The Meaning and History of the Enneagram Symbol
If you read around and listen to Enneagram experts, you will find that the history of the Enneagram is shrouded in mystery and meaning of the Enneagram symbol is rarely discussed. The elusive history of the Enneagram leaves some unsatisfied, and the silence on the Enneagram’s symbolism leaves others suspicious. There is little we can do to satisfy our desire to know more about the exact nature of Enneagram’s ancient roots (other than guess). However, we can learn more about the Enneagram’s modern history, and as we uncover this more recent story, we can unlock the meaning of the Enneagram symbol.
Discovering the meaning behind the Enneagram symbol is a worthwhile task because, let’s face it… it’s a weird, disconcerting image. Unfortunately, the human mind must think in terms of categories. It’s not sophisticated, but it’s the way it is. For most of us, the only category we have for the Enneagram symbol is the pentagram with its association with modern occultism. So naturally we wonder if this symbol is somehow dark or dangerous. However, if we stop thinking in categories and examine the Enneagram symbol as its own entity we will see that it shares some of its symbolism with the Christian tradition and offers a picture into the modern history of the Enneagram.
Orthodox Christian and spiritual teacher G. I. Gurdjieff (b. 1879 — d. 1949) brought the Enneagram symbol to the West, but never revealed his source(s). By all accounts, he was an undeniably eccentric personality, but he was also a spiritual master. Later in life, when asked where he had received his teachings, Gurdjieff teased that perhaps had stolen them. Gurdjieff often spoke in riddles. He was playful and obscure in his teachings and dealings with students. Consequently, we are left to guess about the sources of the Enneagram symbol. Gurdjieff was a spiritual seeker, who traveled widely in Europe and Asia, visiting various wisdom schools. He was raised in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and he often said he had received a unique tutored education from Russian Orthodox priests.As an adult,he paid extensive visits to Mount Athos, the great community of Orthodox monasteries in a secluded region of Greece. He made arrangements to take his students to Mount Athos later in life, an indication that he thought highly of this community. Unfortunately, the plans fell through, but he left instructions that they should connect with the Orthodox tradition at Athos after his death. Gurdjieff taught at the height of the enlightenment. A time when religion was on the defensive in the west so he translated these truths into language acceptable to those skeptical of religion.
The Mount Athos community is the considered the heart of Eastern Orthodoxy and the stewards of the tradition of the Desert Elders, Christianity’s first monastics. These committed Christians established their community when Christianity was installed in the halls of power in the Roman Empire. These ascetics took to the caves of Egyptian and Syrian deserts. They worked out their faith with fervor and developed an extraordinary wisdom tradition. Rather than seeing sin as something we are punished for like so many Christians today, they saw sin as something we are punished by. One of the Desert Elders, Evagrius Ponticus, understood various sins as psychological patterns that keep human beings locked in inner turmoil. In listing his sins, he named eight of the nine passions of the modern Enneagram. While there is no way to be certain, and we move into speculation at this point, but it possible that the Enneagram tradition and perhaps the symbol itself was developed by the Desert Elders and passed on to the community at Mount Athos, where it was given to Gurdjieff.
Enneagram teachers regularly refer to Gurdjieff as the father of the modern Enneagram. While this is true, we need a more nuanced understanding of how Gurdjieff used the Enneagram symbol if we want to understand the symbol’s meaning and history. The modern Enneagram of personality is not a carbon copy of Gurdjieff’s work and teaching. The tool has been developed over the decades since Gudjieff lived and taught. I use the term “Enneagram of personality” intentionally to differentiate between Gurdjieff’s use of the symbol, which was primarily employed as a metaphysic—an organizing principle that explains how the universe works—and not as a personality schematic. Gurdjief’s teachings included a personality schematic, but his teachings went far beyond that and his schematic looked very different from the contemporary Enneagram of personality.
It was Chilean, Oscar Ichazo (1931-), who reemployed the symbol and developed the Enneagram of personality in 1954. He developed Evagruis’ 8 passions into 9 personality types and placed them around the Enneagram (Ichazo added fear). Before Ichazo, we have no record of the Enneagram symbol’s association with a personality schematic.
Gurdjieff’s metaphysic incorporated three basic principles all demonstrated in the Enneagram symbol—The Law of Seven, Unityand The Law of Three. The Law of Seven is the most complex concept of the three. It is too complicated to discuss at length here, but the Law of Seven is a law of vibrations. Just as in modern physics, this ancient idea considers the world to consist of vibrations. However, unlike traditional Newtonian physics an object in motion does not merely stay in motion. According to the Law of Seven, every process must pass through seven stages before it comes to completion. The energy is not spent uniformly. Instead, energy is lost at a precise point before it receives an additional impulse of energy in order to continue in a straight line. There is far more that could be explored here, but my intention is to explain the rash of lines illustrated above and why they originally existed in the Enneagram symbol more than to explain a metaphysic that will make our collective heads hurt.
The circle located at the center of the Enneagram symbolizes unity and infinity and theoneness and eternal nature of God. The circle calls us out of dualistic modes of thinking and asks us to imagine a universe where everything belongs. This calls us to a “panoramic, receptive awareness whereby you take in all that the situation, the moment, the event offers, without judging, eliminating, or labeling anything up or down, good or bad.”If you can do this, than you are free to see the world as it is and not as the ego prefers.
The triangle represents threeness. What spiritual teaching attempts to hold one and three in tension? The Christian doctrine of the Trinity! This stream of thought makes the Trinity a more practical doctrine. For most Christians it’s simply something to be believed so that they can call themselves orthodox, thus securing their safety in a mere Christian belonging-system, but what if the teaching was practical and essential? First, God’s nature determines the structure of the universe. The Gospel of John also points this out by calling Jesus The Word. It is probable that John’s original audience would have heard the term as a kind of shorthand for the “structure of the universe” or the world’s “organizing principle.” John’s Gospel is begging that we open the door to the practical consequences of the Trinity the Law of Three.
Gurdjieff’s teachings on this and nearly every topic were too complex to explore here, but Richard Rohr swims in Gurdjieff’s stream of teaching by pointing out that the radical reconciliation between oneness and separateness settles the question at the heart of our broken culture, namely, “How can human persons be both distinct and deeply connected?”The West has tended see individuals as distinct, but not connected, while the East has seen us as connected, but not distinct. When we are not distinct, individual human dignity is cast aside in the name of the group. When we are not connected, our individual freedoms constantly infringe on the wellbeing of our neighbors. When we fail to hold this tension our communities suffer the impoverishment we see today.
The pattern calling us to hold this tension is found in the Triune God, who exists in three autonomous Persons in perfect communion. “Each person in the Trinity is totally autonomous and yet totally given and surrendered to the others.”Both unity and diversity are cherished and protected in this God, who offers us salvation in this: We will only survive in this world if we do as the Triune God does—loving both self and other. Therefore, we must hold the tension between distinct individuals and absolute communion.
While the ancient history of the Enneagram might be elusive, the modern history of the Enneagram is available to us and offers the keys to understanding the meaning behind the symbol. The Enneagram’s history and symbolism dispels conjecture about the possibility of dark origins and illustrates one man’s attempt to convey Christian spiritual principles to a secular world.
The Law of Seven is complex, but it explains the zigzag configuration within the Enneagram. God’s nature as simultaneously one and three calls human persons to be both distinct and deeply connected just as each person in the Trinity is totally autonomous and surrendered to the others. God simultaneously protects both unity and diversity. God cherishes and protects the individual and whole. This same God saves us and calls us into God’s very nature, which loves both self and others.
Hurley and Dodson, “What are the real origins of the Enneagram?” http://new.hurleydonson.com/what-are-the-real-origins-of-the-enneagram/
Cynthia Bourgeult, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three.Hurley and Dodson, “What are the real origins of the Enneagram?” http://new.hurleydonson.com/what-are-the-real-origins-of-the-enneagram/
Cynthia Bourgeult, The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three.
Richard Rohr, A Spring Within Us: A Book of Daily Meditations.
Rohr and Morrell, The Divine Dance.
In addition to the conventional Gospel of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection.