Magical Language and the Glass Bead Game

The Glass Bead Game (Das Glasperlenspiel) was the final work of Hermann Hesse. The title relates to the central theme of the book, which is a fictional game played by the characters of the story, although the finer details of how the game works were not given by Hesse. For an introduction to existing playable variants of Glass Bead Game, see the Glass Bead Game wiki. While I was reading through some quotes from the book, I noted that Hesse described the game as “a kind of universal language”:

Under the shifting hegemony of now this, now that science or art, the Game of games had developed into a kind of universal language through which the players could express values and set these in relation to one another. Throughout its history the Game was closely allied with music, and usually proceeded according to musical and mathematical rules.

As with any language, there are rules. The suggestion by Hesse is that the Glass Bead Game usually made use of musical and mathematical rules. This fits in well with various concepts of the occult, such as the music of the spheres and the various “mathematical” areas of sacred geometry and gematria. While the suggestion of mathematical rules may initially make the game sound overly intellectual, a deeper magical essence is also suggested by Hesse:

After each symbol conjured up by the director of a Game, each player was required to perform silent, formal meditation on the content, origin, and meaning of this symbol, to call to mind intensively and organically its full purport. The members of the Order and of the Game associations brought the technique and practice of contemplation with them from their elite schools, where the art of contemplation and meditation was nurtured with the greatest care.

This suggests a much more esoteric game, and suggests a language that is based on the use of symbols. Hesse elaborates on this, adding an even deeper level to the game, in which the “framework of a language” provided “a path from Becoming to Being”:

Pious thinkers of earlier times had represented the life of creatures, say, as a mode of motion toward God, and had considered that the variety of the phenomenal world reached perfection and ultimate cognition only in the divine Unity. Similarly, the symbols and formulas of the Glass Bead Game combined structurally, musically, and philosophically within the framework of a universal language, were nourished by all the sciences and arts, and strove in play to achieve perfection, pure being, the fullness of reality. Thus, ‘realizing’ was a favorite expression among the players. They considered their Games a path from Becoming to Being, from potentiality to reality…

Further links between the Glass Bead Game and a magical language are given by Hesse in various parts of the book:

Some dreamed of a new alphabet, a new language of symbols through which they could formulate and exchange their new intellectual experiences.

Joculator Basiliensis applied himself to the problem. He invented for the Glass Bead Game the principles of a new language, a language of symbols and formulas, in which mathematics and music played an equal part, so that it became possible to combine astronomical and musical formulas, to reduce mathematics and music to a common denominator, as it were.


These rules, the sign language and grammar of the Game, constitute a kind of highly developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and arts, but especially mathematics and music (and/or musicology), and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines.

Hesse compared the number of symbols in the Archive of the Game with the number of Chinese characters, demonstrating that the language kept growing (and likely evolving) over time:

Each country’s Commission possesses its Archive of the Game, that is the register of all hitherto examined and accepted symbols and decipherments, whose number long ago by far exceeded the number of the ancient Chinese ideographs.

I have had various thoughts regarding the Glass Bead Game, and magical language. These include the various connections with Qabalistic ideas of the connectedness between things, especially in the area of gematria. It would seem to fit with the Hesse’s loosely defined rules of the game that a using gematria to find connections would be one aspect of investigation. It seems natural (to me at least) for humans to look for connectedness between things, whether concepts or events. The Internet certainly exhibits some of the aspects of a Glass Bead Game. Users can easily link between many related or seemingly unrelated concepts via hyperlinks. Of course, the deeply meditative aspects are not there, and standard text or graphics are generally the ‘anchors’ between which concepts are related, rather than carefully constructed symbols. In the article, Triumph of the Cyborg Composer, a comment is made that a common grammar and language underlie almost all music, from Asian to Western classical styles.” This fits in with the idea of the Glass Bead Game having rules deriving from music and mathematics. I came across a suggestion that the concept of the Glass Bead Game may come from the Buddhist metaphor of Indra’s net (also known as Indra’s jewels or Indra’s pearls). Alan Watts eloquently describes the metaphor:

Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.

Indra's Net Further information on an attempt to create esoteric Glass Bead Game, in the spirit of Hesse’s writing can be found at: The important points in relation to a magical language are the meditation and contemplation on an initial symbol, followed by the discovery of interconnectedness and interrelatedness, and completed by the creation (synthesis) of a new symbol to represent this. This process communicates information (which is the purpose of a language) in a symbolic manner. It may not be important to create such an elaborate, all-encompassing version of the game described by Hesse. It may be very useful to create a basic, focused “game” that explores relatedness are a specific set of principles, such as axioms and principles associated with the occult and magic. The meditation on symbols, and the creation of new symbols could be an interesting magical process in itself.

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