Numbers and Nobles: The Magical Tradition of Numerology in Spain
Spain has always been a country full of contrasts. It is often regarded as heavily Catholic and the place where the Inquisition began. At the same time, there have also been witches and individuals who believed in fairies, gnomes, and other spirits. Spanish people have tried to cast the future as well.
Thus, spiritual life has always been rich in Spain. However, in the Middle Ages and a few centuries later, the role of astrology and numerology had a special meaning in the country, especially in Catalonia.
‘The Fortune Teller’ by Julio Vila y Prades. (Public Domain)
The Jewish Background of Spanish Astrologers
Researchers generally claim that numerology came from Hebrew sources. Numerology, astrology and other mystical disciplines were strongly influenced by Cabbala (Kabbala), but also by ancient philosophies such as Neoplatonism and works by Aristotle and others.
These hands, as in the Priestly Blessing, are divided into twenty-eight sections, each containing a Hebrew letter. Twenty-eight, in Hebrew numbers, spells the word Koach = strength. At the bottom of the hand, the two letters on each hand combine to form יהוה, the name of God. (Public Domain)
Witchcraft and rituals which had their roots in Celtic magic were mixed with Arabic mystical knowledge and Jewish studies in Spain, and they created news trend in esoteric knowledge. The main source of Jewish numerology was The Book of Asaph the Physician, who lived sometime between the 3rd and 7th Century AD.
The early Spanish numerologists also used a book titled Secreta Secretorum (Secret of Secrets), also known as Kitab Sirr al-Asrar, which comes from a 9th century Arabic translation of a lost Greek manuscript. It was perhaps a letter from Aristotle to Alexander the Great - his student. However, it became interpreted in different ways over the centuries and was a very important essay related to ethics, astronomy, medicine, alchemy, magic, etc. The best known translation was a Latin one from the 12th century, which became a key work for intellectuals in the Middle Ages.
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Copy of the Secreta Secretorum (c. 1250-1275). (Public Domain)
Apart from numerology, Jews also brought Gematria to Spain, which was an Assyro-Babylonian-Greek system of alphanumeric code adopted by the Jewish people as numeric keys to specific words or phrases. Gematria provided new tools for the mystics’ rituals, which were often like performances for the person who asked them about the future or for advice.
Specialists in Jewish esotericism suggest that a number of Jewish astrologers served the courts of King Pere III (1336-1387), King Juan I of Aragon (1387-1395), and many other rulers. Some of them are known by their names: Juce of Osca, Isaac Nafusi, Vidal, and Bellshom Efraim. They were all aware of the thin line between astronomy and astrology, and the relationship of these disciplines to religion.
From the 13-14th centuries, the support of a sorcerer and being open-minded to these topics was seen as a sign of being an intellectual person in Aragon. Moreover, according to linguists, the mixture of different esoteric aspects also influenced local languages – which is especially visible in the Catalan language. Modern scholars still explore the influence of different disciplines and different roots (Jewish, Arabic, and others) on language and the understanding of ancient medicine, which was the basis for more modern medicine.
Representation of Juan I of Aragon. (Public Domain)
Numerology Reigns in Iberia
The attempt to understand the influence of numbers on people’s lives became extremely popular in late medieval times and the Renaissance. It was a period when all of Europe became more interested in science again, and astrology and numerology were included in this as well.
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Two charts for determining whether a person will live or die based on the numerical value of the patient's name. From copy of a portion of Kitab Sirr al-asrar. (Public Domain)
Despite the influence of the Catholic Church and Holy Inquisition on Spanish society, people who were believed to have contact with higher a wisdom, spirits, etc. were often protected by the nobles, who wanted to use these gifts for their own purposes. According to the presentation by John S. Lucas in 2003 at Bar-Ilan University in Israel:
''Whatever the earliest sources may be, sorted literature survives in the Iberian Peninsula in the form of popular books of prognostication that, although taken seriously by many, also exist as fortunetelling games. Carreras y Candi’s anonymous thirteenth century Catalan text is a witness to this tradition. In the sixteenth century, we find books such as the Libro de las suertes [The Book of Luck] in Spanish. Navarro Durán reedited a Spanish version of such a game and studied the Latin manuscripts preserved in Spanish libraries (1987). In Arcadia, Lope de Vega describes a pastoral scene in which shepherds play one such game (1980: 396–400). Indeed, such games are still popular in the Western world. The second strain of numerological prognostication derives from the neo-Pythagorean tradition and is transmitted in the Hermetic corpus. Hermetic literature is one branch of pseudo-epigraphic writings that were common currency in the Roman Empire. These writings, often ascribed to Egyptian gods or sages, purport to reveal secret wisdom of the ancients.''
A figure representing Hermes Trismegistus. (Public Domain)
These practices became especially popular during the Renaissance, when science started to be more important again. Apart from royals and nobles, many artists were fascinated by this idea of a spiritual life too. This is well documented in the paintings and poetry from this period.
Who Wants to See the Future?
Although many Spanish kings and dukes wanted to be seen as followers of Christianity, they still asked people like astrologers, magicians, and numerologists to cast or divine the future.
The role of esoteric knowledge in Spain is still strong. In many parts of the country, stories about wise women called “witches” are very popular. Furthermore, the rate of people who support fortunetellers and other mystics continues to be very high. It seems that faith or interest in numerology, magic, and astrology is still alive in the Spanish culture today.
A fortune-telling game printed in Great Britain between 1650 and 1750. (Public Domain)
Top Image: ‘Fortune Teller with a Fool’ (1508 - 1510) by Lucas van Leiyden. Source: Public Domain
John Scott Lucas, Astrology and Numerology in Medieval and Early Modern Catalonia, 2003
John MacQueen, Numerology: Theory and outline of a literary mode, 1985.
Edward Grant, The foundations of modern science in the Middle Ages: Their religious,
institutional, and intellectual contexts. 1996.
John S. Lucas, Astrology and Numerology in Medieval and Early Modern Catalonia (the lecture) 2003, available at: