The following entry appears on pp. 520-521 of the 1912 edition of “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” by Albert G. Mackey.
The symbolism which is derived from numbers was common to the Pythagoreans, the Cabalists the Gnostics, and all mystical associations. Of all superstitions. it is the oldest and the most generally diffused. Allusions are to be found to it in all Systems of religion; the Jewish Scriptures, for instance, abound in it, and the Christian shows a share of its influence. It is not, therefore, surprising that the most predominant of all symbolism in Freemasonry is that of numbers.
The doctrine of numbers as symbols is most familiar to us because it formed the fundamental idea of the philosophy of Pythagoras. Yet it was not original with him, since he brought his theories from Egypt and the East, where this numerical symbolism had always prevailed. Jamblichus tells us (Vit. Pyth., c. 28) that Pythagoras himself admitted that he had received the doctrine of numbers from Orpheus, who taught that numbers were the most provident beginning of all things in heaven, earth, and the intermediate space, and the root of the perpetuity of Divine beings, of the gods and of demons. From the disciples of Pythagoras we learn, for he himself taught only orally, and left no writings, that his theory was that numbers contain the elements of all things, and even of the sciences. Numbers are the invisible covering of beings as the body is the visible one. They are the primary causes upon which the whole system of the universe rests; and he who knows these numbers knows at the same time the laws through which nature exists. The Pythagoreans, said Aristotle (Metaph., xii, 5), make all things proceed from numbers. Dacier (Vie de Pyth.), it is true, denies that this was the doctrine of Pythagoras, and contends that it was only a corruption of his disciples. It is an immaterial point. We know that the symbolism of numbers was the basis of what is called the Pythagorean philosophy. But it would be wrong to suppose that from it the Freemasons derived their system, since the two are in some points antagonistic; the Freemasons, for instance, revere the nine as a sacred number of peculiar significance, while the Pythagoreans looked upon it with detestation. In the system of the Pythagoreans, ten was, of all numbers, the most perfect, because it symbolizes the completion of things; but in Masonic symbolism the number ten is unknown. Four is not, in Freemasonry, a number of much representative importance; but it was sacredly revered by the Pythagoreans as the Tetractys, or figure derived from the Jewish Tetragrammaton, by which they swore.
Plato also indulged in a theory of symbolic numbers and calls him happy who understands spiritual numbers and perceives their mighty influences Numbers according to Plato, are the cause of universal harmony and of the production of all things. The Neoplatonists extended and developed this theory, and from them it passed over to the Gnostics; from them probably to the Rosicrucians, to the Hermetic philosophers and to the Freemasons.
Cornelius Agrippa has descanted at great length in his Occult Philosophy, on the subject of numbers. “That there lies,” he says, “wonderful efficacy and virtue in numbers, as well for good as for evil, not only the most eminent philosophers teach, but also the Catholic Doctors.” And he quotes Saint Hilary as saying that the seventy Elders brought the Psalms into order by the efficacy of numbers.
Of the prevalence of what are called representative numbers in the Old and New Testament, there is abundant evidence. “However we may explain it,” says Dr. Utahan (Palmoni, p. 67), “certain numerals in the Scriptures occur so often in connection with certain classes of ideas, that we are naturally led to associate the one with the other. This is more or less admitted with regard to the numbers Seven, Twelve, Forty, Seventy, and it may be a few more. The Fathers were disposed to admit it with regard to many others, and to see in it the marks of a supernatural design.”
Among the Greeks and the Romans there was a superstitious veneration for certain numbers. The same practice is found among all the Eastern nations entered more or less into all the ancient systems of philosophy; constituted a part of all the old religions; was accepted to a great extent by the early Christian Fathers; constituted an important part of the Cabala; was adopted by the Gnostics, the Rosicrucians, and all the mystical societies of the Middle Ages; and finally has carried its influence into Freemasonry.
The respect paid by Freemasons to certain numbers all of which are odd. is founded not on the belief of any magical virtue but because they are assumed to be the type or representatives of certain ideas. That is to say, a number is in Freemasonry a symbol, and no more. It is venerated, not because it has any supernatural efficacy, as thought the Pythagoreans and others, but because it has concealed within some allusion to a sacred object or holy thought, which it symbolizes. The number three, for instance, like the triangle, is a symbol; the number nine, like the triple triangle, another. The Masonic doctrine of sacred numbers must not, therefore, be confounded with the doctrine of numbers which prevailed in other systems.
The most important symbolic or sacred numbers in Freemasonry are three, five, seven, nine, twenty-seven and eighty-one. Their interpretation will be found under their respective titles.
Although the number twenty-seven is found in the Degree of Select Master and in some of the other advanced Degrees, it can scarcely be called in itself a sacred number. It derives its importance from the fact that it is produced by the multiplication of the square of three by three, thus: 3 × 3 × 3 = 27.
The full text of the 1912 edition of Mackey’s “An Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences” may be found at:Mackey’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry: Volume I
Mackey’s Encyclopaedia of Freemasonry: Volume II