Gematria and the Ouroboros

By Philologos

Published June 12, 2007, issue of June 15, 2007.
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Marc G. Schramm writes:

“I read recently that there is a relationship between the Hebrew letter Chet (gematria of 8) and the ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. The latter is a double zero, ‘the head and the body, the Moebius strip of the soul. It is the sideways sign of infinity.’

“Can you say anything more about this supposed connection?”

To first explain Schramm’s question to the rest of you, gematria is the Hebrew term for exploring the purportedly deeper meaning of Hebrew words by means of the numerical equivalents of their letters. Traditionally, that is, each of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet also represents a number, ranging from one, which is the value of Alef, the first letter, to 400, the value of Taf, and this numerology has, over the centuries, inspired both a large amount of verbal play and some more serious exegetical and sometimes mystical interpretations.

Chet, or h.et, is the eighth letter of the alphabet and has the value 8, and since the mathematical symbol for infinity is a “lazy 8,” as it has been called, or an 8 lying on its side, it did not surprise me to learn from Schramm that Chet has been connected with it. Moreover, since the ancient symbol of the ouroboros (from Greek orros, tail, and boros, devouring), the serpent curled in a circle with its tail in its mouth, was sometimes taken in ancient myth to express the infinitely cyclical nature of life, in which birth and death follow each other endlessly, and can be turned into a figure-eight by pretzeling the serpent, it, too, could be associated with Chet — as could be the Moebius strip, the never-ending surface invented by 19th-century German mathematician Ferdinand Moebius.

The question is, though, how old is this association? Is it a traditional Jewish one, or has it only recently been made in those New-Agey Jewish circles that love to find mystical and esoteric symbols everywhere in Judaism?

To the best of my knowledge, the letter Chet is not associated with infinity in traditional Jewish numerology or mysticism. The oldest Hebrew text to give mystical meanings to the Hebrew letters, the Sefer ha-Yetsirah or “Book of Creation,” probably written between the fourth and sixth centuries C.E., associates Chet with the sense of sight, with the astrological sign of Cancer, with the Hebrew month of Tammuz and with the right hand of the human body, no more. Furthermore, the “lazy 8” symbol for infinity was supposedly invented by 17th-century English mathematician John Wallis, prior to whom there would have been no reason to link Chet to infinity.

But here’s something curious: In reflecting on Schramm’s question, I recalled a passage I once read in a book on medieval Jewish alchemy by polymath Israeli scholar Raphael Patai in which the latter discussed a German work, dated by him to the 14th century, by Jewish alchemist Abraham Eleazar. I took down Patai’s book from a shelf — and sure enough: In this work, Eleazar presents a text, written as a mystical commentary on the book of Genesis, that he attributes to a Jewish predecessor named Samuel Baruch. Alongside an illustration of a double ouroboros in the form of two winged, dragonlike serpents biting each other’s tails, Baruch is quoted as speaking of “the supernal serpent [which] is the spiritus mundi [the spirit of the world], the most lovely and also the most terrible, who makes everything live, and who also kills everything, and takes on all shapes of nature. In sum: he is everything, and also nothing.”

And now look carefully at the illustration. The top serpent is labeled Geist (“spirit”) at its tail end and Seele (“soul”) at its mouth end, while the bottom serpent has Leib (“body”) and Corpus (“body” in Latin) — and above Geist, between the words Aqua (“water” in Latin) and what looks like the name of the Greek letter Phi, appears a symbol composed of a cross and a figure-eight! And Baruch writes, in a bit of incomprehensible alchemical advice:

“Put [a] red fiery stone into a glass and water it [this is apparently a reference to the Aqua of the illustration] with the double abrasatim (or double spirit) of the world….”

I have no idea what an abrasatim is, and neither did Patai. Yet can this “double spirit of the world,” which makes “everything live” and “everything die,” be the same as the double euroboros, and did Baruch symbolize it by the figure-eight or double zero? Granted, Phi isn’t the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet, and I have no idea what it’s doing here either. Still, one can’t help wondering, in answer to Schramm’s question, whether the association of both infinity and the euroboros with 8 — and possibly, therefore, with Chet — is older than modern times and even than Wallis, and first occurs in Jewish sources. You’d need an alchemist to pursue it any further.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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