What Does the Enneagram Symbol Mean and Where Did It Come From?

By Christopher L. Heuertz

The word Enneagram is translated from two Greek words, ennea meaning “nine” and gramma meaning a sign “drawn” or “written” (from which the word diagram also is derived).

At its surface, the Enneagram is drawn as a figure with nine equidistant points resting on the circumference of a circle; each of the points is connected within the circle by nine lines. Centered at the top of the circle, the top of these nine points is the tip of an equilateral triangle; the remaining six points of the diagram form an irregular hexagram symbol.

The figure itself contains significant symbolism.

First, the circle denotes eternity, unity, wholeness, and the inclusivity of all things—the Law of One. Without a beginning or end, the circle illustrates the everlasting essence of love—think of a wedding ring, for example. And while the Enneagram is used and studied across religions, Christians may find in its imagery an expression of the unending love of God. This notion of oneness contains all that is and was and will be.

Second, the equilateral triangle within the Enneagram’s circle illustrates what is known as the Law of Three—the three forces that guide everything in motion: active, passive, and neutral. The tombs in which ancient Egyptians laid to rest the remains of their royalty (thought to be deities) were built as pyramids, usually in the shape of four triangles resting against each other to form a single point at the top. The ancient Greek letter Δ (delta) was drawn in the shape of a triangle and often used as a symbol for doorways or openings. Early Christians used the triangle as a symbol of the Trinity to help explain the three consubstantial persons of the divine nature of God. And in geometry a line extends infinitely in both directions, but a line segment has two points marking its beginning and its end; by adding a third point, a triangle is formed, symbolically elevating the polarities and adding depth to what was once one-dimensional. The three points of this equilateral triangle within the Enneagram’s circle are marked with the numbers denoting types Nine, Three, and Six.

Third, the irregular, crisscrossed six-pointed hexagram within the Enneagram’s circle is what is used to teach the Law of Seven. The Law of Seven is thought to explain the spectrums of things like light (refracted through the seven colors of a rainbow), sound (heard through the seven fundamental tones of an octave), sequence (the seven days of a week forming the basic interval to measure time), and energy (the seven chakras of the body’s energy centers that yoga students learn).

In Judaism and later Christianity, the origins of the entire cosmos are told through a creation narrative lasting six days with a seventh day punctuating its completion. Throughout Christian scripture the number seven is used to symbolize perfection. Even the Roman Catholic Church utilizes seven graces or sacraments as the means of eternal salvation.

Much like the six days of creation, the Law of Seven overlaid on the Enneagram symbol consists of six points marked with the numbers One, Four, Two, Eight, Five, and Seven.

But the Enneagram is much more than a mere symbol.

The Ancient Origins of the Enneagram

Versions of the Enneagram have been around for thousands of years, hidden away in wisdom schools and passed along orally within the mystic traditions of the world’s religions. Its origin is highly disputed and hotly contested, the stuff of myths and legends.

In The Sufi Enneagram by Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar (one of the world’s leading Sufi Enneagram experts), it’s suggested the Enneagram may be as “old as Babylon,” while others claim there is evidence the Enneagram first showed up over six thousand years ago in ancient Egypt.

I have been told of the Enneagram in prehistoric Korea as well as a version in folk Buddhism. Once after I led an Enneagram retreat in Cambodia, one of the participants commented, “We have this in Buddhism; I grew up learning about something like this through my family’s tradition.”

Perhaps the oldest recorded hint of the Enneagram may be in what Beatrice Chestnut speculates to be evidence hidden away in Homer’s classic work, The Odyssey.

One of the first written texts in [Western literature, The Odyssey tells the story of the metaphoric journey “home” to the “[T]rue [S]elf.” In the story, the hero, Odysseus (the guy who thought up the “Trojan Horse”), returning home from the Trojan War, travels to nine “lands” populated with mythic creatures whose characters match the nine Enneagram types exactly—in the same order as the modern teaching!

A Greek contemporary of the Buddha, philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras (who coincidentally studied in Egypt) fused mysticism and mathematics and developed the Law of Three. He is said to have used a drawing resembling the Enneagram symbol as his spiritual signature after learning of it in Heliopolis, which was the center of worship of the Ennead or the nine deities of ancient Egyptian mythology.

Others point to the Jewish philosopher Philo (who also happened to live in Egypt), hinting that perhaps his esoteric Judaism and the Tree of Life, which is considered the key symbol of the tradition of the Kabbalah, root the earliest forms of the Enneagram in Jewish mysticism.

Much has been written to suggest that the early Egyptian Christian monastic ascetics, the desert mothers and fathers, were the chief architects of the Enneagram, led by the fourth-century mystic Evagrius Ponticus. Ponticus’s writings are often cited to support theories on the Christian origins of the Enneagram, specifically as it relates to his work on his list of eight vices and virtues (in one place he names nine), which closely resemble the nine Virtues and Passions of the Enneagram as we have it today.

Very commonly, many of today’s experts credit Sufi communities spread throughout Central Asia, from Iraq to Afghanistan, for developing the Enneagram between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Regardless of whether the Enneagram has its roots in Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, we do know that it wasn’t until the early 1900s that an Eastern Orthodox man, G. I. Gurdjieff, introduced the modern form of the Enneagram to the Western world.

The first Enneagram book published in the West came out in 1984, and since then the Enneagram has continued to grow in popularity, gaining momentum through accessibility. Some of the early innovators of the Enneagram whose books appealed broadly include Don Riso (coauthor with Russ Hudson of The Wisdom of the Enneagram), who as a seminarian in Toronto learned it through his Jesuit connections to Ochs; and Helen Palmer, who studied with Naranjo in the early 1970s.

From its ancient roots to its modern application, the practical utility of the Enneagram has been appropriated by the CIA to profile world leaders, written about in The Paris Review, Newsweek, Forbes, and CNN.com, and taught in graduate courses at several academic institutions, including Stanford University. The Enneagram is even used to explain leadership styles and decision making styles in the workplace.

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Adapted from The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth by Christopher L. Heuertz.

Learn more about the Enneagram by reading What Is the Enneagram?