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Ancient Creation Stories told by the Numbers

by H. Peter Aleff

 

 

  

Footnotes :

 

[1] Rolf Gundlach: “Der Pharaoh und sein Staat: Die Grundlegung der ägyptischen Königsideologie im 4. und 3. Jahrtausend” Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1998, pages 68 to 73.

 

[2]  Some of these horseshoe- shaped markers for the Heb-Sed race can still be seen in the Heb-Sed court of king Djoser’s step pyramid complex at Saqqara, as illustrated, for instance, in Byron E. Shafer, editor: “Temples of Ancient Egypt”, Cornell University Press, Ithaca , New York , 1997, see Figure 8 on page 43.

 

 

[3] For the symbolic value of tadpoles and frogs, see Richard H. Wilkinson: “Reading Egyptian Art: A Hieroglyphic Guide to Ancient Egyptian Painting and Sculpture”, Thames and Hudson, London, 1992, pages 106 and 107. 


The meanings of three and nine are from the same author’s “Symbol & Magic in Egyptian Art”, Thames and Hudson, London, 1994, pages 131 to 133 and 146.

 

[4]  Richard H. Wilkinson: “Symbol & Magic in Egyptian Art”, Thames and Hudson , New York , 1994. page 194.

 

  

 

 

 

  

 

  

Numerals and constants  

 

 tell the creations of numbers and world

 
 


Mathemagic on Narmer's Heb-Sed mace
 

The eloquent numeral system of ancient Egypt, as described in the preceding pages, was fully in place at the beginning of pharaonic times.  As we might expect from a system so based on and permeated with religious symbolism, its signs and numbers served for much more than mere counting.  Indeed, you encounter their religious use already on the earliest known numerical document known from the Nile valley which is also the earliest of any sophistication from anywhere on this planet, and just as uniquely the earliest one to use large numbers in a ceremonial context. 

This document is the so-called “wedding mace” of the nation- founding king Narmer, a pear- shaped granite mace head carved about 3100 BCE with relief scenes of a ceremony and an inscription that includes all the higher numerals of the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, from a thousand to a million.

Despite its modern nickname, and despite a modern tendency to imagine people from the beginnings of civilizations as savages with barbarian customs, this mace was not meant to subdue the bride.  It was found, together with commemorative palettes and several other carved mace heads from earlier kings, in a pit near the temple of Horus at the early capital Nekhen, or Hierakonpolis.   It seems that all these objects had originally been deposited at that temple as votive offerings, presumably to inform the gods about their owner’s actions and to enlist their further help, as part of the regularly renewed pact between the king and the gods. 

The king shown on Narmer's mace sits on one of the two Heb-Sed festival thrones that are usually shown back to back but occasionally also alone, as here.  However, the nature of the festival is clear because he wears the special cloak reserved for the royal Heb-Sed wardrobe, and two groups of three crescent- shaped markers each (before and behind the three runners) further confirm that the mace depicts scenes from his Heb-Sed because these were the traditional course markers for the ceremonial race which the king had to run as part of the Heb-Sed rites[2].  

The Heb-Sed was an important festival of royal renewal that remained a permanent perk of aging pharaohs until the end of their rule in Roman times.  They celebrated it typically in the thirtieth year of their reign but occasionally also sooner.  

Narmer’s mace head displays major scenes from this festival, as discussed, for instance, by the Egyptologist Rolf Gundlach in his recent monograph, “The Pharao and his State: the Foundation of the Egyptian Royal Ideology in the 4th and 3rd Millennia”[1].  According to Professor Gundlach and other scholars he cites, the king achieved said renewal through his union with a “king- bearer” lady who is shown seated before him on a flat bed and under a vaulted canopy that is shaped like an early shrine (and like a giant numeral ten). 

That lady acted apparently as a representative of the sky goddess who also hovers as a vulture above the enthroned king and protects him with her wings.  This is consistent with captions on later pictures of that vulture goddess which describe her as the king's motherThe seated human delegate of that celestial lady would magically give birth to and then nurture the king’s rejuvenated new self, as indicated by the cow and calf in an enclosure above her canopy and facing the vulture.  

Egyptian sun gods were notorious for fathering their own rebirths.  In New Kingdom times, some of them even had titles such as "bull of his mother".  The cow and calf here suggest that already Narmer followed the tradition behind that title in his symbolic Heb-Sed "wedding".  

Further scenes on the mace show standard carriers with divine emblems on their poles, fan- bearers and other members of the king's court, the chapel of a bird god, and three gazelles with a wall around them which were presumably meant to be sacrificed at that chapel.  The area with the number signs is the register below the lady and the three runners behind her.  It lists three quantities which are usually held to report the king’s booty from some conquest: 400,000 oxen, 1,422,000 goats, and 120,000 prisoners. 

These numbers seem implausibly high for any real booty count.  On the other hand, they produce such clear hieroglyph magic as well as numerological magic that it looks as if the mace designer composed this grouping for entirely symbolic reasons, to convey the theme of the festival and of the mace dedication on two additional levels. 

The picture magic of the numeral signs parallels the “renewal and protection” function of the Heb-Sed ceremonies, keeping in mind the Egyptian belief that hieroglyphs were holy signs with magical powers, and that the picture of an object was deemed equivalent to that object itself, at least in the magical realm.  This belief was so prevalent that the sculptors and painters often mutilated their hieroglyph pictures of potentially dangerous creatures in tomb scenes so that these creatures could not harm the deceased.

The largest numeral on the mace is the hieroglyph for the million, a kneeling “Heh”-god with his sky- supporting arms lifted up.  This picture represented the gods involved in the early steps of creation, as explained on the page about The Heh gods who hold up the sky.  This sign can therefore be read here as an expression of the new creation that the festival sought to assure for the king and his country, and of the support expected for these from the gods. 

Next comes the tadpole for the 100,000 quantity.  This was the sign for birth, fertility, and proliferation which we discussed on the page about “Tadpole proliferation”.  The ninefold presence of this sign on the mace enhanced the symbolic significance of said proliferation because three meant “many”, and the square of that number further intensified that meaning.  The nine-ness of the tadpoles multiplied therefore the regeneration provided through their picture with “many times many”[3] and so perpetuated the rebirth and renewal effect of the festival.  

The four fingers that stood for 10,000 each may allude to the king’s command over the four quarters of the world since the finger was a symbol of command, as we saw in "Finger counting and crafting", and four was an expression of totality, as in the four cardinal directions. 

Moreover, these four fingers were arranged in two upright pairs, with one such pair on either side of the double lotus numeral for 1,000  + 1000 between them.  Two upright fingers were in Egyptian hieroglyphics the determinative for “accurate, precise” and so could refer here to the number-  juggling in the "booty list", or else to the precise execution of the Heb-Sed rituals.

In addition, two fingers pointed at something threatening offered protection from that threat, as shown in pictures of boatmen using this gesture to ward off crocodiles [4].  Each of the finger pairs on the mace can thus also shield the double lotus sign between them from harm, the way the enclosure around the cow and calf protects those means for the king's transformation. 

The stems of the two “1000” lotus plants between those protecting finger pairs are here united on the same root, instead of remaining separate as usual.   This could illustrate the union of the couple, and also of the Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt which the king had united under his rule.  

As we saw earlier, the lotus was another symbol of rebirth and regeneration, probably because it evoked the image of the sun rising over the inundated Delta where lotus covered the water to the horizon and so seemed to bring forth the sun.  Many paintings and sculptures show the Horus child emerging from a lotus blossom.

Horus was the young sun god, and the Horus title of the king identified him with that rising sun.  One could therefore expect the reborn Narmer to arise youthfully strong from those well protected sun- birth lotus on his mace, straight towards the Heh- god of creation and of sky- support just above them.  

The double lotus among the mace numbers matched therefore again the purpose of the Heb-Sed ceremony as a sign for the transformation and new life which that festival would assure for the double-crowned king of the Two Lands.

Narmer’s mace designer expressed all these references to the protection and renewal of the king with the pictorial values and common symbolic associations of the hieroglyphs for these three entries.  This was probably easy because all the numerals involved were linked with the original creation, as we saw earlier, and many of their possible juxtapositions could probably have suggested a generally similar message with the same themes.  

However, that designer appears to have devoted much additional thought to the composition of those entries.  Their numerical values further reinforce the "renewal- wedding" message, as you will see in the next chapter which follows the picture of the scenes on the mace 

 

 

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