers and symbols which Gurdjieff and those before him drew from goes back to the Pythagoreans and Chaldeans, the numbering system does not; to place the Enneagram numbering system of decimal point before the 14th century would be historically anachronistic. A student of Gurdjieff, John Bennett, uses this fact as evidence for a 15th century date for the numerological origins of the Enneagram, which he says the Sufi’s discovered.5
We begin by working our way backwards from Gurdjieff and looking at 12th-13th century Franciscan monk Ramon Llull to whom is attributed the Enneagram diagram and then to desert monk and mystic Evagrius Ponticus (AD399).
Ramon Llull drew hundreds of diagrams which attempted to illustrate his belief that by the combining of logical systems one could discover truth, [Source] and the claim is that he is the first person to draw what we know as the Enneagram. The drawing which most closely resembles what we recognize is from Ars Brevis (Brief System) was published in 1307; in it is found a circle with nine point which represent nine vices and nine virtues know as the “Dignities of God.”
Llull’s view was one in which mysticism, philosophy, and theology are not at odds with one another but are different only in their approach to the same knowledge. They are simply different paths but each has the same goal: the elevation of the soul to God and unifying of all knowledge into a single system. There are certainly similarities to the modern Enneagram drawing and to Gurdjieff’s belief that the Enneagram reveals all knowledge; like Gurdjieff and his disciple Ichazo, Llull too had a mysterious encounter with a being who imparted a divine messages during his four month meditation on a mountain top. The similarities stop there, as it was Llull’s goal to create a system by which one could convert Jews and Muslims to Christianity by means of logic, and his system was not a personality profiling system but one which sought to reveal the nine qualities of God. It is at this point that some may try to claim that because Llull had a “Christian” motivation that the Enneagram has an historically Christian origin and is essentially “Christian.” Some claim that Gurdjieff stole the Enneagram from Christianity. This is a difficult claim to prove because of the profound differences we see between Llull views—that logic can be a tool to convert the Jew and Muslim to God—and the view of the Enneagram used today which, as we will discover, is a tool used to reveal the nine characteristics of your true self and false self and is nothing more than a road back to you. A quote from Giovanni Quinti illustrates this:
“The Enneagram indicates nine aspects of the personality. The personality, in trying to free itself of its identifications, is attempting to find once again its lost originality. The excessive fixation of a person on a particular point of the Enneagram, shows the areas in which it would be necessary to act for that person in order to redress his/her hardness and excesses. Acting in this way, a person moves towards an experience of liberation from his/her personality fixation, which is the main cause of his/her suffering.” [Source]
Do you see the problem? They might be correct if today’s Enneagram was designed and used to show us the character and attributes of God and then how to use these insights as an evangelistic tool, as was Llull’s vision, but it isn’t. The Enneagram used today points inward—to self—and is most similar to the ideas of Gurdjieff and those who followed after him, if they still want to claim the Enneagram has been co-opted they can but if they practice the Enneagram of today, which points inward, then they are ones co-opting it.
Moving further back in time to Evagrius Ponticus, a 4th century desert monk. Ponticus is another oft–claimed originator of the Enneagram, for he used the Pythagorean number theory to describes his Enneagram symbol. Ponticus wrote,
“I have divided this discourse on prayer into one hundred and fifty-three texts. In this way I send you an evangelical feast, so that you may delight in a symbolical number that combines a triangular with a hexagonal figure. The triangle indicates spiritual knowledge of the Trinity, the hexagon indicates the ordered creation of the world in six days. The number one hundred is square, with the number fifty-three is triangular and spherical; for twenty-eight is triangular, and twenty-five is spherical, five times five being twenty-five. In this way, you have a square figure to express the fourfold nature of the virtues, and a spherical number, twenty-five, which by form represents the cyclic movement of time and so indicates true knowledge of this present age. For week follows week and month follows month, and time revolves from year to year, and season follows season, as we see from the movement of the sun and moon, of spring and summer, and so on. The triangle can signify knowledge of the Holy Trinity. Or you can regard the total sum, one hundred and fifty-three, as triangular and so signifying respectively the practice of the virtues, contemplation of the divine in nature, and theology or spiritual knowledge of God; faith, hope and love; or gold, silver and precious stones. So much then for this number.”6
Pythagoras believed “all is number” and that the universe had and obeyed some sort of inner order which by the study of numbers the human mind can comprehend, however imperfectly, this divine structure. As previously stated and restated here for clarity, if Ponticus’ system is said to be the origin of the Enneagram but was based on the Pythagorean number theory, there is a huge problem; the Enneagram relies on the zero, the decimal, and the repeating decimal place values, but both the zero and the decimal point were an unknown at this point in history and mathematics. So Ponticus and none before him can be the originator of the Enneagram. At this point, because neither Ponticus nor any before him can be the originator of the Enneagram, there is no need to go back further to find a specific origin for the numbering system.
At this point the importance of the decimal point and what Gurdjieff believed about it must be addressed, albeit briefly. An article by the National Catholic Reporter states that, “According to Gurdjieff, the Law of Three and the Law of Seven are at the basis of everything in the cosmos. The desire of the cosmos to return to the unity of the Absolute is represented by the division of one by three and by seven, thus yielding the repeating decimals that are at the basis of the enneagram. By relating the two fundamental laws of the Three and of the Seven, the enneagram represents the key to all knowledge,”and according to his students Gurdjieff taught “that the Enneagram is a symbol of the cosmos, a ‘universal symbol,’ and thus a source of knowledge about the cosmos because of the mathematical laws it represents.” [Source]
1/7 = .142857142857
2/7 = .285714285714
3/7 = .428571428571
4/7 = .571428571428
5/7 = .714285714285
6/7 = .857142857142
Notice that 142857 sequence repeats in each series of fractional divisions; Gurdjieff believed it was this repeated sequence which allowed 1, 4, 2, 8, 5, and 7 to be connected, that the unity of the universe was illustrated. He explains,
“Let us now proceed to examine the complex figure enclosed in the circle and try to find the law of its structure. To that end I will remind you that the laws of unity are reflected in all phenomena. The so-called decimal system of calculation in vogue with us, is in its profoundest principles only very very imperfectly known to us in the theory of numbers that is built upon the basis of these eternal laws. Taking the unit, just as we have done here, as the symbol of the existence of the whole octave in one note, we must, in order to secure a passage from one tone of this octave to another, split up the unit into 7 parts. I make the reserve that what we understand by the unit shall here in its symbolical meaning correspond to the “nought” of the symbol under consideration. Now, in order to get say the distance of any one of the tones from the primary tone, we must take the corresponding number of seventh parts of the unit, that is, 2/7, 3/7, and so forth. Let us work all these parts out as decimal fractions which are based on the same laws as the whole of our decimal system of reckoning. There is this series: 0 equals 1, 1/7=0.142857, 2/7=0.285714, 3/7=0.428571, 4/7=0.571428, 5/7=0.714285, 6/7=0.857142, 7/7= 0.999999
In contemplating this series you will at once notice that the period of these functions, except in the case of the last one, is made up of the same numbers running in a definite sequence, and by knowing the initial number of the period you can immediately re-establish the whole period in full. But if we dispose them in a circle in their natural sequence, after linking them up by a closed broken line, we shall get a certain figure. If all 9 numbers are arranged in a circle in their natural sequence as we did in the symbol under consideration, the closed line of the period of the denominator 7 gives us the interior figure or the symbol. According to this figure, by merely taking the direction of its structure as a guide, we shall establish the period in full in every separate instance. The unit “Do”, or seven-sevenths, is symbolized by the point 9. The numbers 3 and 6 also enter into the period, which in conjunction with 9 will give the independent triangle – the free ternary of the symbol. I may remark briefly that if we use the theosophical addition, that is, by taking the sum of the ciphers of the period, we shall get 9 (1+4+2+8+5+7=27 and 2+7=9), that is, a whole unit in correspondence with our symbol, that is, in each note we shall again find a whole octave, subject within itself to the same laws as the primary octave, of which the tone under consideration is a part.” [Source]
Gurdjieff claimed, “All knowledge can be included in the enneagram and with the help of the enneagram it can be interpreted. And in this connection only what a man is able to put into the enneagram does he actually know, that is, understand. What he cannot put into the enneagram makes books and libraries entirely unnecessary. Everything can be included and read in the enneagram.” 7
In Ian C. MacFarlane’s article, The Holy Equation, he explains Gurdjieff’s “Law of Three”, also known as “Beelzebub’s Tales”, and writes that, “All exercises in the Work are based on this formula. There are no exceptions; if there are, then the exercise is defective. When you understand how this exercise works, you will see that ALL spiritual practices, from ALL traditions, from ALL times, are based on it.“ [Source]
Ouspensky Today describes how the two work together in the article, The Law of Seven, “The Law of Three determines the character and nature of a vibration and the Law of Seven determines how vibrations develop, interact and change. An octave is a repetitive motion. A succession of waves may be building up or dying away — forming an ascending or a descending octave. Each wave is similar but different to the one before and the one after. The Law of Seven also shows the points in the scale where the rate of increase or decrease of frequency of any vibration slows down. Between Mi-Fa and Si-Do are ‘intervals’, where a different, extra energy is required to maintain the original impetus. These ‘intervals’ are responsible for the frequent unpredictability of human aims and endeavours. Different processes, according to the Law of Three, determine which intervals will be filled naturally, so that the progress continues uninterrupted to completion, and also reveal those that require an extra force to be given, without which the progress of the octave will halt or change direction.” And later in the same article, “The Shankaracharya describes the Law of Seven with the example of the quest for Self-realisation as an ascending octave that goes by the triad of refinement.”
We can make an attempt to go back in time further to determine where the idea originated, but know that at this point much is speculation and hearsay.
“The origins of the Enneagram symbol are traced from within the Sufi Tradition of Central Asia. The Islamic Sufi tradition incorporated wisdom from past traditions including Pythagorean, Platonic, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Zoroastrian Religions as long as that knowledge did not contradict the principle of Unity or belief in the Oneness of God. The Sufi tradition inherited a sacred tradition of psychology which existed in the past but was the first to develop this psychological teaching into a system based on the nine points, particularly in the work of the 13th century Islamic scholar Nasir al-din Tusi. It was this same traditional psychology that G.I. Gurdjieff encountered through the Sufis in Central Asia which led to his use of the Enneagram symbol in his teaching during the 1920’s.” [Source]
Gurdjieff spent his time in Egypt working as a guide and later living in a tomb in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, and it was during his time there he said, “The Christian church, the Christian form of worship, was not invented by the fathers of the church. It was taken in a ready-made form from Egypt, only not from the Egypt that we know but from one which we do not know. This Egypt was in the same place as the other but it existed much earlier. Only small bits of it survived in historical times and these bits have been preserved in secret and so well that we do not even know where they have been preserved” [Source] and that he discovered there [in Egypt], “the true principles and ideas.” [Source] According to the documentary, Gurdjieff in Egypt, he believed that these principles and ideas could be found in Tibet, Babylon, Siberia and the Hindu Kush. As further evidence of a possible Babylonian origin Gurdjieff wrote, “What struck us most was the word Sarmoung, which we had come across several times in the book called Merkhavat. This word is the name of a famous esoteric school which, according to tradition, was founded in Babylon as far back as 2500 BC., and which was known to have existed somewhere in Mesopotamia up to the sixth or seventh century AD; but about its further existence one could not obtain anywhere the least information.” 8
We could continue along the bunny trails and down the rabbit holes in an attempt to find an exact origin but I believe the information above is enough to at least point to a far ancient though unspecific beginning which is anything but Christian or biblical in origin. In Part Two we will fast forward to the late 19th century and then into the 20th and 21st centuries as we focus our spotlight on George Ilych Gurdjieff and those who follow after.
- Reflections on Gurdjieff’s Whim By Keith A. Buzzell (pg.196)
- Boris Mouravieff Ouspensky, Gurdjieff and Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (Chicago: Praxis Institute Press, 1997), p. 16.
- Jeanne de Salzmann The Reality of Being (Boston: Shambhala, 2010), p. 295.
- John Bennett Gurdjieff: A Very Great Enigma (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1973), pp. 1-2.
- Bennett, Enneagram Studies, 2, 31.
- The Philokalia, translated from the Greek by G. Palmer, P. Sherrard, and K. Ware, pp. 55-57.
- As quoted by Ouspensky, In Search of the miraculous, 294.
- Meetings with Remarkable Men, Arkana 1985, p. 90.