The law of three and the enneagram in ancient art
as originally published in the Zen, Yoga, Gurdjieff Blog, June 2013
By Lee van Laer
While the enneagram itself was hidden from mankind for thousands of years, we can glean some inferences as to just how long ago it was originally discovered and used in esotericism by taking a look at some of the imagery from the earliest cultures we know of.
Below is a picture of an Achaemenian seal, sixth century BC, showing "Gilgamesh" holding two winged lions or griffins and symmetrically flanking position. (The image is taken from Thomas McEvilley's The Shape of Ancient Thought., p. 248.)
Here's another version, this one from Mohenjo Daro, a city in the industry river valley civilizations which is probably approximately 5000 — and perhaps even more — years old.
A Sumerian seal impression yields similar imagery.
Another fascinating variation on this heraldic device, used in a somewhat different form to depict a highly elaborated chakra diagram, is found on the walls of the Northwest palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud (present day Iraq,) circa 859 B.C.
This type of imagery is still with us today.
The heraldic motif, which we recognize in innumerable variations up through present time, originated in ancient esoteric schools. The original meaning, which is easier to see in the early variations, specifically shows a human being — often interpreted as a hero, or a king — between two forces.
Understanding this interpretation is especially important, because it specifically relates to the inner work that Jeanne de Salzmann brought to her pupils during the 20th century as she deepened and broadened the understanding of the "forgotten" work Gurdjieff originally introduced to the West. The symbol shows a human being between two sets of forces, acting as the intermediary. Even more important, the interaction between the human being in the arms of the animals indicates an interplay of forces; this, also, as a particular aspect of inner work that de Salzmann mentions more than once in her notes. It's entirely appropriate to understand the figure standing between the griffins as a hero, but it's equally important to understand that he represents a Yogi: an individual who has dedicated their inner life to the mastery of the path of the Yogi.
When I first encountered this image, the lines of force and the way they were arranged struck me. A few minutes later, I was looking at the following image rendered in Photoshop.
The image not only shows the law of three in action; its geometrical construction clearly follows the law, and the arms and legs of the figures map out the relationship of forces depicted in the enneagram. It is, furthermore, a direct illustration of the principle of standing between the higher and the lower, as is necessary in inner work. As such, images of this kind serve as a form of objective art: they embody and esoteric language that can only be understood by initiates, but have a broad appeal to those with no such ideas. In this manner, images of this kind can be passed down for centuries without the essential information at the being destroyed.
It turns out that the bas-relief from the palace of Nimrud is equally interesting when the enneagram is laid over it.
In both cases, it appears that an underlying structure related to Gurdjieff's diagram exists. Even more interesting, in this diagram, the positions occupied by the conscious shocks are represented by small buckets, or vessels, that is to say, containers for receiving something.
Another example of the enneagram concealed within an artistic symbol comes to light during the Northern renaissance in the art of Hieronymus Bosch: The mysterious magus on the right side of the central panel neatly summarizes the positions of the notes, and shock, on the diagram. The indications are that the school Bosch studied in must have been familiar with the diagram, or a version of it.