The Enneagram is very old. Maybe.
I’m often fascinated by the claim that something is ancient. You may hear, if you attend a yoga class, that the series of poses you are about to do have been transmitted through the centuries. You may have read that certain isolated people in the Appalachians or perhaps some island or other in the Chesapeake speak just like the English did in Shakespeare’s time. And, if you have done any reading about the Enneagram, you may have heard that it’s hundreds or thousands of years old.
These claims often hold grains of truth, but they rarely hold up to more scrutiny. Familiar yoga poses are largely a 20th-century phenomenon, even though yoga in very different forms goes back centuries. There isn’t any mountain holler containing preserved Elizabethan accents.
As for the Enneagram…I’m here today to get to the bottom of that one.
Let me begin, though, by acknowledging that I’ve been burned before. Since I was a kid, I’ve gotten my jollies from old stuff–historical fiction, old buildings, that kind of thing. And I hate being fooled about it, as I so often have been. This leads me to a reactive skepticism when I hear that something is Quite Old. I sense a disturbance in the force, assuming that something troubling and ahistorical has occurred. In my defensiveness, I insisted my parents buy a plaque that still hangs in their house: “In 1837 on this spot, nothing happened.” Because, so often, it didn’t.
And because I’m kind of a contrarian at times, and because I’ve made this little blog as a bully pulpit for myself so no one can stop me, I set out a few weeks ago to write a conclusive history of the Enneagram. It was bothering me, this not knowing. But as I’ll explain in this multi-part series (!), my investigation has gone a little sideways.
Part One: The Claims.
If you begin to look into the Enneagram’s history, you’re likely to find some Very-Old claims. You’ll soon learn that the Enneagram is centuries old, or millennia old, or simply “ancient.” You’ll learn that it is from an ancient Christian tradition, or an ancient Greek tradition, or an ancient Sufi tradition, or all of these together. You’ll begin to hear vaguely Dan-Brown-sounding whispers about the Enneagram being hidden in esoteric darkness for ages, passed between secret brotherhoods and the occasional mystic, until it burst into the light, quite mysteriously, right around 1970.
For example, take the Integrative 9 website‘s fuzzy history:
The roots of the Enneagram are disputed and unclear, but seem connected to different spiritual and oral traditions as well as specific mathematical and philosophical traditions. Some authors claim strong Sufi roots, while others point to connections to early esoteric Christianity. It should be noted, however, that it is definitely not common to all Sufi traditions….
Some authors believe that variations of the Enneagram symbol can be traced to the sacred geometry of Pythagorean mathematicians and mystical mathematics….Plotinus, in the Enneads, speaks of nine divine qualities that manifest in human nature….It may have entered into esoteric Judaism through the philosopher Philo, later becoming embedded in the branches of the Tree of Life in the Kabbalah (Nine-Foldedness)….
Variations of the Enneagram symbol appear in the Sufi tradition, with specific reference to the Naqshbandi Order (“Brotherhood of the Bees”)….Possible relationship with Christianity through medieval references to the Evagrius’ catalogue of various forms of temptation (Logismoi) which much later, in medieval times, was translated into the seven deadly sins…Jesuit mathematician Athanasius Kircher has an Enneagram-like drawing that forms part of a 17th-century text.
(Believe me, I’ve tried to find that drawing, and no one seems to ever want to actually show it.)
Helen Palmer wrote in her 1991 book The Enneagram that the Enneagram is simply “an ancient Sufi teaching,” and her website claims:
With a history of centuries, the Enneagram is arguably the oldest human development system on the planet.
Riso and Hudson, in their 1996 Personality Types, write:
One of the main problems with introducing the Enneagram is that its exact origins are lost to history. No one really knows precisely who discovered it or where it came from. Some writers maintain that the Enneagram first surfaced among certain orders of the Sufi, a mystical sect of Islam which began in the tenth and eleventh centuries; others speculate that it may have originated as long ago as 2500 B.C. in Babylon or elsewhere in the Middle East. But these are mere speculations….
Undeterred by the risk of speculation, though, Riso and Hudson go on to speculate that a “brotherhood of wise men” in ancient Mesopotamia “discovered the cosmic secret of perpetual self-renewal.” This was then passed down through the oral tradition in Babylon, where it encountered Zoroastrians and Greeks. Later it migrated to Uzbekistan, where Islamic mathematicians discovered the number zero and created the decimal system (which, as we’ll see later, is central to at least part of what we call the Enneagram.)
Christopher Heuertz, in his book The Sacred Enneagram, writes:
Versions of the Enneagram have been around for thousands of years, hidden away in wisdom schools and passed along orally within the mystic traditions of the world’s religions…I have been told of the Enneagram in prehistoric Korea as well as a version in folk Buddhism….Perhaps the oldest recorded hint of the Enneagram may be in what Beatrice Chestnut speculates to be evidence hidden away in Homer’s classic work, The Odyssey….
Pythagoras (who coincidentally studied in Egypt) fused mysticism and mathematics…. He is said to have used a drawing resembling the Enneagram symbol as his spiritual signature after learning of it in Heliopolis, which was the center of worship of the Ennead or the nine deities of ancient Egyptian mythology. Others point to the Jewish philosopher Philo (who also happened to live in Egypt), hinting that perhaps his esoteric Judaism and the Tree of Life, which is considered the key symbol of the tradition of the Kabbalah, root the earliest forms of the Enneagram in Jewish mysticism. Much has been written to suggest that the early Egyptian Christian monastic ascetics, the desert mothers and fathers, were the chief architects of the Enneagram, led by the fourth-century mystic Evagrius Ponticus. Ponticus’s writings are often cited to support theories on the Christian origins of the Enneagram, specifically as it relates to his work on his list of eight vices and virtues (in one place he names nine), which closely resemble the nine Virtues and Passions of the Enneagram as we have it today. Very commonly, many of today’s experts credit Sufi communities spread throughout Central Asia, from Iraq to Afghanistan, for developing the Enneagram between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.
All of this basically makes me go, hmm.
So much for the ancient claims, which bear commonalities but rarely agree on much. As we saw above, the Christian writers emphasize resonances with the Christian tradition, including early Christian mystics and the seven deadly sins. Others emphasize the mysterious Sufi roots and other sources. A lot of sources kind of raise their hands and go, “it’s a mystery.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
But where everyone begins to agree is in the 20th century. Even Heuertz, after his heady trek through ancient world history, concludes: “Regardless of whether the Enneagram has its roots in Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, we do know that it wasn’t until the early 1900s” that the Enneagram showed up in the West through a man named Georges Ivanovich Gurdijieff (pictured below).
Gurdijieff was a “mysterious, somewhat diabolical figure from the Caucasus,” raised in Armenia and Turkey. Around 1912, he was working as a carpet dealer in Russia, occasionally inviting spiritual seekers to his “plush Orientalist” apartment. Dressed in a patterned silk dressing gown and turban, he would teach breathing techniques. He kept company with the many devotees of the occult and esoterica, which were immensely popular in Russia’s pre-Revolutionary Silver Age. That time “was saturated with spiritualism, Eastern religion, and esoteric magic,” including ostensibly ancient-Egyptian or Kabbalah-inspired numerology.
(Interestingly, many of those details about Gurdijieff come from The Goddess Pose by New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, which is a fascinating biography of Indra Devi, the Lithuanian world traveler who was in large part responsible for introducing yoga to the West. As it turned out, my research about yoga as a comparison to the Very-Old-claims of the Enneagram led me right back to the Enneagram, in the person of Gurdijieff.)
Gurdijieff eventually began teaching students in a group called Seekers After Truth. Among his teachings was the Enneagram–kind of. The symbol, at least, was central to his teachings, but he never really said what it meant. He was secretive about where had learned of the symbol, occasionally claiming that he had learned about it from a secret brotherhood somewhere in Asia. See Heuertz.
Now, my hackles are up. The trouble is, the very existence of this secret “Sarmouni Brotherhood” of Sufis appears to trace right back to Gurdijieff, who I don’t necessarily trust as a historian or ethnographer. So now we might start to scratch our heads whenever we hear about Sufism and the Enneagram, because all the citations about this link appear to flow through Gurdijieff. Even Palmer, who gives credence to the Enneagram as an ancient device, admits that “[w]hat the West knows of the Enneagram began with [Gurdijieff]…who alluded to the Enneagram as a Sufi oral teaching device.” Enneagram at 10.
In any event, Gurdijieff used the Enneagram symbol to teach his students, but his system bears very little relationship to any Enneagram information you would find today. He appears to have seen it as a universal source of wisdom–a “key to all mythologies” fit for Middlemarch‘s Mr. Casaubon–and he taught it as a set of transcendental dances, but not really as the psychological tool most of us know it as today.
So at this point, I’m suspicious that we haven’t yet really found the beginning of the Enneagram.
After Gurdijieff, a Bolivian named Oscar Ichazo pops up next, around the early 1970s. By this point, the Enneagram is starting to look more like how we know it now. Ichazo taught “nine-pointed figures, enclosed in a circle, with straight lines connecting each point to two others. Each point corresponds to a given ‘ego fixation.’” Arica Institute, Inc. v. Palmer, 970 F.2d 1067, 1070 (2d Cir. 1992). That sounds decently close to what is now recognizable as the “Enneagram of Personality.”
Ichazo “claimed to have learned [the Enneagram] from a secret mystery school, the Sarmouni Brotherhood, who had also taught it to Gurdijieff.” Charles T. Tart, Preface to Palmer Enneagram, at xii. Ichazo also attributed his learning “to a seven-day vision in which he claims an angel visited him with the teaching of the Enneagram,” (quote from Heuertz) and to his “own channeling of the information..” Sandra Maitri, The Enneagram of Passions and Virtues, at 4.
Hmm–what are the odds that Ichazo also encountered the Sarmouni Brotherhood (who, I repeat, are somewhat likely to be an entirely fictional or allegorical invention of Gurdijieff’s?)
But although he mentioned the Sarmouni Brotherhood at times, Ichazo struggled to maintain a consistent stance about where the Enneagram came from: his Arica Institute attempted to copyright his ideas, including his enneagrams or “enneagons,” (Enneagram diagrams with certain labels), and the single-word labels themselves. The attempt to copyright these elements implies that they were Ichazo’s invention. And they defended this copyright: when Palmer wrote her 1991 book, the Arica Institute sued her for copyright infringement for repeating the Enneagram system and its nine personality types laid out on the Enneagram diagrams.
The Arica Institute lost the case against Palmer, and its loss was affirmed in the Second Circuit, in no small part because the Arica Institute and Ichazo could not get their story straight as to whether they had invented the Enneagram of Personality (which would give it a chance of being copyrightable) or whether it were an ancient tool, or–even worse for their copyright claim–objectively true.
As the Second Circuit explained, “Arica publications repeatedly assert that Ichazo has ‘discovered’ the ego fixations, which are scientifically verifiable ‘facts’ of human nature. ” Arica Institute, Inc., 970 F.2d at 1075. (Oh, no!) This hamstrung the case, and for this and other reasons, Palmer won; she did not owe damages to Ichazo or the Arica Institute for writing about what we now know as the Enneagram of Personality. (If she had lost, this whole Enneagram thing might still be under lock and key at the Arica Institute).
But, freed from copyright constraints, let’s continue our journey through Enneagram history: one of Ichazo’s students, Claudio Naranjo, soon split with Ichazo and brought his Enneagram of Personality teachings to America (specifically, where else?–Berkeley, California, in the 1970s). Naranjo began to teach, and he styled his student group the Seekers After Truth (SAT)–just as Gurdijieff had in Moscow over fifty years before.
“Naranjo knew and recognized the power of the enneagram as a psychospiritual tool, and its potential and place as part of serious spiritual work, and so he swore all of his students not to teach the enneagram without his permission.” Maitri at 5. But “[g]iven its potency, it was perhaps inevitable that the enneagram would begin to leak out. The enneagram found its way into the Jesuit community and has since become an accepted part of its training,” and corporate training soon followed, teaching it in secular form.” Maitri at 5.
And the rest is–not history, actually–the rest is the present. Enneagram information is everywhere. It’s so hot right now.
So, to sum up PART ONE of this investigation, I’ve read the books, I’ve got the receipts, and I am completely unconvinced that the Enneagram is ancient. I basically think it was invented, in any meaningful form, in the 1970s.
But stay tuned, if you can bear it, for our next installment, wherein I’ll zoom out. Because if you’ve been reading closely, you might be wondering, like I was, what are we even talking about? Are we talking about a diagram or a personality system or both or something else? How can you say how old something is if you don’t even know what the something is?
What the hell is the Enneagram, anyway?