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


Muses…The Egyptian Ennead…Orders of Angels…


Because it is the Trinity squared, the number Nine is the spiritual and celestial number par excellence. Its importance can be traced, once again, to cosmology. As discussed earlier, there are conventionally nine spheres, the ninth and outermost being the Empyraeum or Heaven of God, as in Cicero’s scheme, or the Primum Mobile, as in that of Dante, who makes the Empyraeum his tenth heaven.

Associated with these nine heavenly spheres are the Muses, the nine goddesses whose mother was Mnemosyne (Memory) because, as Plato explains the myth allegorically, all knowledge consists in the things that the soul recollects from its prior experience of them in the celestial order. Companions of the three Graces and followers of Apollo, the Muses’ sacred haunt was the mountaintop that stretched into the heavens, sometimes Olympus, more often Helicon or Parnassus. By tradition, each of the Muses was the patroness of a different art or department of knowledge: Urania of astronomy, Clio of history, Melpomene of tragedy, Thalia of comedy, Erato of love-poetry, Calliope of epic, Euterpe of lyric, Polyhymnia of songs to the gods, and Terpsichore of dance.


We first hear of the nine Muses in Hesiod’s Theogony, but the pre-eminence of the number Nine had been assured long before. The Egyptian pantheon was called the Ennead, or Nine, consisting of the Ogdoad of the four pairs of Gods I have already enumerated, and their progenitor, Nun.

Influenced as it was by Egyptian theosophy, Neo-Platonism was especially impressed by the mystical power of the number Nine. The founder of Neo-Platonism, Plotinus (early third century), quite consciously divided his great treatise into nine books, whence it came to be called The Enneads.

It was under the profound influence of Plotinus that the early sixth-century Christian mystic and theologian known as the Pseudo-Dionysius wrote four seminal works, The Celestial Hierarchies, The Ecclesiastical Hierarchies, The Divine Names, and the Mystical Theology, whose impact on later Christian doctrine, literature, and art was as powerful and enduring of that of his immediate contemporary Boethius. Latinized by John Scotus Eriugena in the ninth century, the works of the Pseudo-Dionysius were the well-spring of medieval Christian mysticism, negative theology, and angelology.

It was in The Celestial Hierarchies that the Pseudo-Dionysus gave us the familiar nine orders of angels, disposed into three “hierarchies” of three species each, an arrangement famously described by Spenser as “trinal triplicities”. The first hierarchy consists of the species Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones; these are the creatures closest to God, whom they face with nothing interposed, and around whom they conduct their joyful round of dance, song, and prayer. The Pseudo-Dionysus associates them, naturally, with fire, the highest element, with which they burn with the love of God, and whereby their complexions are conventionally ruddy.

The second hierarchy is comprised of the Dominations, Powers, and Virtues (where virtue – i.e., virtus – retains its primary meaning of strength or efficacy). The activities of this hierarchy too are concerned with the worship and glorification of God, whose image, reflected in the angels of the first triad, they in turn reflect into the third and lowest.

Here, we find creatures who are concerned with the guidance and salvation of man: the Principalities, Archangels, and Angels. The word “angels” is thus both a generic term for creatures who reside in all nine species or orders, and the particular name for the members of the lowest.

It is the members of this lowest triplicity with whose names we are already familiar from Scripture: Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, and so on. The Principalities are the guardians of nations (Michael, for instance, is the Principality assigned to the Jews, a tradition that goes back to Daniel 12:1). But the Archangels and Angels are the only beings who appear to individuals (as Lewis remarks in The Discarded Image):

for pseudo-Dionysius is as certain as Plato or Apuleius that God encounters Man only through a “mean”, and reads his own philosophy into scripture…He cannot deny that Theophanies, direct appearances of God Himself to patriarchs and prophets, seem to occur in the Old Testament. But he is quite sure that this never really happens. These visions were in reality mediated through celestial, but created, beings “as though the order of the divine law laid it down that creatures of a lower order should be moved God-ward by those of a higher” (Cel. Hier. iv). That the order of the divine law does so enjoin is one of his key conceptions. His God does nothing directly that can be done through an intermediary; perhaps prefers the longest possible chain of intermediaries; devolution or delegation, a finely graded descent of power and goodness, is the universal principle. The Divine splendor (illustratio) comes to us filtered, as it were, through the Hierarchies.

(We have met this idea before in discussing the Platonic “third” that mediates between the binary opposites as a common middle. The Pseudo-Dionysius’ principle that forbids any direct contact between the ineffable Godhead and his material creation–requiring instead His manifestation into the lower orders of existence through a chain of intermediaries–is, similarly, a pagan and Platonic one. Thus, when Lewis writes that the Pseudo-Dionysius “reads his own philosophy into scripture”, he means, of course, the philosophy of Plato, which the Church Fathers had begun to read into the Bible four centuries earlier. The Pseudo-Dionysius is here merely carrying on that enduring Platonizing enterprise of which Christianity is the syncretistic product.)


The most famous exponent of the mystical potency of the number Nine was Dante. His Beatrice was the very embodiment of the trinal-triplicitous mystery. Dante meets her, as he reports, when he is near the end of his ninth year and she approaching the beginning of hers. While amusing himself one day in recording the names of the sixty most beautiful women in Florence, as Dante writes in the Vita Nuova, “miraculously it happened that the name of my lady appeared as the ninth among the names of those ladies, as if refusing to appear under any other number”.

Later in the same work, Dante writes of Beatrice’s death that it occurred during the first hour of the ninth day of the month in the year 1290, that is, “in which the perfect number [i.e., ten] had been completed nine times in that century in which she had been placed in this world”. Then he adds:

One reason why this number was in such harmony with her might be this: since, according to Ptolemy and according to Christian truth, there are nine heavens that move, and since, according to widespread astrological opinion, these heavens affect the earth below according to the relations they have to one another, this number was in harmony with her to make it understood that at her birth all nine of the moving heavens were in perfect relationship to one another. But this is just one reason. If anyone thinks more subtly and according to infallible truth, it will be clear that this number was she herself—that is, by analogy. What I mean to say is this: the number three is the root of nine for, without any other number, multiplied by itself, it gives nine…Therefore, if three is the sole factor of nine, and the sole factor of miracles is three, that is, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who are Three in One, then this lady was accompanied by the number nine so that it might be understood that she was a nine, or a miracle, whose root, namely that of the miracle, is the miraculous Trinity itself. Perhaps someone more subtle than I could find a still more subtle explanation, but this is the one which I see and which please me the most.

Not surprisingly, Dante is “pleased” to see that Nine is the organizing number of the cosmos of his Commedia; but we’ll have to postpone our discussion of his scheme until we come to what he calls the perfect number, “ten”.

Before then, we must mention two other nines: the ninth hour at which Christ dies on the Cross, and the Nine Worthies, who were divided, as usual, into three sets of three each: three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar); three Jews (Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus); and three Christians (Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon).