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Ancient Creation Stories told by the Numbers
by H. Peter Aleff
Numerals and constants
tell the creations of numbers and world
More than five thousand years ago, the ingenious designer of the ancient Egyptian numeral system produced an animated storybook that showed its users the history and nature of numbers and mathematics, and also the creation of the physical world, from the beginnings of the gods and the emergence of the first land to the then all-important institution of kingship.
The sequence of signs in that story further explained to the scribes the ultimate purpose of both numbers and people, and it supplied a visual demonstration for the cosmic importance of the king’s service to the gods which was needed to maintain that creation.
Thousands of scrolls and books have been written on each of these topics without exhausting any, but that ancient artist, poet, philosopher, and sage shoehorned all this and much more into eight simple signs, or nine if you count the fusion of the first and the last into the symbol of life which powered the pharaonic system and its culture for more than three thousand years of continuous and energetic animation.
That designer compressed this content far more compactly than we could with our most modern memory storage methods, and s/he arranged the signs so ingeniously that we can now easily understand why the ancient Egyptians believed the hieroglyphs had been invented by the gods and were their sacred words.
No papyrus or pottery sherd of old preserves the narrative that explained the numeral sequence to the early apprentice scribes, and the evidence for the ancient existence of that story is entirely circumstantial. As in any decipherment, the only proof for the proposed reconstruction below is its internal coherence and its seamless fit with all the known facts.
Fortunately, there are plenty of these, more than enough to confirm that the fit is not simply due to otherwise unexplained similarities of pronunciation between the names of the numerals and those of the objects used to represent them.
In addition, there is a parallel in the ancient Egyptian system of Horus eye fractions where the signs for a series of successively halved volume measures form the popular symbol of the sun god's falcon eye when they are assembled.
The numerals for the powers of ten
The sequence of numeral signs for successive powers of ten shows that it was conceived in the same spirit of unity as that coherent series of Horus eye fractions. Its entries match a chain of events from Egyptian mythology and again fit together so well that coincidence seems excluded.
A more rational explanation involves a designer, or possibly a small group of like-minded thinkers working closely together, who chose the signs for their symbolic meanings on both levels of the twofold story to be told. And although this designer, or group, must have drawn on a body of then already common knowledge about numbers, they deserve our applause for condensing it so ingeniously. Let us also keep in mind that we can likely appreciate only the skeleton of that accomplishment that we can reconstruct, and that their original ideas may have conveyed much more of that then living body.
Generations of modern scholars have recovered many of the symbolic meanings associated with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Unavoidably, these meanings are often attested only from later periods when writing had become more common than at the time of its invention.
We must also keep in mind that during its long existence, some of the theological content as well as the emphasis of the Egyptian religion changed considerably through evolution, drift, foreign influences, and fashions.
The basic hieroglyphs, however, were islands of stability in this sea of changes. Their shapes had been distilled and frozen to the essential elements in the outlines of what they represented, and this had been done according to fixed rules so that the tradition-loving scribes who preserved them could easily recognize each sign1.
For the same reason, the symbolic associations of the objects depicted remained also mostly the same. The sacred origin of those “gods’ words” protected them against major changes since humans could obviously not improve upon the work of the gods. The continued role of the hieroglyphs in religion and magic assured further that they would be handed down intact since both relied on the exact repetition of what had been done before.
The basic artists’ conventions, which often imitated or incorporated hieroglyph shapes in picture compositions for their symbolical and magical value, remained so stable during historical times that Sir J. Gardner Wilkinson, a giant of early Egyptology, could write:
“A god in the latest temple was of the same form as when represented on monuments of the earliest date; and king Menes [the reputed founder of the pharaonic state from about 3000 BCE] would have recognized Amen, or Osiris, in a Ptolemaic or a Roman sanctuary.”2
Granted, the repertoire and elaboration of hieroglyph writing expanded during Greco-Roman times to about six thousand often complicated signs, far beyond the inventory of six to seven hundred simple pictures used from Menes’ times until then3.
However, Wilkinson’s time-traveling king from three millennia earlier (who is also known as Narmer) would have recognized most of the basic signs, and he would have been able to read the numbers in the inscriptions on the walls of those late temples.
The pictures used to represent the numerals had not changed since their earliest surviving use on his own so-called “wedding-mace” where his sculptor had listed 400,000 oxen, 1,422,000 goats, and 120,000 prisoners4, and the meanings of those pictures were also still essentially the same.
When we plug these meanings into the sequence of numeral signs, they easily fall into place as the links in a logical chain. They provide an orderly amalgam of the major elements from several widely attested Egyptian creation myths which we know otherwise only as separate and sometimes seemingly contradictory fragments.
But see for yourself how well the symbols and their reported meanings match the ancient myths and the concepts behind them:
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