If you take a walk through your local Chinatown during a certain time of year, everything probably looks extra gilded in red and gold. The Lunar New Year, which falls between late January and mid February, is celebrated differently around the world, but within Chinese culture, part of the festivities includes putting up paper decorations on your door and around your home. Many popular designs include the character, 囍. It’s meaningless on its own, but composed of the repeated character 喜 (xĭ in Mandarin; héi in Cantonese) — literally, “double happiness.” The contours of its figure are reminiscent of 88, a number that’s haunted me throughout my life. Reverence of “88” points directly back to one system of numerology, the overarching practice of according meaning and significance through the interpretation and manipulation of numbers.
More and more mystical-adjacent practices and interests like astrology, palm reading, tarot, witchcraft, and crystal appreciation have shed their associations with the grim or otherwise taboo occult and entered the sparkling world of femme-coded wellness and spirituality. Kim Kardashian West recommends her favorite crystals on her app; Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop marketplace sells $1,500 Pisces necklaces; Apartment Therapy offers house-themed horoscopes on a regular basis. It is easy to see why these practices have become so popular among new people: they offer both elegant forms of self-identification and endless opportunities for merchandising those revelations. This is not a value judgment; most modern belief systems necessarily court the one with the other.
Numerology is, perhaps, not as obvious of a “system.” There is no moodboard of eye-catching visuals associated with it, no system of categorization ready-made for meme formatting and parody Twitter accounts. It’s reminiscent more of a genre of vaguely and/or actually clinical quizzes and exams, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, than other rebranded spiritual practices. But vestiges of its divine symbology persist in other forms, oftentimes in ways that, at least on the surface, diverge sharply from other modern twists and embraces of new age-coded practices. And as more and more people seemingly seek out “alternative” guidance and meaning, numerology offers yet another belief system whose potential yields as much as you give into it.
Most sports players and fans keep a roster of iconic jersey numbers. Beyond the more rigorous numbers game of sports statistics, some sports fans have touted numerological practices as ways to explain or hope for favored outcomes. One “elite numerologist,” known as Gary The Numbers Guy, claims he “has been accurately predicting the outcomes of major sporting events using Numerology for over a decade.” Elsewhere, the number thirteen is equally feared and revered around the world; some hotels still “skip” a thirteenth floor, while Taylor Swift has famously embraced it. Gamblers have their own numbers mythologies, including the persistent cultural memory of “lucky sevens.” The “27 Club,” a liturgical recasting of high-profile pop culture icon deaths, is yet another numeral etched into the public imagination.
“Honestly, I have yet to see anything as accurate as numerology.” — Cindy Anneh-bu
Meanwhile, JAY Z and Beyoncé have an ongoing public fascination with the number “4”: The former’s thirteenth album is named 4:44; the latter’s fourth album is more simply, 4. Both of their birthdays land on the fourth of the month, while their wedding anniversary is April 4. Bey even famously rocked a Roman numeral 4 tattoo on her finger before getting it changed to represent the numeral 4. And of course, 4 is present in first child Blue Ivy’s name — IV. And Cardi B recently tweeted that, for her, that number of significance is 11. “I was born on the 11 my grandma died Nov 11 my grandad died January 11 and i been catching 11:11 all week Am and PM,” she wrote.
These examples are and aren’t representative of the different ways numerology can be used. Though the sixth century BC Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras is rightly known more for developing practical processes like the Pythagorean theorem, his contribution to what would become numerology was the overarching concept of associating numbers with ideas and outcomes. That association of numbers with letters remains to this day with his namesake Pythagorean numerology, which assigns and calculates meaning and futures projections based off of your full given name and birth date. (Chaldean numerology, another popular form, reportedly comes from the ancient Babylonians.) Both systems, despite their distant origins, were reportedly only recently popularized by a Dr. Julia Stenton, who was supposedly born in 1862 and paved the way for an early 20th century numerology rebirth. It’s one such modern writer, a Mrs. L. Dow Balliett, who is credited with coming up with the actual associations behind Western numerology (as well as adding Biblical significance) in a series of texts published in the 1910s.
In pop Pythagorean/Western numerology, your numerological report — which offers insights like your “life path number” and “karmic debt number” — is calculated from the letters of your full name and the numerals in your birthdate. Those figures are systematically added and arranged together until they become single digits. Along with your “expression/destiny number,” “day number,” “personality number,” and “soul number,” which are all calculated differently, numerology offers a way to interpret and assign meaning to every part of your life. You don’t need to know how to do anything other than add — and even then, you can leave the addition to a form on a website — in order to build your full numerological report, which can be as thoroughly arcane yet illuminating as any other mystical feedback loop.
It’s this easy point of entry that easily draws already spiritual people into numerology. Erica Trevino, a 21-year-old student, says she entered numerology through astrology, specifically by researching her “birth natal chart and significances of houses, dreams, and sacred geometry.”
But her interest in numerical meanings is lifelong: “I first was inspired to look at numbers on a clock because I would always see the same times. 2:21, 3:33, 10:21... I was also inspired by my favorite number nine, which also happens to be my birthday, my life path number, and the expression number for my first name.”
For Cindy Anneh-bu, a 25-year-old psychoanalyst and therapist, her interest in numerology also coincides with other spiritual practices like tarot and astrology, but it’s in numerology that she places the most emphasis. Though she came into the practice by coincidence — a comment by her mother’s co-worker about having a “powerful” name, in numerology terms — she soon found herself drawn to the lore around numbers: “The basics of astrology that I had witnessed at that point were very general, so I was surprised to see this 'new' thing, that was resonating with me as if the person writing it knew me personally.”
“After that, a hunger was born. I searched my life path number, and the life path numbers of everybody close to me. Almost everything started to fall into place at that point, and I believe that is when I began to gain access into the Akashic records/past life/karmic understanding. Honestly, I have yet to see anything as accurate as numerology.”
People memorize the sky around their birth and the movements of the stars... Why not consider numbers as similarly sacred points?
My own “personality number,” calculated by the consonants in my given name on CafeAstrology.com, is 7: “A 7 Personality Number is the mark of a person deeply absorbed in the pursuit of spiritual and cosmic knowledge. 7s are intelligent, perceptive and introspective. It comes as no surprise that the 7 Personality is an introvert. 7 Personalities can be difficult to get close to,” etc. This is about as precise a definition as my Myers-Briggs type (INFJ) or my main astrological signs (Leo sun, Cancer moon, Libra rising) offer, in that everything is just identifiable enough for me to point at any possible interpretation and find, “Oh, that’s me.”
This version of numerology is easy to access, but if it seems as though it’s exclusive of non-Latin languages or cultures, that’s because it is. For example, not all numbers are expressed as numerals, and the additional context and history of different cultural numbers can have a strong impact on how they’re received.
In the case of the character 囍 and its accompanying association with 88, the pronunciation of the character 八 (bā in Mandarin; baat in Cantonese) is a homonym with the pronunciation of the character 發 (fā in Mandarin; faat in Cantonese, as in the new year’s greeting “gung hay fat choy”). That this visual expression so happens to align with Latin numerals is itself a lucky accident, whose efforts and effects are visible in China itself and its diasporas. One instance of many: The Asian-American music multimedia company 88rising, which has quickly become a bridge between Asian and American hip-hop cultures and influencers (with all of the prickly questions about cultural appropriation and authenticity such an exchange entails.)
There are more instances of these homonym-based numerical cues. The character for four 四 (sì in Mandarin; sei in Cantonese) is one with the character for death, 死 (sǐ in Mandarin; séi in Cantonese). These linguistic tics, also mirrored in Japanese, feed into a numerology that’s based on synonymous association versus the figures themselves. These cultural/numeral translations matter: Bey and Jay’s fascination with “4” then reads as morbid.
But beyond “formal” numerology, these many disparate cultures have somehow long since converged around and agreed upon the significance of numbers outside of the count they provide. People memorize the sky around their birth and the movements of the stars, or the literally arcane suits of tarot, or the auras and intentions fixed to certain stones. Why not consider numbers as similarly sacred points? It’s the case, after all, in mathematics.
We’re kind of already there, anyway, both in assigning numbers to agreed-upon truths and then in more personalized and precise ways. It’s in the instant understanding of 24/7 or the four seasons and even for Baskin Robbins’ 31 flavors. Often, it’s also there in your hometown area code, the year you met your best friend, your grandmother’s birthday. Formal systems of numerology have strict guidelines, allowing you to assign order and interpret the text of your life. But more likely than not, you’ll already know what you’ll find: “Oh, that’s me.”