Ye Olde Sexism, Ye Newe Presentism

Who would lose: a twelfth-century sexist or a twenty-first-century presentist?

The book I’m currently writing is set nearly 900 years ago. This poses certain difficulties. Last night, I missed my bedtime falling down an internet rabbit hole trying to figure out whether a specific woman rode her horse side-saddle, or astride.

If you choose to go back this far into history, you’ll find that it’s clouded by all the time that’s passed since. You’re trying to imagine a woman riding a horse in 1140, but you’re actually picturing virginal twentieth-century dorm-room posters reprinted from Victorian paintings imagining late-medieval scenes.

Putting you on blast, John William Waterhouse.

This is not evidence of what the middle ages were like.

If you begin to research a question like “did women in 1140 ride side-saddle?,” you’ll find a lot of websites with vague, unattributed statements like: “Women weren’t allowed to be independent or wear pants until the twentieth century because they were supposed to be demure and chaste.”

Citation needed! It’s not categorically wrong, but it’s wrong categorically!

This kind of assumption obscures the past. It flattens the past into a single “bad old times.”

And—it makes us lazy. There is a common temptation to think about time as a steady march of progress, like so:

But things can, and often do, get worse. New systems of oppression are created. Life-sustaining creations are destroyed.

Women are allowed to ride horses in the most efficient way, until they are told that instead have to ride in a way that only goes slowly and probably feels not great for the horse. From my digging, it looks like that happened sometime after 1140.

So I’m letting my gal swing up on her palfrey, get her skirt bunched up under her. Letting her feel the breeze on her shins.

Follies, Ruins, and Palimpsests

On All Saints’ Day, we look back.

Looking backward is as familiar to me as breathing is, which is to say, I often fail to notice I’m doing it. (After all, my type’s orientation to time is sometimes summarized as “preserve the past,” which is the kind of impulse one needs to keep a wary eye on.)

From childhood I’ve had a near-obsession with the past. This obsession led me by the hand through a lifelong historical-novel habit, a history degree, and a tendency to ruminate. To a panicked feeling of things always going too quickly. A pang that I’m not quite done with chapters of my life which have ended without my permission.

It also means I love old buildings. Before that history degree, in my foolish youth, I loved any old-looking building indiscriminately. But education has led me out of this darkness. I now realize there are, broadly speaking, three categories of old-looking buildings: follies, ruins, and palimpsests. Let’s explore them, shall we?

A palimpsest is a manuscript that has been wiped clean to have other writing put on it—or, more broadly, any object that has been reused for some new purpose. I’m abusing this word slightly to refer to old buildings that have been long in use. You often hear, for example, that old houses in this area of the East Coast are log cabins surrounded by newer and newer rooms, built up and out. My dad’s friend had a house like that: a modern enough house, but with one room with a dirt floor that once was the entire house. It was a palimpsest: something new built right up inside and on top of something old, until the two became one.

Palimpsest buildings like this are disappointing to a past-looker like myself. They seem to cover the best bits up, hiding them in modern taste or functionality. After all, very-old buildings have to be maintained. This means new workmanship, new materials, replacement walls and doors.

Look at the amazing Taos Pueblo, which is one of the oldest inhabited buildings in the country, over a millennium old.

Taos Pueblo, NM

Does it look precisely as it did a thousand years ago, asks my past-loving heart? Of course not. It is a home, a city. It has had to withstand the weather, the climate, wars and famines and droughts and population changes, and dozens of generations of children clambering around it. People live in it. They maintain it as their house. They build it and go on building it.

Bummer, sighed the past-lover in me. I wanted to see literal millennium-old adobe, untouched.

Palimpsests are the realest kind of old building, but they disappoint. They are buildings—houses or churches or offices or shops whatever they want to be—rather than reverent monuments to the past.

Give me a reverent monument to the past, I cry!

Here, have a folly.

Follies are fake old buildings built as decoration. (Now we’re cooking with gas). You might be fooled by them if you aren’t on guard. You might be wandering around some estate which belonged to someone with vastly too much wealth, and, oh my God, is that a castle? Is that a ruined Roman amphitheater?

No, dear, it’s a folly, from the French folie. Crazy.

Roman folly at Audley End, Essex, UK

Follies are like expensive jeans: often either neat as a pin or stylishly, intentionally weathered. They’re like catnip for people like me who watch a lot of costume dramas. And then, once you figure out their fakery, they’re pretty embarrassing.

A tidy-jeans folly. Photo by David Evans – Paxton’s Tower – Carmarthenshire, CC BY 2.0,
A folly of the ripped-jeans kind at Mount Edgcumbe House, Cornwall, UK. Photo by Mark A Coleman, CC BY 3.0,

Now that we’ve learned to spot a fake, let’s move on to the really real old building. The one that isn’t bastardized by modern hands. Let’s look at some ruins.

Ruins have beauty and tragedy. They look great in the rain. They’re really romantic. You can imagine having some very strong emotions there, growing your hair long and getting a little windswept. And the fact that they’re dead makes them extremely fun for a past-looker: they’re pure in some way that a palimpsest or a folly could never be. They’re like an above-ground time capsule.

Machu Picchu, Urubamba Province, Peru

Until you realize that ruining doesn’t just happen. Not usually. It’s more natural for buildings to become palimpsests over time, if they’re any good, because people naturally want to keep using what they’ve got. Ruins, I’m finding more and more, are often on purpose.

In preparation for Book Three, I’m researching a lot of 12th-century castles and abbeys in France and England. The ones in France are often still there, or parts of them that haven’t been repurposed. But many of those in England were ruined intentionally. Henry VIII sacked the monasteries to get Anglicanism off to a proud start, and Oliver Cromwell “slighted” (cannon-balled and pulled down) many castles to deprive his enemies of a foothold.

Me at Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire, UK–a ruin you can blame on Henry VIII

This makes me shake my fist at them, both for being such intolerant dipshits (pardon), but also for making it hard for me to know the precise dimensions of some of these buildings. Yes, this is about me!

So I’ve come full circle: I turn my nose up at follies, now, and ruins make me a bit sad. I see them more as lost information, lost usefulness. They are buildings that didn’t get a chance to live on as palimpsests, to be useful to people.

Ian at the Seneca Quarry, Montgomery County, MD, a ruin you can blame on Victorian architecture going out of style

But the irony even there is: when these armies knocked down an abbey or a castle, people (being resourceful) used the rubble. They picked up the bits of the fallen walls and used them to patch their houses, their bridges, their crumbling garden retaining walls. These old ruins are living on as palimpsests, but spread out all over the countryside.

Take it one step further: after all that slighting, the rich started to love the aesthetic of the ruined buildings everywhere, looking rather elegant and skeletal, picked clean of rubble. They built some of their own in the backyard so they could stare at it over breakfast. Isn’t that a palimpsest of a kind, the repurposing of the very idea and function of a ruined building into a piece of artwork?

And take it another step: during some famines in Ireland, the wealthy landlords didn’t necessarily want everyone to starve to death, but couldn’t abide the idea of simply giving away cash or food. Instead, they gave the suffering masses construction jobs building “Famine Follies,” which sometimes were actual follies and sometimes were simply roads to nowhere. Unnecessary manual labor, I guess, rendered people deserving of food.

Picture that: starving people put to work hauling stone around the countryside to build a pretend ruin, which is to say, a building of no practical use masquerading as a building that once had (but no longer has) a practical use.

By now the whole idea of looking backward at pretty old buildings is collapsing in on itself. The idea of gazing longingly backward at all is foolish: uninformed at best; reactionary at worst.

Much better to love the idea of the palimpsest. To love the building that many generations have adapted and molded and fitted to their needs. To love the stones that fell out of the wall and ended up filling the gap in someone’s chimney.

For All Saints’ Day, better to stop looking back with regret and desperation, trying to freeze it in place, trying to see it in clear focus. Better to know that just like seeds in winter, what is dead still has a future of its own strange kind.

In the long meantime, everything is recycled. Nothing will be stagnant. Nothing will be resurrected whole. Old buildings are resurrected in others or returned to the earth. Old chapters of our lives will not come again, but they take on new resonances with every year, like the turn of a kaleidoscope.

Such a long time to be gone, and a short time to be there.

Euphemism drift

Today, a few examples of a linguistic phenomenon that delights and vexes me, which I am calling “euphemism drift.”

Full disclosure: when I sat down to write this post, I thought it was an original idea. But Google corrected that impression. So here is a Wikipedia segment that is more or less the topic. And apparently Steven Pinker has named this concept the “euphemism treadmill.”  

Still, I think being deterred by unoriginality is a coward’s game, so on I press.

For the record, this post is going to use the “r word,” but not (as I hope you’ll find) in a derogatory way. In fact, I want to show that the word has never been the problem. 

Yikes, right?

But let’s start with a fun example first. “Happy hour.” Now, what is happy hour? To take it literally, it’s an hour that’s happy, or more likely, an hour during which people spending the hour are happy. But we all know that’s not what it means. No one talks about “pre-dinner drinking time;” instead, we have chosen the euphemism “happy hour.” 

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Spring sounds

As I’m guessing you’ve noticed, the world has gone a little quieter. This is one of the blessings popping up like stubborn shoots in the chaos.

Here’s another:


If you, like me, find noises in general objectionable, now is a great time to open a window and listen. The birds are going absolutely bonkers. Are they always, this time of year? Probably, but now there are fewer cars and trains and crowds to drown them out. Maybe it gives their tiny ears a break, too. 

(Excuse me for a second while I Google “do birds have ears.” This is a well-researched operation, folks.)

Just now there is one making a bona fide ruckus somewhere outside. It’s echoing off the buildings. I’m very proud of her, whoever she is, screaming out her cause. 

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The blessing of constraints.

There is a nightmare image every writer knows: the cursor blinking at the top of a blank page. Or, somehow worse yet, the cursor blinking at the end of a bit of text, when all the steam has run out and there is no way forward.

Several times before I wrote Book One, I had tried to write novels. I never got very far beyond page 10 or so, because I inevitably ran headfirst into a wall of horrible inertia at the end of the first idea. The rest of the story vanished in front of me like smoke. I could sort of see it, but only if I squinted, and by then it dissipated.

This phenomenon is a bit like the paradox of choice: if the story can become absolutely anything, then the horizon is so completely open that my poor little human brain starts to overheat from all the possibilities and I get a paralyzing case of the vapors.

May I suggest a way forward?

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Spending time in non-time.

You may have noticed that the months September, October, November, and December contain clues that they used to be at a different spot in the calendar: September was once seventh, October eighth, November ninth, and December tenth. You may also have heard that this was because July and August were added later, to honor Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus, respectively, knocking the whole calendar askew in the process.


…that this is a lie?

July and August weren’t additions to the calendar; they were simply renamed from Quintilis (5th month) and Sextilis (6th month). The renaming spared them the embarrassing fate that the following months suffered, spending eternity with misleading prefixes.

No, the reason for the shift is that the latest additions to the calendar were January and February.

Bear with me: the original Roman calendar had ten months of 30 or 31 days, starting with March and ending with December. This only took 304 days. The other 50 days in the lunar year were monthless.


A time so dark and slow it didn’t even bear naming. Just the long wait until time would finally resume in March.

Eventually, the Romans deigned to allow time to go on, even in winter, and January and February were born.

I’m struck, though, by the notion of living without time, but only for a while. Now, we are able to free ourselves from day and night, winter and summer, through the magic of electricity. A single hour of a lightbulb’s worth of light from an animal-fat candle used to require 60 hours of work. For most average people, then, night was simply dark. There wouldn’t have been enough spare labor lying around to justify lighting the night. And in winter, the nights are long and dark. Imagine sitting inside, struggling to stay warm, in the dark, for sixteen hours a day.

That is life without time. That is a taste of eternity.

Now, I’m not an ancient peasant. 60 hours of my labor can buy me actual decades’ worth of light. My HVAC system means I can stay at 70 degrees all year long, if I want to, except if I dare to go outdoors. I should be immune to winter.

But I’m not. It gets into me anyway. It feels endless, especially when the frigid wind is whipping right into the seams of my coat, and when I’m taking the train only in disorienting darkness. When there’s no hint of living green, just brown and grey through bare trees. (West Coasters: you fortunate green-winterers don’t understand).

Maybe there’s some wisdom in letting this be non-time, rather than trying to count down the days until it ends. It’s just a pause, an empty lung, a long sleep.

Eventually March will come.

Credit once again to the History of English podcast for this fun fact about January and February.

A history of old things, part 3: on pedigrees.

To recap: I’ve been addressing the interesting but often unverifiable claims that the Enneagram is quite old. Often, this claim is equal parts squishy definition and wishful thinking.

Now I turn to my final chapter on this journey: why is it wishful thinking? Why is being old desirable, let alone desirable enough to get us all to do some dubious accounting?

There’s the undeniable romance of it, of course. Compare this snippet of a description of the Enneagram’s history:

Variations of this symbol also appear in Islamic Sufi traditions, perhaps arriving there through the Arabian philosopher al-Ghazzali. Around the fourteenth century the Naqshbandi Order of Sufism, variously known as the “Brotherhood of the Bees” (because they collected and stored knowledge) and the “Symbolists” (because they taught through symbols) is said to have preserved and passed on the Enneagram symbol.

Speculation has it the Enneagram found its way into esoteric Christianity through Pseudo-Dionysius (who was influenced by the neo-Platonists) and through the mystic Ramon Lull (who was influenced by his Islamic studies.)

On the frontispiece of a textbook written in the seventeenth century by the Jesuit mathematician and student of arithmology Athanasius Kircher, an Enneagram-like figure appears.

With the pedestrian-sounding contention that it’s an amalgamation, created in the 1970s, out of bits of various ideas.

Wouldn’t you rather have that Indiana Jones trek through the sands of time, with a soupçon of a Da Vinci Code-style coverup, a conspiracy of ancient and esoteric brotherhoods?

Who wouldn’t? Especially when your alternative is that people in the 20th century, many of whom are still living, just sort of…made something up.

We have a deep craving for authenticity. This is good. We are naturally skeptical. Also good. So especially when it comes to something as sensitive as a system that will purport to turn a dark mirror on our subconscious motivations, we may well take a step back and demand to see some badges. Ancient brotherhoods are decent badges to flash, quelling at once our skepticism and our thirst for intrigue.

Or, those of us who have found this system helpful, and who also thrill to old stuff, get deeply excited when we see a glimmer of a comparison in something old: Look, the stops on Odysseus’s journey in the Odyssey appear to align with the Enneagram types! Look, there are seven or nine deadly sins, give or take! And we may skip over the task of actually finding a credible connection that goes beyond coincidence, flapping our hands instead at the unknowability of ancient wisdom traditions.

But here’s my theory: saying “it’s new” isn’t all that much more accurate than saying “it’s old.” Was it made up in the 1970s? In my opinion, yes: anything recognizable as the Enneagram of Personality was. But I don’t think we need to stop there, because those people in the 1970s (principally Ichazo and Naranjo) didn’t make up this system out of new cloth. They made it out of lots of bits of old cloth.

And new stuff out of old cloth is as close as we often get in this world to “old cloth.”

Here’s an analogy: even as the genetic testing industry continues to grow (and even though I very much enjoy genealogy), it’s clear that you don’t have to go back very far until the distinction between your-family and not-your-family breaks down.

An example from the tremendously interesting A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by geneticist Adam Rutherford:

One fifth of people alive a millennium ago in Europe are the ancestors of no one alive today. Their lines of descent petered out at some point, when they or one of their progeny did not leave any of their own. Conversely, the remaining 80 percent are the ancestor of everyone living today. All lines of ancestry coalesce on every individual in the tenth century.

Rutherford at 162.

Does that seem impossible–that every living person of European descent is descended from every European in the year 1000 or so who has any living descendants? He explains further:

[A]ccept that everyone of European descent should have billions of ancestors at a time in the tenth century, but there weren’t billions of people around then, so try to cram them into the number of people that actually were. The math that falls out of that apparent impasse is that all of the billions of lines of ancestry have coalesced into not just a small number of people, but effectively literally everyone who was alive at that time. So, by inference, if Charlemagne was alive in the ninth century, which we know he was, and he left descendants who are alive today, which we also know is true, then he is the ancestor of everyone of European descent alive in Europe today.

Rutherford at 162.

So all of us who have European descent are related to Charlemagne. All of us who have European descent are, equally, related to Kurt the Pig Boy who lived just down the hill from Charlemagne’s palace, as long as Kurt has any living descendants.

This kind of math takes a bit of the wind out of the sails of genealogy: those of us who are able to trace our ancestry back several generations often feel proud if we find someone notable in the genetic heap, perhaps forgetting how many hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of others also can claim the same heritage. Charlemagne is indeed in many of our bloodlines, but in menial quantities that it’s hardly worth mentioning. He belongs to history far more than he belongs to our genealogy.

Rutherford shows how this logic goes if we zoom out from Europe to the entire world: at least one researcher has estimated that “the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive today on Earth lived only around 3,400 years ago.” Rutherford at 164.

If this sounds too recent, or baffling because of remote populations in South America or the islands of the South Pacific, remember that no population is known to have remained isolated over a sustained period of time, even in those remote locations. The influx of the Spanish into South America meant their genes spread rapidly into decimated indigenous tribes, and eventually to the most remote peoples. The inhabitants of the minuscule Pingelap and Mokil atolls in the mid-Pacific have incorporated Europeans into their gene pools after they were discovered in the years of the nineteenth century. Even religiously isolated groups such as the Samaritans, who number fewer than 800 and are sequestered within Israel, have elected to outbreed in order to expand their limited gene pool.

Rutherford at 164.

So go back less than 4,000 years, and there’s some anonymous man or woman from whom every person alive can claim descent. It’s kind of mind-blowing.

There is no simple, linear descent of humans. Human genealogy is inherently a net, a web, that reaches all around the world much more speedily than we tend to assume.

Likewise, to bring it back around to the Enneagram, there is no pure, arcane, secret tradition. People, and ideas, don’t work like that. There is change and exchange and learning and borrowing and mixing and syncretizing. And that’s generally good. 

Just as “no population is known to have remained isolated over a sustained period of time,” ideas don’t tend to idle intact within secret brotherhoods, nor do languages sit immobile in faraway mountain hollers. Change, not stability, is the story.

And in my view, the fact of the Enneagram of Personality being relatively new is what makes it so valuable. If the system is fixed, then it is no one’s–it is unaccountable and inflexible to new insights and new generations’ shifting perspectives. If it refers back to an ancient brotherhood, who’s to say what it is? What it’s not?

Instead, I vote that we recognize–and celebrate–the new origins of this old thing. This new quilt made from various semi-old rags. It’s a solution that gives us some of the romance of the old, and some of the novelty of the new. That’s about as good as we can do.

A history of old things, part 2.

Previously on Psychopomp, I ran through what I’ve learned about the history of the Enneagram. People often claim that it has ancient and mysterious origins, but my investigation of these claims demonstrated to me that this wasn’t quite true. Instead, it seems that a handful of 20th-century men created the system, then attached an ancient mystique to their teachings. In one case, this led to some rather interesting legal issues in the 2nd Circuit.

But as I said then, my investigation hit a bit of a roadblock. It wasn’t clear that all these sources were even talking about the same thing when they made their claims about the origins of the Enneagram. This meant it was hard for me to write the ancient origins off so quickly.

So, what is it, anyway?

Part Two: The Definitions

I am not the first to conclude that, essentially, the Enneagram as we know it now (a symbol marking the relationships between nine personality types of a given description) is a 20th-century innovation.

Riso and Hudson admitted as much, although their early book Personality Types (see previous post) had included its own mysterious set of Very-Old claims. Pumping the brakes on their own earlier breathless prose, they write in a later edition that “[u]nfortunately, the first edition of Personality Types was perhaps a source of the mistaken idea that there was a body of knowledge about the Enneagram which had been transmitted through an ongoing ‘oral tradition’ of some kind. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Enneagram is largely a modern development.” Elsewhere, they wrote that the Enneagram is “a hybrid, a modern amalgam, from a number of ancient wisdom traditions combined with modern psychology.” Wisdom of the Enneagram at 19. “Various authors have speculated about its origins, and Enneagram enthusiasts have created a good deal of folklore about its history and development, but much of the information being passed around is unfortunately misleading. Many early authors, for example, attributed the entire system to Sufi masters which we now know is not the case.” Wisdom of the Enneagram at 19. 

Wikipedia encapsulates the problem thusly:

Although the origins and history of many of the ideas and theories associated with the Enneagram of Personality are a matter of dispute, contemporary Enneagram claims are principally derived from the teachings of Oscar Ichazo and Claudio Naranjo.

Similarly, the Enneagram Institute sums it up:

The Enneagram of Personality Types is a modern synthesis of a number of ancient wisdom traditions, but the person who originally put the system together was Oscar Ichazo.

But which is it? Is it from the 20th century, or is it old? Is it a new thing made of old pieces, or an old thing with new fittings?

One problem is definitional: we have the Enneagram diagram itself, and then we have the Enneagram of Personality, which is the system that overlays nine psychological types on top of that diagram.

So what are people talking about when they make a claim about the Enneagram’s history? The personality types, or just the diagram? Or something else entirely? It’s rarely clear.

But even if we adjust our search to just an Enneagram that has personality types attached, it is unclear how far we can reasonably go back: Gurdijieff, in the early 20th century, taught that “each of us had a chief feature that was the central axis around which the delusional aspects of our personalities revolved.” Tart preface to Palmer at xii. In other words, he made some personality claims, in unconventional ways: he would hold liquor-soaked evening sessions during which he would excoriate everyone as a particular kind of “idiot.” Palmer at 13-14. You can see this as him exposing people’s Enneagram type (in Gurdijieff’s own very Enneagram-8 fashion) if you want…but need you? 

It’s undisputed that he taught the Enneagram diagram. See Palmer at 10. But there is no evidence that he thought of mapping his personality “chief features” onto the diagram.

Tart hedges: “Gurdijieff clearly used the Enneagram of personality in his work with his students, but, to my knowledge, did not pass the system on in any detail to his students.” Preface to Palmer at xii. In other words, he used the Enneagram of Personality, but in such a subtle way that his students had no idea that they had learned it.

To which I say…hmm.

Instead of learning a personality system, Gurdijieff’s students learned “through nonverbal movement exercises that were designed to give a felt sense of the stages that different processes go through when they begin and are played out in the material world.” Palmer at 10. In fact, “There was nothing written about the Enneagrams of personality during Gurdijieff’s lifetime, and the schools that continued his teaching were inclined to view personality preoccupations as something to be set aside in the movement toward higher consciousness.” Palmer at 11.

So you see the problem: we are tempted, when looking for the Enneagram in the past, to find it in its modern form in Gurdijieff. So we look back at a man who used the diagram, who also taught some concepts about personal development, and with the benefit of hindsight, we assume that he might have also secretly or nonverbally used the other things that we associate with the Enneagram of Personality today, even though it appears that he didn’t.

Or this leads to different, wilder hedges: that the Enneagram in Gurdijieff’s time was more pure than it is now, having been tainted by the masses obtaining access to it; or that Gurdijieff definitely knew the Enneagram of Personality, but chose not to teach it because his students could not handle it. See Palmer at 12.

But isn’t it more likely that the Enneagram as we know it now was just not around yet, and that’s why there’s no evidence that Gurdijieff taught it? Isn’t that why those little bits of the early Enneagram look so bizarre to us?

We essentially have to make a choice: between the notion that the Enneagram of Personality as we know it now has existed for thousands of years, transmitted through the Babylonians and Sufis and Kabbalists and the early Christian mystics, but that its full form was kept secret; or that it is a modern invention that draws on–or resembles–older concepts. I clearly vote for the latter.

So what are those concepts it draws on?

A huge one that is largely ignored in modern Enneagram circles is esoteric numerology. After all, the diagram–and the exact placement of the types on it–is not arbitrary. See Palmer at 46. The diagram consists of a circle in which lay two separate diagrams: an equilateral triangle, and an irregular six-pointed figure.

The triangle represents the “law of three,” which is seen in many mystical traditions, and is also notable because the decimal of 1/3 is 0.33333, with a string of 3s out to infinity. This fact of numerology would have come about after the discovery of the zero, and the subsequent discovery of decimal places, in a base-ten system. On the Enneagram diagram, the triangle forms points 3, 6, and 9–all of the multiples of three.

It turns out that the irregular six-pointed figure is similar: it represents the “law of sevens,” because 1/7 also creates an infinite decimal: 0.142857. This pattern of six numbers repeats forever, never including a multiple of three. Students of the Enneagram of Personality will recognize that sequence of numbers as six of the Enneagram types arranged in order of their movements in stress: type 1 moves to type 4 in stress; 4 moves to 2; 2 to 8; and so on.

This explains the diagram, and why the nine numbers are arranged in a given order. It has to do with numerology. And on top of this numerology, some attach esoteric meaning: the law of threes is associated with the trinity, for example, and the law of seven “governs the stages of implementation of [an] event as it is played out in the physical world.” Palmer at 36. I’m not quite sure what that means, to be honest.

Some numerology goes a little further: if you do your math a little wrong, you can add .33 to .33 to .33 and get .99. That is to say, three of the decimal of 1/3 creates an infinite string of nines. Likewise, if you add .142857 to itself seven times (in other words, seven of the decimal of 1/7) creates .999999. Again, this is bad math, because 3 times 1/3 is 1, just as 7 times 1/7 is 1, but if you just add the decimals on top of each other and ignore the fact that you’re supposed to go to infinity, it looks like you get a lot of nines–which is significant in a system based on numerology about a nine-pointed figure. See Palmer at 37; Maitri at 27. Riso also does a little bad math to help us remember the 1-4-2-8-5-7 string: “1-4, or 14, doubles to 28, and that doubles to 57–or almost so.” Enneagram Transformations at 14. 

I say this not to bore you to tears but instead to make the point that a big chunk of whatever the Enneagram is is numerology, which definitely goes back a little further than other chunks. And, importantly, it’s not the Enneagram of personality, is it?

You can also find connections between the nine-pointed shape in astrology and geometry, and it is clear that the Enneagram of Personality is just inherently a very different thing than all this. See There are also personality typing systems that are quite old: the four humors, the Seven Deadly Sins. There are mystical groupings of nine: the nine worlds that the Norse mythical tree Yggdrasil connects, for example. But no one now does just numerology, or just sacred geometry, or just the seven deadly sins, and calls it the Enneagram. That would be confusing at best.

At the end of the day, here’s the real history, as far as I’m concerned: a bunch of semi-related (and, in some cases, unrelated) ideas including numerology, religious transformation, psychology, astrology, esoterica, etc, floated around until Ichazo and Naranjo and later people (Riso, Hudson, Maitri, Palmer, et al) created what we now call the Enneagram of Personality in the ’70s. Searching before that for a single, intact system transmitted through the ages guarantees finding some false positives in hindsight, finding some loose resemblances and rounding them up.

Rather than finding the actual pedigree of a single idea, we’re instead identifying the universal appeal of a several separate things. Which is fine!

And the thing is, the Enneagram as we know it now is still evolving. It’s not done. Riso “discovered” the levels of health (the idea that each type contains nine levels of health, which shows how each type will look at different levels of well-being) in 1977. Wisdom of the Enneagram at 25. Riso and Hudson call it a “work in progress,” so that practitioners are “continually finding better terminology, making new discoveries, formulating more profound questions, uncovering new areas for investigation, and seeing more fertile connections with other bodies of knowledge.” Id.

For me personally, so much of what I’ve been enriched by in this system is rather new: the complexities of wings, arrows, subtypes, levels of health–none of these are attested back very far. All of the rather simple comparisons of the ancient Enneagram (such as the seven deadly sins) don’t have these complexities, because they are a different system. Even if the bones are old, you might say, the guts are new. Or something. (It’s getting late, and I’m tired).

To sum up: if you set your sights quite low, you can find a lot of things that look like bits and pieces of what we now know as the Enneagram all over time and space. You can cobble together an ancient esoteric history of the system. You will be able to gather bits of other sets of nines, or systems that generalize people based on a set of types. You will get some false positives.

I’m trying to break my own habit of wanting these false positives, wanting that charge of finding something really old as though in a brand-new archaeological dig. And even after all this rambling, I’m facing some disappointment, a kind of deflated feeling that I’m a joyless cynic, for trying to get rid of the perception that the Enneagram is ancient.

But why is that a bad thing? Why do we want the false positives? PART THREE is coming.

A history of old things.

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).

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HISTORY . The Enneagram seems to be everywhere. Books. Podcasts. Workshops. Online Courses. T-Shirts. Coffee Mugs. It’s worth asking: Where did this thing come from? Here’s a quick survey of the history of this mysterious symbol: . * Antiquity: Enneagram symbols evident in multiple places around the world, including the worlds of Greek mathematician Pythagorus (about 600 BC). * 1866: [pic 1] George Gurdjieff (Russian Armenian), a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, born. * 1916: Gurdjieff introduces his version of the enneagram symbol to his students in Russia at his school “The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man” * 1931: [pic 2] Oscar Ichazo born in Bolivia * 1947: [pic 3] P.D. Ouspensky published *In Search of the Miraculous*, a comprehensive account of Gurdjieff’s thought * 1954: Oscar Ichazo received 108 “Enneagons” in a vision; spends the next 7 years developing the Enneagram. [We primarily use his first 4 “Enneagons”: Passions, Virtues, Fixations, Holy Ideas] * 1969: [pic 4] Oscar Ichazo, after studying under Ichazo’s teaching, begins teaching the Enneagram in Chile. [This is the Traditional Enneagram we know and use today.] * Early 1970s: Claudio Naranjo organizes a group in Berkeley, California and introduces the Enneagram in North America * Late 1970s/Early 1980s: The Enneagram takes root in Jesuit circles. * 1980s/1990s: Numerous published works on the Enneagram begin appearing in English. . [Thanks to The Enneagram Institute and @chrisheuertz for tracing this history in their teachings and materials]

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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?

Reith Lectures. A history of histories.

We live in a time of many, many podcasts. But while we’re here, one benefit is the ready availability of recordings that weren’t even made to be podcasts. Recently, I’ve been meandering through the archives of the Reith Lectures, an annual series of five lectures by a single speaker each year, exploring some topic of interest. The BBC has been putting the series on since 1948 before a small, invited live audience, but the whole catalog is available online for free, for posterity.

Some of my favorites have been Bertrand Russell speaking on “Authority and the Individual” and the need for a world order to prevent the recurrence of world war (1948), Dr. Jonathan Sacks on “The Persistence of Faith” in a secular world (1990), John Keegan on “War in Our World” (1998), Niall Ferguson on the enemies of the rule of law (2012), Kwame Anthony Appiah on culture (2016), and Hilary Mantel on historical fiction (2017). Other lecturers include Stephen Hawking and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The archive of these lectures is how the internet shows the best version of itself: it acts as a leveler to share humanity’s knowledge somewhat evenly. Without mass communication, these lectures would have been heard only by those elite few who were invited to the talk. The BBC was able to tear down that barrier by broadcasting the talks on the radio. But the internet sends the talks even further, into the future and into great distances of space, lasting however long the digital archives of the BBC do.

Beyond these recommendations, I have some observations.

First, are we now living through a new age of audience participation (and can we make it stop?) In the Reith Lectures, at some point around the late 20th century, audience questions and answers show up. I assume that the audience was allowed to ask questions before then (although, it would be fascinating to find out that they weren’t!) but it was only relatively recently that the audience participation was included as part of the lecture recording. As someone who has sat through several too many “more a comment than a question” sessions, I’m never stoked about the opportunity to be held hostage to the often egomaniacal whims of whoever runs fastest to the public mic. But sometimes, miraculously, the commenter does have something of interest to say, despite my impatience. Anyway, I wonder if the inclusion of these questions in the recording signals a recent phenomenon–a symptom of some deep societal change opening us up to the thoughts of the rando, or the decreasing cost of data storage, or who knows what. In any event, this has made the actual substance of the lectures shorter, but the recordings stay the same length to make time for the almighty q&a, and I suppose I have to live with it.

Second: in the last 60 years of lectures, the history of the period echoes a bit in the choices of lecture topics. Some topics are of continual interest (scientific advancement is a perennial favorite), whereas others dwindle: there have been very few lectures on religion in the last 30 years, for example. This reminds me of a story about the making of Downton Abbey: allegedly, the audience never sees the family begin eating a meal, because historical accuracy would also require showing them praying, and the modern audience would find that too spooky indeed. So too, perhaps, with the lecturers: we are in an age recently in which religion is not a topic for lectures of general interest.

Another fun aspect of a dive in the archive is that you get to hear the accents mutate and diversify from the absolute lunacy of the mid-20th century upper-class pinched aristocrat voice to a spectrum that includes all manner of Brits, international voices, and even the occasional Canadian.

A final observation: there is a strange middle ground here between enjoying something old as a curiosity, and enjoying something recent by learning from it at face value. A work of scholarship that is very old is a historical document. We’d study it to find out more about the period in which it was written, but we are not as likely to use it for information about what it actually says. In other words, it ages enough until it is a primary source document–but only a primary source document. On the other hand, very recent scholarship is just scholarship. But where is the line? How old does something have to be before it becomes a primary source for a historian studying the time it was written, or a curiosity?

The first lecture, from 1948, is from Bertrand Russell, talking about his views on the need for a world authority to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to prevent another world war. His views sound essentially quaint. They would be quite useful in assembling a history of the early anti-nuclear movement. But no one would use them now in a policy paper about nuclear policy or international relations.

More recent lectures felt, to me, to be in a funny kind of limbo in that regard. Lectures from the ’80s and ’90s are not yet far enough away in time to be quaint or revelatory (“my goodness, I didn’t realize people thought like that way back then!”). Instead, they’re just outdated. I guess they’re waiting in the vault, aging like a fine wine, but somewhat awkwardly. (Perhaps my bias is showing: I’ve never been very interested in history of the recent past. My interest in history has always been next door to my interest in fiction, trying to find other worlds to visit.)

As an example of this phenomenon, let’s briefly compare Bertrand Russell in 1948 to military historian John Keegan fifty years later in 1998. Both speakers saw a strong UN or other world body as the key to eliminating war. Russell thought it should do so through disarmament, eliminating nuclear weapons. In his day, scarcely out of World War II, it must have seemed quite possible that nuclear war would soon be frequent. But Keegan, speaking after the end of the Cold War, is adamantly against disarmament: he argues that the dangerous knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons can never leave humanity; therefore, responsible actors (the United States!) must retain them. For Keegan, nuclear weapons still looked like the future of war.

Twenty years on, as a lay observer of war, I’m not so sure. Yes, we have scares about nuclear Irans and North Koreas. But we also see something akin to “war” happening purely online through hacking and disinformation campaigns, and through the quiet misappropriation of information. These are “war” in the sense that the security state turns its full attention to them. But these appearances of “war,” in which nuclear weapons sit basically forgotten (we pray), where actual combat occurs only with unsophisticated non-state actors and technology otherwise is the most feared threat, would be unrecognizable to an ancient person. Or even to Russell.