Gematria and Notarikon

 

Definitions

Gematria: A cabalistic method of interpreting sacred texts by equating (or interchanging) words whose letters have the same numerical value when added.

Notarikon: A method of interpreting sacred texts either by making new words from letters taken from the beginning, middle, or end of the words in a sentence, or by counting them.

Practical Gematria

In practical terms, gematria is main method of exegesis used. Here the letters of a word (or name) are substituted for numbers (according to a defined code) and the numbers summed to give a word value. This stems from times when there were no numbers and the alphabet provided the only system of numeration in use. In the three language scripts of Hebrew, Greek and Latin (which includes the modern European languages) there are two codes, a linear code and a tiered code.

The linear ('simple') code starts with the first letter of the alphabet valued at 1 and each subsequent letter is valued one higher. The traditional code in English was based on the 24 letter alphabet (with "j" being equated with "i" and "v" equated with "u"):

Letter
a
b
c
d
e
f
g
h
i
k
l
m
n
o
p
q
r
s
t
u
w
x
y
z
Value
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24

The tiered code is also used for all three scripts, with the letters valued 1-9, 10-90 and 100-900. For example in Greek, it looks like this:

Letter
α
β
γ
δ
ε
ς'
ζ
η
θ
ι
κ
λ
μ
ν
ξ
ο
π
ρ
σ
τ
υ
φ
χ
ψ
ω
Value
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
200
300
400
500
600
700
800
900

In order to stretch the 24 letter alphabet to the requisite 27 characters (for purely numerical computations), the letters 'digamma', 'koppa' and 'sampi' were added at 6, 90 and 900 respectively. However, as regards gematria only the 'digamma' has some occasional use - when the digraph 'στ' (sigma tau) can be counted as 'digamma' and given a value of 6.

While both the linear and the tiered codes play a role in practical gematria, it is the latter that possesses primary status as a method of covert communication. The high letter values towards the end of the alphabet give it greater power and utility to cover a wide range of symbolic numbers using a manageable number of letters. It also had far greater security: the linear code was so well-known to the educated layman, that it had limited use as a method for transmitting secret information.

Practical Notarikon

Notarikon uses the same substitution codes as gematria. Where it differs (as a method of covert numeration) is that it counts just the first letter of each word as its data. Thus the notarikon signature of the first sentence in this paragraph is N-u-t-s-s-c-a-g. These letters can be counted by the linear or the tiered codes: so using the two English codes, they make either 13 + 20 + 19 + 18 + 18 + 3 + 1 + 7 = 99, or 40 + 200 + 100 + 90 + 90 + 3 + 1 + 7 = 531. When text has a high degree of formal organisation, such as a poem, it is possible that the terminal letters can be counted, too (either on their own or in combination with the initial letters). This provides additional flexibility when constructing numerical artefacts but adds an additional hurdle when attempting to interpret them.

Reception

Traditionally Cabala, which includes gematria and notarikon, was an orally transmitted philosophy. The teachings and wisdom covertly hidden in sacred texts by means of gematria and notarikon were expounded by oral teachings, and nothing was ever written down in plain text. The sacred religious texts were important for guiding the masses, but the finer teachings they contained could only be understood numerically. This necessitated the flawless transmission of every word and letter down the generations.

The problem for the researcher who has not been initiated into the secret tradition and who has no exegete to provide guidance is to make sense of numerically coded texts. While this might seem pose an insuperable obstacle to the outsider, there are two very important lanterns to guide the way. These are contextual (and mainly textual) clues and mathematical probability in respect of coherent and consistent numerical patterns.

 


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