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Ancient Creation Stories told by the Numbers

by H. Peter Aleff

 

 

Footnotes :

 

[1]  As quoted from Corpus Hermeticum XVI by Jan Assman in “Ägypten - Eine Sinngeschichte”, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1996, page 437 bottom.  

[2] Porphyry (c. 233-c.305 CE), “The Life of Pythagoras”, in Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie: The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library”, Phanes Press, 1987, see page 124 bottom. 

 

[3]  Book II, 173 to 177, as translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt in “Herodotus -- The Histories”, Penguin Books, 1954, edition consulted 1982, page 198.

 

 

[4] Siegfried Giedion: “The Beginnings of Architecture”, first published 1964, edition consulted Princeton University Press, Bollingen Series, 1981, chapter: “The Vertical and its Relations”, pages 471 to 481, see page 478 top.  

 

(5) E. A. Wallis Budge: “An Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary”, London, 1920, edition consulted Dover Publications, New York, 1978, Volume 2, pages 697 to 701.

 

(6) Bob Brier: "Ancient Egyptian Magic", William Morrow & Co., New York, 1980, page 43.

 

 

 

 

  

 

  

Numerals and constants  

 

 tell the creations of numbers and world

 
 


Hermetic secrets  

The heirs of the early Egyptian builders and thinkers may have felt no desire to betray their long preserved and carefully guarded professional secrets to any agent of the resented and despised Greek occupiers.  The secrecy they maintained around the mystic -- and number-mystic -- doctrines circulating in Egypt at that time was so strong that we still use their collective name “hermetic” as a synonym for “virtually impenetrable” when speaking of closed boxes and closely held secrets. 

Some of those who wrote these doctrines down insisted particularly that nothing should be divulged to Greeks.  One Greek translation of such a text, for instance, begins with a stern prohibition against translating that very text into Greek because "the Greeks’ speech is empty and bombastic and their philosophy nothing but babbling noise"[1].  

The pioneers who performed mathematical research and experiments back then may not have widely published their calculations of sacred constants since such advanced science was to be passed on only to trusted initiates.  The secrecy of the mathematical and astronomical doctrines was so tight that Pythagoras encountered great difficulties in getting the Egyptian priests to initiate him, even though he brought them letters of recommendation from pharaoh Amasis, their god king.  

As one of his biographers, the Neo- Platonist Porphyry (about 233 to 305 CE), wrote in his “Life of Pythagoras”, Pythagoras had requested the local ruler Polycrates of Samos 

“to write to Amasis, the King of Egypt, his friend and former host, to procure him initiation [into the doctrines of the Egyptian priests].  Coming to Amasis, he was given letters to the priests, but the priests of Heliopolis sent him on to those at Memphis, on the pretense that they were the more ancient.  On the same pretense, he was sent from Memphis to [Thebes].  

From fear of the king, the latter priests dared not make excuses [to initiate Pythagoras], but thinking that he would desist from his purpose as a result of great difficulties, they enjoined on him very hard precepts, entirely different from the institutions of the Greeks. These he performed so readily that he won their admiration, and they permitted him to sacrifice to the Gods, and to acquaint himself with all their sciences, a favor never previously granted to a foreigner.”[2] 

Of course, Porphyry and his equally pro- Pythagoras sources needed a happy ending for their hero, but less biased readers will wonder whether those reluctant priests would really have divulged "all their sciences" to that unwanted pupil:  

The Greek historian and traveler to Egypt Herodotus (484 to about 430 BCE) tells us the Egyptians felt great contempt for Amasis (570 to 526 BCE) who was of humble origins, spent much of his time in “frivolous amusements, drinking and joking with friends”, and “was never inclined to serious pursuits”[3].  

This lightweight king was certainly not able to verify whether the priests revealed all their esoteric mathematical information to his protégé or held back whatever they pleased.  Their final outward compliance with their kinglet’s unwelcome orders does thus not necessarily mean they told Pythagoras their innermost secrets.  It seems more likely they restricted their teachings to the minimum they could get away with.

One thing, however, that the Egyptian priests passed on to Pythagoras was their penchant for secrecy because he tried later to protect his teachings the same way and made his disciples swear terrible oaths to keep them from all who were not members of his cult.

This veil of secrecy surrounded also the golden ratio and the pentagram which is one of its signature constructions.  The Pythagoreans used the pentagram as a sign of recognition for each other because that design was part of his confidential teachings and supposedly known only to them

Seshat's secrecy and magic

The Egyptians seem to have treated the golden ratio with similar secrecy because, despite its omnipresence in Egyptian architecture and other arts, no known hieroglyphic text ever mentions it[4].  

Moreover, the very name of Seshat, the goddess of geometry, suggests that she practiced her math with great authority and in deep secrecy.  The ancient Egyptians believed that the objects or ideas designated by like- sounding words were likewise related, and some of the words so linked with Seshat's name appear to reveal what she was up to.  

"Sesh", of course, meant "scribe" and "writing, drawing, painting", so the obvious meaning of Seshat's name was "female scribe"

In addition, according to Budge's "Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary" (5) , "seshet" was the "garland, string, cord, girdle, belt, diadem, tiara" which one might expect from the rope goddess.  It also meant "to ascend, to revolve", as well as the "orbit or light- circle of the sun".  This was certainly an exalted association in a country ruled by sun gods.  

Right in line with this powerful status, "sesha-t" meant "order, decree" and also a certain protective amulet.  Some of the words beginning with "seshem" denoted "administration", "guide, guidance, direction", "director of ceremonies" -- all again with an aura of commanding authority.  

But Seshat wielded this authority behind the scenes.  The verb "sesheta" meant "to hide, to make secret, to make a mystery of something", and the same word as noun stood for "mystery, secret".  This matches many Egyptian allusions to secret books in her House of Life, as well as the above reports  that the Egyptian priests jealously tried to keep their mathematical and other sacred knowledge from Pythagoras.

The same attitude would have prevented the public release of accurate values for pi, an equally mystifying and presumably holy number.  

A desire to withhold such sacred ratios from the profane could well account for the relatively crude approximation in some of the Rhind papyrus' calculations of circle areas which yield about 3.16 for this circle ratio, instead of 3.1416.  That papyrus was, after all, a primer for apprentice scribes, and it seems likely that these beginners would have been granted access only gradually to the more advanced knowledge of the higher scribal or priestly ranks. 

The numbers on the Narmer mace, by contrast, imply fairly accurate values for phi and pi.  They were composed for the most important state occasion in the king's career.  They would therefore surely have been based on the most accurate results known to the most senior sages, and this may explain why the constants there come so much closer to the actual values than the pi from the Rhind papyrus. 

A title derived from the root of Seshat's name further tells us about the purpose of her priests' mighty mathematical secrets.  The expression  "Sesh-per-ankh", literally "scribe from the House of Life", kept in Coptic only the meaning of "magician" (6), suggesting that this may have been its dominant use already in pharaonic times.  

Indeed, the numbers on Narmer's mace and in most tomb inscriptions were meant to be read only by the god(s).  They were tools for mathemagic, as you will appreciate even more when you examine the additional important ratios incorporated in them. 
 

 

 

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