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Ancient Creation Stories told by the Numbers

by H. Peter Aleff




Footnotes :


20 Erik Hornung: “Idea into Image  -- Essays on Ancient Egyptian Thought", (Geist der Pharaonenzeit, 1989), translation from Timken Publishers, New York, 1992, pages 63 and 64.

21 Erik Hornung: “Idea into Image”, cited above, pages 51 and 52.

22  Par. 1146, as quoted by R.T. Rundle Clark: “Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt”, Thames and Hudson, London, 1959, edition consulted 1991,  page 50.

23 CT IV, Spell 321, per R.T. Rundle Clark: “Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt”, Thames and Hudson, London, 1959, edition consulted 1991,  page 51.

24 CT 714, per R.T. Rundle Clark: “Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt”, cited above, page 74.

25 Siegfried Morenz: “Egyptian Religion”, 1960, translation consulted Methuen & Co., London, 1973,  page 178.

26 Marshall Clagett: “Ancient Egyptian Science, a Source Book", Volume 1: "Knowledge and Order", 1989,  American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1995,  pages 301 and 302.

27 Erik Hornung: “Idea into Image”, cited above, page 44.

28 Siegfried Morenz: “Egyptian Religion”, cited above, page 178, quoting the inscription from the tomb of the priest of Thoth Petosiris (about 330 BCE): “It is here that the two halves of the egg lie, together with all the [beings] which emerged from it.”

29 Maria Carmela Betrò: "Hieroglyphics: The Writings of Ancient Egypt",  Abbeville Press Publishers, New York, 1996, page 161 bottom.

30 S. Clarke & R. Engelbach: "Ancient Egyptian Construction and Architecture", Oxford, 1930, edition consulted Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, 1990, pages 64 and 65, also Figure 63.

31 as quoted by B.L. van der Waerden in: "Science Awakening I -- Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek Mathematics", 1954, edition consulted The Scholar’s Bookshelf, Princeton, NJ, 1975, page 15.

32 Marshall Clagett: “Ancient Egyptian Science”, Volume 1, cited above, pages 50, 73, 76-77, and 82.

33 Siegfried Morenz: “Egyptian Religion”, cited above, page 268.

34 Siegfried Morenz: “Egyptian Religion”, cited above, page 24.

35 For instance, the “Memphite Theology” discussed below in the Section on the “10,000” sign.

36 Marshall Clagett: “Ancient Egyptian Science”, Volume 1, cited above, pages 303 and 304.

37 Hymn to Amen from Hibis, as cited by Morenz in “Egyptian Religion”, cited above, page 173; 

see also Erik Hornung: “The One and the Many”, cited above, page 164, and the Harris Magical Papyrus as quoted by Clagett in “Ancient Egyptian Science”, Volume 1,cited above,  page 322.







Numerals and constants  


 tell the creations of numbers and world


The Shen- Ring: Eternity and All
Page 2 of 2

V 9  = “Shen-ring”

V 10  = “Cartouche”

The rope from which the Shen- Ring was made contributes further to this additional interpretation as a symbol for the flow of time

Hornung explains in an essay on “Time and Eternity” that in the “Book of Gates”, one of the New Kingdom funerary texts used from the tomb of Horemheb (1319 to 1307 BCE) on, twelve gods are “carrying the lifetime in the west”, that is, in the realm of the dead. 

This lifetime is shown in the form of a gigantic snake inscribed with the hieroglyphs for “lifetime”, and the inscription for that picture of the time snake calls it “metui”, or “double cord”. Hornung also describes a scene from the same “Book of Gates” in the tomb of Ramesses VI (1151 to 1143 BCE) in the Valley of the Kings

“... in which time appears as a doubly twisted rope spun from the mouth of a deity. Stars above the twists in the rope mark the individual hours as measurable units of time. In this image both the beginning and the passage of time are expressed.”20

In other tomb paintings, the time- snake swallows the stars to then bring them forth again, or it appears as the cosmic ourobouros serpent that forms a circle to either swallow or disgorge its own tail. 

In a particularly telling example discussed by Hornung, the tail- in- mouth time- snake symbol surrounds a rabbit which was the hieroglyph for “being”21

Here it was placed on a standard pole like the emblems of the gods. The rabbit stood thus for the same “being” or “existence” that the Shen- Ring and the cartouche protected within their coils.

Because of the similarity between the rope ring and the time snake, the Shen- Ring can also be seen as a snapshot of Atum as the primeval serpent.  Already in the Pyramid Texts, the creator god described himself as a coiled serpent who controls time:

“I am the outflow of the Primeval Flood, he who emerged from the waters.
I am the ‘Provider of Attributes’ serpent with its many coils,
I am the scribe of the Divine Book which says what has been and effects what is yet to be.”22

In a hymn from the slightly later Coffin Texts, Atum appears again as a coiled serpent who “extended everywhere”, like the Shen- Ring, and began his work of creation by the word in its midst:

“I extended everywhere, in accordance with what was to come into existence, (...)
I bent right around myself, I was encircled in my coils, one who made a place for himself in the midst of his coils.  His utterance was what came forth from his own mouth.”23

Another spell from the same Corpus has the creator god saying: 

“I was he who came into existence as a circle, he who was the dweller in his egg.”24 

This refers not only to the circle of the Shen- Ring but also to another popular variant of the Egyptian creation story which this many- leveled sign illustrates also, and in which the world- making sun- falcon hatched out of a cosmic egg

Some of the priests had solved the chicken- or- egg priority dilemma by simple asssertion and said this egg was laid by the “Great Cackler”, a primeval bird that was said to have appeared as either an ibis25 or as a giant gander called “the Great Cackler” or “Great Honker”26

We might expect a goose to have laid the egg instead of a gander, but the priests who promoted this myth were not concerned about such details.  As we saw, Atum himself was “the Undifferentiated”; his priests called him the “father and mother” of the first gods and thus of the world.  Their colleagues in Saïs said about their equally self- created and about equally old goddess of weaving and darkness Neith that she was the “father of the fathers” as well as “mother of the mothers” who had called the world into being with seven statements27.

(These seven statements may well be the seven numeral signs below the infinity of the Shen- Ring.)

Whether it came from a goose or a gander, no one could have seen the laying of the egg anyway because there was no light to see by before the sun came out of that egg. 

If any of the pious pilgrims doubted the story, the sun priests in Heliopolis could show them the empty gander eggshells as unassailable proof, and the attendants of Thoth in Hermopolis, about 150 miles farther south, had the just as undeniable halves of the initial ibis egg28

Although this tangible evidence may have been lost in the meantime, the view of creation as a cosmic egg from which everything unfolds expressed a deeply rooted biological and poetic truth which continues to resonate in modern images such as that of the Big Bang

Here again, the Shen- Ring sign can easily symbolize this original egg which resembled its shape, particularly when seen from either end.  The straight line below the round egg is then the place it rested on.

What hatched from the egg was the sun, although in other versions the sun god had created himself.  In either case, the sun that rose at creation was the young Atum before he grew old and became Re- Atum the dying evening sun. 

The circle of the Shen- Ring portrayed him well because the hieroglyph for the sun itself was a circle.  The usual sun circle had either a dot or a smaller circle at its center, but the scribes typically omitted these when they drew other lines with the sun sign, as in these examples :

= sign N 5 = sun, also determinative for “day” and other terms related to time

= sign N 6 = sun as sky ruler crowned with the uraeus cobra

= sign N 8 = sunshine

= sign N 27 = sun rising between two mountains = horizon

The last one of these pictures, of the sun rising between two mountains, replaced an earlier hieroglyph for the same word which showed the sun over a flat sandbank instead29

Here again, the horizontal line below the Shen- Ring sun- circle is the perfect image of the level land that emerged from the waters of Nun’s inundation and above which the sun rose on the first day, before there were any mountains. That level line also fits the tradition that the first thing Atum did after forming himself was to make a place on which he could stand.

As to the mathematical side of the creation story, the rope from which the Shen- Ring was fashioned makes it the perfect symbol of geometry. The circle and the straight line which forms here its tangent are the most basic elements of geometry from which all its other forms can be constructed. 

Moreover, ropes were not merely a means for hauling loads or tying things together.  Ropes were the eponymous tool and proudly displayed emblem of the so-called “rope stretchers”, the land measurers who annually re- surveyed the mud- obliterated field boundaries after the inundation.  Their measuring led to the name “geo- metry” for their craft in Greek because "geo" meant and still means "earth", and geometry is still indispensable for surveying.  

Those rope- stretching geometers must have developed their surveying skills from the beginnings of agriculture on to settle land disputes between neighbors.  Their impartial methods always yielded the same results, regardless who applied them, and so prevented probably many arguments.  

Under the pharaohs, the rope- stretchers also had to determine the arable areas that could be taxed, so the income and power of the king depended on and was protected by their rope, just as his name was protected inside the rope- made Shen- Ring cartouche.

The high esteem these professionals had for their rope is illustrated, for instance, in a basalt statuette from New Kingdom times that shows the scribe Penanhuret holding in his lap a coiled royal surveying cord.  This coil, its visible part round like the Shen- Ring but with more loops, is tied with a fastener sculpted as the head of the then highest god Amen, presumably to indicate that it was an officially certified standard measuring cord30

In tomb paintings of rope- stretchers at work with the rope uncoiled, one of them usually wears that coil fastener on his upper arm as badge of his royal office, and possibly also as the symbol of the absolute authority and divine origin of his craft.

Ropes were still synonymous with geometry when the Classical Greek philosopher Democritus (460 to 357 BCE) boasted about his accomplishments in that science and compared himself with the Egyptian experts as the gold standard of their field:

“No one surpasses me in the construction of lines with proofs, not even the so-called ‘rope-stretchers’ among the Egyptians.”31

Ropes and the geometry they symbolized were needed to represent the world not only in the Shen- Ring but also in the layout of temples which the Egyptians, like the followers of most other ancient religions, identified with the cosmos. 

Already in the earliest surviving annals, on the so- called Palermo Stone, the year- defining event is several times, from the First Dynasty on, the ceremony of “stretching the cord”On this occasion, the king and the priest of Seshat mark the plan of a new temple on the ground as the first step for its construction32

Seshat was the goddess of writing and temple geometry, the sister or daughter33 and female counterpart of Thoth, the moon god of mathematics and science and inventor of the hieroglyphs.  Her foundation ritual of “stretching the cord” is sculpted on many temple walls and was essential for assuring that the geometry of the layout correctly reflected the design of heaven and earth. 

Since the building of a temple was equivalent to the creation of the cosmos it represented, the cord- stretching must equally have preceded the original making of the universe which, as the Shen- Ring suggests, had also been formed by means of rope.

The importance of this cord- stretching for the geometrical layout of the universe was not confined to Egypt.  It also reverberates in the Bible when God asks Job:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? (...) Who stretched his measuring- line over it?” (Job 38:4-5)

Similarly, the biblical creation begins with the drawing of a circle, like that of the Shen- Ring, as witnessed by Woman Wisdom who says:

“I was there when he set the heavens in their place, when he drew the circle of the horizon upon the waters.“ (Proverbs 8:27)

The Shen- Ring made from Seshat’s rope might get her approval even today as a concise image of the modern cosmos:  this versatile hieroglyph also depicts, of course, the current “string theory” about the mathematical composition and workings of our universe. 

The ancient rope was a bit thicker and possibly more robust than those ultrathin modern strings, and it needed only two dimensions to properly and elegantly represent the world in a unified way.  Meanwhile, five millennia of chronic inflation caused the current string theorists to require ten dimensions or more. 

A second neat fit is that the ultimate fate of our universe is determined by a quantity which cosmologists call Omega; this is the ratio of the observed density to the critical density that would make our world collapse back into itself. 

The Shen-Ring resembles the symbol for this cosmos- defining Omega ratio, except that its bottom is closed whereas the letter Omega is open there.  This matches that the Egyptians  had their cosmological answers as tightly wrapped up as their closed rope ring, with no uncertainties.  Modern researchers know that the value of Omega is still elusive, and so it is proper that the modern symbol for the fate and shape of our world is open

Thirdly, back then, Seshat’s rope was the tool of choice for measuring and recreating the layout and structure of the cosmos embedded in each temple.  Today, the shape of the rope in the Shen- Ring evokes the layout of cyclotrons, those giant particle collider rings which are the latest tools for reproducing the state of the universe near its creation and for so measuring the structure of the cosmos

The Shen- Ring symbol for the universe is thus more enduring than the pyramids because it still can do the job for which it was designed.


In addition to the cosmos and its geometry and all the rest, the Shen- Ring can also be read as a symbol of number and the reckoning to which numbers lead. 

The fact that its rope is double and forms a double shape introduces two-ness and therefore number and counting;  the two separate shapes joined together illustrate the operation of adding which also implies subtracting, and the divisibility of the two ropes brings with it multiplication. This makes the Shen- Ring encompass not only geometry but also arithmetic as the other main branch of mathematics.

The symbolic connection between the Shen- Ring and mathematics is reinforced by the above excerpt from the Pyramid Texts in which the coiled primeval serpent identified himself as “the scribe of the Divine Book which says what has been and effects what is yet to be”. 

This title and role belonged to Thoth, the equally self- created moon god of number and mathematics and scribe for the gods.  Thoth was the “Lord of Time” and had the attribute “He who calculates the lifetimes of the gods and men.”34 

In other words, that serpent- circle creator god was a form of Thoth, or else Thoth was present in her/him as some later accounts have it35

Similarly, when the priests of Hermopolis said that the world had hatched from the egg of an ibis, they implied that their patron Thoth had laid the egg because his two animal forms were those of a baboon and of a sacred ibis.  In his human form, he always wore the head of an ibis

Thoth possessed the power of the creative words by which the world had been made; occasionally, he was even credited with being the creator of all36 which links him again with Atum.

The logic in this primeval presence of Thoth is that number and its rules must have been involved in the creation of the world from the very beginning, as properly embodied in the Shen- Ring. 

How else could Atum have begun to multiply himself unless he was also Thoth who had invented numbers and their multiplication?  The ancient Egyptian cosmos- explainers simply expressed in their symbolic language the same principle on which their modern scientific counterparts base all their calculations, namely that numbers and their rules as well as a set of mathematical and physical constants with their laws were in place at least 10–43 seconds after the Big Bang, if not earlier.

The Shen- Ring can therefore symbolize each component in a coherent cluster of tightly inter- related ideas: 

  • “all that the sun circles”, 

  • the physical world and its protection from non- existence, 

  • the sphere of order in which we live, 

  • the eternity for which it lasts, 

  • the beginning of the creator god and his creation, 

  • the dual flow of time which that beginning started, 

  • the primeval serpent form of the creator god, 

  • the world egg from which everything unfolded, 

  • the glorious sunrise on the first morning over the freshly emerged land, 

  • the underlying cosmic structure and its geometry, plus 

  • the beginnings of numbers, 

  • counting, and 

  • mathematics.  

  • And probably more.

The fit of the Shen- Ring sign with all these concepts is so good that some of the cosmological images, such as the circle- serpent, may well have been inspired by the hieroglyphic symbol instead of vice versa.

Although the scope of this simple Shen- Ring symbol may seem quite broad, you will see that it reflects only a small part of the primordial god’s versatility and range. 


The next step in the sequence of signs depicts the continuation of the myth, as summarized in several New Kingdom hymns to the creator god Amen of that time where he says “I made myself into millions”37

This statement was not only a poetic allusion to the variety of his creation and the multitude of beings in it that all derived from Atum's substance and spirit.  It was also literally true because his next act produced the gods whose image was the hieroglyph for “a million”, the highest of the seven numerals in the sequence :




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