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Ancient Creation Stories told by the Numbers

by H. Peter Aleff

 

  

Footnotes :

  

[18] Ronald J. Williams: “The Function of the Sage in the Royal Egyptian Court”, pages 95 to 98 in John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue, eds.: “The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East”, Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, 1990; quote from Merykare on page 97.  

[19]  Marshall Clagett gives a partial list of such titles that goes on for more than two pages in his Source Book: “Ancient Egyptian Science”, Volume 1: “Knowledge and Order”, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1989, pages 16 to 18.   

[20]  George Hart: “Pharaohs and Pyramids: A Guide Through Old Kingdom Egypt ”, The Herbert Press, London, 1991;  see the chapter: “‘The Boast of Heraldry, the Pomp of Power: Tombs of the Saqqara Courtiers of Dynasties V and IV”, pages 155 to 220, quote on page 155.   

 

[21]  Gae Callender & Miroslav Barta: “A Family of Judges at Abusir South -- The Czech Institute of Egyptology’s 1995 Discovery of The Tomb of Qar”, KMT, Summer 1996, pages 32 to 39.  

[22]  Siegfried Morenz: “Egyptian Religion”, 1960, translation consulted Methuen & Co Ltd, London, 1973, pages 122, 124, and 125.   

 

 

 

  

 

  

Numerals and constants  

 

 tell the creations of numbers and world

 
 


Incentives for Egyptian polymaths

These prominent traditional sages were just the tip of the iceberg, if you forgive me this metaphor foreign to the Nile valley climate.  Many other smart and/or ambitious people were also eager to excel in the scribal arts because their efforts were likely to be rewarded.  For instance, the Teaching for Merykare, an Egyptian wisdom text from near the turn of the third millennium BCE into the second, advises the ruler to select his officials not by birth but by performance[18]. 

Some authors say that during Old Kingdom  times the upper class was limited to the royal family, and this wisdom text is indeed later than the pyramids.  However, if one considers the size and logistical complexity of the many diverse tasks to be coordinated against the even more obstacles created by Murphy’s Law, the pyramid- building rulers must have relied on large pools of able and well- trained administrators throughout their Two Lands to organize those country- wide efforts at all levels with such manifest success. 

The great variety of titles attested for scribes of this and slightly later times reflects, at least in part, the enormous diversity of the manifold tasks.  These titles range from grain and cattle counters to legal recorders, annalists, and treasury overseers; many refer to religious duties, such as “Scribe of Divine Writings”, "Scribe of Divine Books” and so prove again that the scribal arts served also non- utilitarian purposes[19].

To supply the necessary depth of skilled artists, designers, planners, managers, auditors, technical experts, local overseers, and so on, would have been beyond the capacity of even the largest royal harems, so any king wishing to complete his projects must have followed this advice to reward and promote for merit long before Merykare’s teacher passed it on.  Teachings such as his were usually not social innovations but rather reiterated and extolled the then prevailing ideals.

The principle of selection by performance implies rewards to elicit and stimulate that performance, so chances are that at least some of the cushy and leisure- affording positions in Old Kingdom Egypt went to a brighter- than- average cadre of knowledge workers with a strong incentive to excel, and with a taste for problem solving.  And many of them surely had the leisure to indulge this taste.  

The wall decorations of the many private graves from that prosperous time typically show the elite owner attended by many servants They let us appreciate, for instance, 

“the dignified (possibly even smug) composure of an official under a sunshade watching his retainers swelter in the heat“[20]. 

Even in a cemetery of “middle- status and lower- ranking families”, the tomb paintings showed processions of offering- bearers attending the owners and demonstrated by their very existence that these not specially privileged people could afford the services of others[21].  

The abundance of such scenes confirms clearly that at least some people back then were not always just toiling but, as Aristotle reports, had ample time to be as curious about numbers and anything else as some modern people are.

The Egyptologist Siegfried Morenz describes the importance of proper knowledge in his book on “Egyptian Religion”: 

“It is not surprising that Egyptians should have seen good conduct on earth as based upon knowledge  (...) Correct knowledge came from God, and one’s ignorance was a cause of sin and suffering. (...)  Intellectual, charismatic, and magic elements all had parts to play in the act of perception, and this led to a striving for salvation through knowledge.”[22]

The devotion to learning and inquiry which such a world view fosters was further encouraged by the early Egyptians’ interactions with other cultures, particularly the one in Mesopotamia that highly valued numbers and the art of manipulating them.
   

 

 

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