Involuted Mysteries: Unwrapping Meanings in Literature, Theory, and Art before 1800. The Symbolism of Numbers, and Their Associated Topoi, Part XV


Contraries…The Ogdoad…The Eighth Sphere…

Eight Tones of the Scale… The Music of the Spheres…

Eight Days of the Week…The Baptismal Octave…

Eight Ages of the World…The Octave of the Great Year…

If seven is the number of process and time, Eight is the number of completion, regeneration, and therefore eternity. As usual, we must begin with the myths of cosmogony and cosmology.

We remember that in Greek cosmology, each of the four elements is constituted of two contraries: fire, of hot and dry, air, of hot and wet, water, of cold and wet, earth, of cold and dry. We thus have a total of eight elemental contraries, made up of four pairs.

The imagery of Eight as the sum of four pairs of opposites is ubiquitous and probably goes back to the Egyptian archetype of the Ogdoad. In Egyptian cosmogony, the primeval chaos is represented as four couples, that is, four pairs each composed of the fundamental opposites of male and female: Nun and his consort Naunet; Kuk and Kauket; Huh and Hauhet; and Amon and Amunet. Emerging out of the primeval sea, the creator-god Atum first brings these chaotic elements into order. In the Heliopolitan cosmogony, Atum then fertilizes himself, giving rise to another Ogdoad, that of the living gods. Thus Shu and Tefnut, born of Atum, produce from their union Geb and Nut, who give birth in turn to Osiris and Isis, and their siblings Set and Nephthys. The generation of this octet is remembered in the Osirian mystery cult, in which the initiate who has become one with Osiris proclaims: “I am the One who becomes Two; I am the Two who becomes Four; I am Four who becomes Eight; I am the One after that.” Mystically, then, by dividing into Eight, the One becomes One again; it returns to its beginning; it is reborn unto unitary eternity.

Think of the figure eight, or rather of the circle of which it is a variation – the figure traced, most resonantly, by the orbits of the seven heavenly bodies, by which time is marked. Their endless circular rotation, from beginning to end back to beginning, is a restless movement that paradoxically preserves stasis; wherefore, as Plato explains in the Timaeus, the circle of time is the “mobile image of eternity”. Outside of these mobile markers of time–beyond the seven planetary orbs – resides the Eighth Sphere, the sphere of the Fixed Stars, or Stellatum, whose immobility (at least relative to one another) places it metaphorically beyond the bourn of the temporal universe.

Since time is number is music, we note that each of the seven planetary spheres produces a distinct musical tone. As Scipio Africanus the Elder explains in Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, the lowest tone is naturally enough produced by the slowest-moving of the heavenly bodies. This is the Moon, the lowest sphere, whose tight orbit around the Earth means that it revolves rather lethargically. As we move through the higher spheres, the orbits become wider, and therefore more rapid, and the planetary bodies produce notes of correspondingly higher pitch.

The Eighth Sphere of the Fixed Stars – fixed, that is, with respect to one another, but nonetheless revolving about the Earth at vast speed – produce the highest tone, precisely an octave about that of the Moon. This means that there are in fact not seven but eight tones in the musical scale, the eighth tone, the octave, being the same as the first–whence the whole circle of music and existence begins all over again. The whole produces the so-called musica mundana or harmonia mundi, the “music of the spheres”, another recurrent topos to which we must return once our numerological survey is complete.

The imagery of the seven different and moving things leading to the Octave of Stasis and Rebirth extends, by analogy, to the days of the week. To the medieval mind, the Beatles would have been right: there are eight days in a week. Sunday is the octave, the first and last (that is, eighth) day, and it was on this day that Christ arose from the dead, triumphing over mortality and time.

The medieval baptistery, and the baptismal font, are therefore eight-sided, to represent this Octave of Rebirth. In it, of course, the candidate descends with the crucified Christ beneath the surface of the waters of the underworld sea, dies there to the body and the world, and is reborn as a new creature unto eternal life.

Parallel to the weekly/baptismal is the historical octave. The sixth age of the world begins, as we’ve seen, with the birth of Jesus and ends with the Parousia. The seventh is the Last Times, from the Final Judgment to end of the world. The eighth age is the eternal Kingdom of God.

Finally, there is the octave of the “great”, or “perfect”, or “revolving” year. Timaeus 39d, the locus classicus of this mythic theme, explains that “the perfect number of time fulfils the perfect year when all the eight revolutions, having their relative degrees of swiftness, are accomplished together and attain their completion at the same time.” At this instant, as Scipio the Elder rehearses the theme in Cicero’s Somnium, “all the stars return to the place from which they at first set forth, and…restore the original configuration of the whole heaven”; and thus “that can truly be called a revolving year”.

What is the duration of this “revolving year”? Scipio doesn’t know, but he can assure his grand-nephew that the whole history of the world to this point has not amounted to even a twentieth part of it.