Pseudo-Hippolytus & Martianus on Isopsephy


1 Introduction

Isopsephy – also called gematria – is a method of esoteric interpretation that originated from the Greek alphabet’s double use as letters and numbers, as follows:

Α (A) = 1
Β (B) = 2
Γ (G) = 3
Δ (D) = 4
Ε (E) = 5
Ϝ (–) = 6
Ζ (Z) = 7
Η (Ē) = 8
Θ (Th) = 9

Ι (I) = 10
Κ (K) = 20
Λ (L) = 30
Μ (M) = 40
Ν (N) = 50
Ξ (X) = 60
Ο (O) = 70
Π (P) = 80
Ϙ (–) = 90

Ρ (R) = 100
Σ (S) = 200
Τ (T) = 300
Υ (Y) = 400
Φ (Ph) = 500
Χ (Ch) = 600
Ψ (Ps) = 700
Ω (Ō) = 800
Ϡ (–) = 900

Using these equivalences, it is possible to read names as numbers, making it possible to compare or identify words on a non-semantic basis. Perhaps most famously, the Iranian god Mithras (if spelled Μείθρας) and Abrasax (Ἀβρασάξ), an angel or deity of magic and heterodox Christianity, both equal to 365, as the Church Father Jerome notes: “Basilides […] calls the all-powerful God by the monstrous name Abraxas, and says that, according to the Greek letters, this also contains the number of annual course in the solar sphere, which the the gentiles (ethnici), under the same number but of different letters, call Mithras.” (On Amos 3.9–10).

The method – or a method, at any rate, one more complicated than simply counting up the numeric values – is laid out especially clearly in Pseudo-Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies. Interestingly, it is there applied not to esoteric subjects like strange gods, nor to the purposes of quotidian life, but to the characters of the Iliad. Whoever Pseudo-Hippolytus’ source was – whom the Christian Pseudo-Hippolytus is only quoting to demonstrate the paganism and falsehood of his opponents –, they were concerned to show that the still novel method of isopsephy had a role to play in explaining the central piece of Greek literature, and testing ground of all exegetical methods: the Homeric epics.

In the Wedding of Philology and Mercury by Martianus Capella, we see a use of isopsephy that is both quotidian and esoteric, as well as highly literary. In the narrative, the god Mercury wishes to marry the woman Philologia, but although she has long desired him, she is at first apprehensive, and calculates their numbers to divine whether the marriage would be beneficial. She uses the true (Egyptian) name of the god, Thōÿth (Θωύθ), and the Greek spelling of her own name (Φιλολογία), and computes them as 3 and 4, respectively, adding up to 7, which she judges as auspicious.

2 Translation of Pseudo-Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 4.14


3 Translation of Martianus Capella, Wedding of Philology and Mercury 2.101–109