Oddcast episode

Juan Acevedo on Alphanumeric Cosmology

[Not our best sound-quality ever, but one of our best interviews ever. Essential listening for lovers of western esotericism!]

This interview attempts to answer the double question: What is alphanumeric cosmology, and why should students of western esotericism care? With Juan Acevedo as our guide, we answer both parts of the question in a preliminary way which paves the way for and provides richer access to a number of major themes explored in the podcast.

Specific topics discussed include:

  • Some discussion of the Greek term stoicheion, which can mean both ‘element’ and ‘letter of the alphabet’ (as can the Latin elementum),
  • The basic difference of approach between realist and nominalist perspectives on language: nominalists think words are merely arbitrary signs, while realists – the esoteric team, in our context – think they bear some occult connection with the realities they describe,
  • Some discussion of Pythagoras and the role he plays as the ‘patron saint’ of alphanumeric cosmology vs. the hazy data we actually have on Pythagoras and early Pythagoreanism, and of the Pseudopythagorean and Neopythagorean arithmological and metaphysical literature,
  • The arithmetical content of the Greek word logos, which can mean a sum, a reckoning, a ratio, and a number of other mathematical meanings as well as its more familiar connotations of rational thought (but note the ‘ratio’ in ‘rational’) and spoken discourse or argument,
  • The ‘alphanumeric age’, defined as the period from c. the 6th century BCE until the adoption of the Indo-Arabic numerals (the familiar 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, &c.), which took place in pockets across the Islamicate world and then in Western Europe from the ninth century CE onwards (keeping in mind that the more traditional alphanumeric systems survive to this day in many esoteric contexts, especially Hebrew and Arabic contexts), giving the late thirteenth-century date for the widespread end of the alphanumeric age in the Mediterranean sphere,
  • Milestones on the developmental path of alphanumeric cosmology, including the Hebrew and Qur’ānic creation-accounts, some Hermetica, the fourth-century (?) Christian text On the Mysteries of the Letters, and the Sefer Yetsirah,
  • Mythic ideas about the origins of writing, which are often ambivalent about this particular gift of the gods,
  • Some reflections on prayer, ‘magic’, and words as technology for changing the world, and
  • Discussion of the alphanumeric aspects ‘hiding’ within the early-modern ‘new science’.

Interview Bio:

Juan Acevedo is a researcher in ancient languages, the history of science, comparative religions, and ideas generally. He is currently working on a history of Indian-Ocean navigation at the University of Lisbon. His recent book Alphanumeric Cosmology from Greek into Arabic is the best introduction to this vast and fascinating subject.

Works Cited in this Episode:


  • Aristotle: the Pythagoreans (and also Plato) think that the principles (ἀρχαί) of all things are number: Metaph. 987b24.Outline of his quasi-nominalist position regarding language: De interp. 16a6-8.
  • Fibonacci’s practical guide: Liber abaci (Florence: 1202).
  • Plato: the Timæus pun on ‘stoicheion’: 48b8. The Phædrus on Thoth’s gift of writing as a double-edged sword: 274c-275b.
  • On Proclus’ hymns, see Ernst Vogt. Procli Hymni. Number 18 in Klassisch-Philologische Studien. Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 1957. Proclus on names as ‘verbal statues (ἀγάλματα)’: In Crat. 51.33-40.
  • [Pseudo-]Timæus of Locri: see W. Marg, editor. Timaeus Locrus: De natura mundi et animae: Überlieferung, Testimonia, Text und Übersetzung von W. Marg. Editio maior. Leiden, 1972.
  • Sanchuniathon is a legendary Phoenician author known through Eusebius of Caesarea (4th c. CE). In his Praeparatio evangelica (ed. F. A. Heinichen, Sergiana Libraria, 1842, 45), Eusebius reports, on the authority of a certain Philo of Biblos (1st-2nd c. CE), how the mythical hero Taautos, something of a Thoth-figure, created the letters of the alphabet after celestial patterns and completed them after the model of poisonous snakes.
  • The story of the two rabbis: In the Babylonian Talmud, bSanhedrin 67b, speaking of forbidden magic and sorcery practices: ‘What is permitted ab initio is to act like Rav Ḥanina and Rav Oshaya: Every Shabbat eve they would engage in the study of the halakhot of creation, and a thirdborn calf would be created for them, and they would eat it in honour of Shabbat.’


For Acevedo, Burkert, Burnett, and Melvin-Koushki, see below.

  • Harold D. Roth. The Classical Daoist Concept of Li 理 (Pattern) and Early Chinese Cosmology. Early China, 35/36:157–83, 2012-13.
  • Max Tegmark. The Mathematical Universe. Foundations of Physics, 38, 2008.

Recommended Reading:

  • Juan Acevedo. Alphanumeric Cosmology from Greek into Arabic. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2020.
  • C. Bandt, editor. Traktat ‘Vom Mysterium der Buchstaben’: kritischer Text mit Einführung, Übersetzung und Anmerkungen. Number 162 in Texte und Untersuchungen. De Gruyter, Berlin, 2007.
  • Walter Burkert. Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1972. Translated by Edward L. Minar.
  • Charles Burnett. The Semantics of Indian Numerals in Arabic, Greek and Latin. Journal of Indian Philosophy, 34(1):15–30, April 2006.
  • Idem. Numerals and Arithmetic in the Middle Ages. Number 967 in Variorum Collected Studies. Ashgate, Farnham, 2010.
  • Hermann Diels. Elementum: eine Vorarbeit zum griechischen und lateinischen Thesaurus. Teubner, Leipzig, 1899.
  • Franz Dornseiff. Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie. Number 7 in Studien zur Geschichte des antiken Weltbildes und der griechischen Wissenschaft. Teubner, Leipzig, 1922.
  • Umberto Eco. The Search for the Perfect Language. Blackwell, Oxford, 1995.
  • C.A. Huffman. Philolaus of Croton: Pythagorean and Presocratic. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993.
  • Joel Kalvesmaki. The Theology of Arithmetic: Number Symbolism in Platonism and Early Christianity. Number 59 in Hellenic Studies Series. Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC, 2013.
  • Matthew Melvin-Koushki. Powers of the One: The Mathematicalization of the Occult Sciences in the High Persianate Tradition. Intellectual History of the Islamicate World, (5):127–199, 2017.
  • Gershom Scholem. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. Shocken Books, New York, NY, 1941.
  • G. G. Stroumsa. The Mystery of the Greek Letters: a Byzantine Kabbalah? Historia religionum, 6(6):35–44, 2014.


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