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Ancient Creation Stories told by the Numbers

by H. Peter Aleff




Footnotes :

[1] Plutarch: “Isis and Osiris”, translated by Frank Cole Babbitt, Moralia Volume V, 356 C and D, Loeb Classical Library,  Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1936, edition consulted  1993, page 37.


[2] Emma Brunner-Traut: “Zum Loskalender im Alten Ägypten”, pp. 16 to 30 in Gelebte Mythen: Beiträge zum altägyptischen Mythos”, 1981, edition consulted Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1988., see pages 22 and 25.


[3] N.J.A. Sloane and Simon Plouffe: “Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences”, Academic Press, San Diego, California, 1995, sequence M4186.


[4] Prime numbers are numbers without divisors besides “one” and themselves. Those with 120 or more digits are now the backbone of the cryptology used in Internet transactions.  As of mid-1997, the largest known prime had 895,932 digits, and its discoverer says it would take 28 days to say the number, speaking 8 hours a day. See Keith Devlin: “World’s Largest Prime”, Focus Newsletter of the Mathematical Association of America, December 1997, page 1.

[5] Oystein Ore : “Number Theory and its History”, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1948, page 94. For an update, see Richard K. Guy: “Unsolved Problems in Number Theory”, Springer Verlag, New York, Second Edition, 1994, page 44.


[6]  M.C. Howatson: “The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature”, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989,  page 79 bottom right.


[7]  In “The City of God”, about 420 CE, quoted in George F. Simmons: “Calculus Gems: Brief Lives and Memorable Mathematics”, McGraw- Hill, New York, 1992, page 18.


[8]  Richard H. Wilkinson: “Symbol & Magic in Egyptian Art”, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1994. page 136.


[9]  Plutarch: “Isis and Osiris”, Moralia Vol. V, 354 F, Loeb Classical Library, cited above, page 27.


[10]  Plutarch: “Isis and Osiris”, Moralia Vol. V, 363 A, Loeb Classical Library, cited above, page 75.


[11]  This 56-year cycle is the same which the astronomer Gerald Hawkins proposed as having caused the builders of proto-Stonehenge to dig the 56 Aubrey holes that circle the structure. See his “Stonehenge Decoded”, Doubleday, Garden City, New York , 1965, pages 140 to 148.










Numerals and constants  


 tell the creations of numbers and world


e in the date of Osiris’ death

According to the Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch (46 to 120 CE), the ancient Egyptian god Seth murdered his twin brother Osiris in the twenty-eighth year of the latter’s reign, on the seventeenth day of the third month[1].

Plutarch’s detailed story of “Isis and Osiris” is the only preserved coherent account of this myth.  It is relatively late, from about 100 CE, but various allusions to individual events from that story in earlier Egyptian texts indicate that Plutarch probably described original traditions

The same seems true for this date of Osiris’ death because it bears the fingerprints of the ancient number jugglers.  They seem to have picked that date to express the positive meaning of this event in their idiom of numbers with symbolic values.  The most obvious ratio among the numbers in this tale refers again to the constant e of growth and renewal, and it does so in that constant’s symbolically most appropriate form: 

Twenty-eight divided by 17 approximates the square root of e.  If the date- setting priests were aware of this constant and wanted to express the nature of the festival by its date, they could have found no better way than to so assimilate the god’s death with the root -- or cause -- of new growth : 

The auspicious ratios from the date on which Osiris was murdered :

28 / 17

= 1.647059



= 1.648721


77 / 17

= 4.529412


28 phi  / 10

= 4.530495


Moreover, the ratio between that day’s rankings in the year and in the month describes again the new and improved life that sprang from Osiris’ death. 

The 17th day of the third month was the 77th day of the year since the ancient Egyptian months had 30 days each.  Dividing 77 by 17 brings back the Osirian number 28, but this time multiplied by a tenth of the forever self- renewing und thus again symbolically very appropriate “divine proportion”.  

Since 28 and phi were both connected with the moon, as proposed earlier, the joint presence of these lunar numbers would probably have reinforced the magical connection of this date to the periodic renewal of the moon which provided yet another parallel to the resurrection of Osiris.

The mathemagic of this date suggests thus the same idea which the myths and rituals convey: the death of Osiris was considered a beneficial event, despite the many ritual lamentations about it.  In one of the many ways to view this many- faceted tale, burying the cut-up pieces of Osiris was the symbolical equivalent of burying the treshed seed grain so that new plants could grow from its husked kernels, just as Osiris engendered his son and successor after his dismemberment and sojourn in the coffin.  

Some funereal paintings even show the corpse of Osiris on its bier with new plants growing out of it, and many rituals make it clear that he functioned as the cause -- or root -- of new growth in the fields, or as the fertile black earth from which it sprang.  The pharaonic artists expressed this association also by painting the skin of Osiris either green, for the growing plants, or black.  The life of the country depended on this growth, so the triggering event for it was necessarily good.

On another level, the meaning of Osiris’ death can be compared to that of the crucifixion of Jesus in the Christian religion which its English- speaking followers celebrate on revealingly named “Good Friday”.  The death and reviving of Osiris or of Christ created the precedent that enabled humans to be revived after death the way these gods in human form had been revived.  

The resulting eternal life was the highest goal for ancient Egyptians and Christians alike, and the choice of Osiris’ death date seems to have reflected this hope with the ratios embedded in its numbers, just as the Christian resurrection date of Easter reflects it with its proximity to the beginning of spring.   

These positive associations with the murder of Osiris may be among the reasons why his death year 28 was an especially lucky number.  According to many of the once popular ancient Egyptian omen calendars that offered good or bad predictions for each day of the month, the 28th was by far the best day because, as one of the more detailed editions from New Kingdom times put it:

“on the 28th day of the month Thoth the gods were content to see Horus and Seth reconciled:  what you see on this day is good.” 

In those calendars, about a third of all the days were declared unlucky and kept the believers from doing anything, even from leaving the house on those dates.  However, the good fortune of the 28th was so irresistible that it lingered on and made the remaining days of most months favorable, too[2]. 

Twenty-eight is also the typical number of days the moon can be seen before it vanishes from the sky, just as Osiris reigned for 28 years before he got killed. 

Furthermore, in the Egyptian- influenced number mysticism of Pythagoras, 28 was considered a “perfect” number because, like six, it is the sum of its divisors when including “one”.  For instance, 6 = 1 + 2 + 3, and 

28 = 1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14.  

Such perfect numbers are relatively rare: the series continues with 496;  8,128;  33,550,336;  8,589,869,056, and already the ninth entry has 32 digits[3], a numerical reminder why we so seldom encounter perfection. 

Although the concept of perfect numbers originated in what we may now call superstitious numerology and mystic speculations, their theory is now an essential tool in the search for ever higher prime numbers[4], and the question whether a perfect number can be odd is still one of the more notorious unsolved problems in modern number theory[5].  

This question and its status illustrate the modern pursuit to explore numbers for their own sake, without any conceivable practical application.  They make it therefore easier to imagine that some ancients could have performed similar explorations in their own way, particularly since they had the added incentive of trying to gain insights into the relationships and plans of the gods behind those numbers.

In the ancient number- based world view, perfect numbers were so important that Saint Augustine (354 to 430 CE), who converted to the Pythagorean- based Neo- Platonism at about the same time as to Catholicism[6], could write:

“Six is a number perfect in itself, and not because God created the world in six days; rather the contrary is true: God created the world in six days because this number is perfect.”[7]

This exalted reputation of perfect numbers could also well have helped to convince the early Egyptian myth maker that Osiris the perfect king reigned for a perfect 28 years before he got cut into half that number of pieces.

The dismembering of Osiris into 14 pieces and his reign for double that number of years further reflects the fact that the ancient Egyptian methods of multiplying and dividing were based on doubling and halving, so the double or half of a number was more closely related to the original entry than any others.  

Indeed, seven had great potency in Egyptian magic and was also frequently associated with Osiris: for instance, the company of gods revered in his city of Abydos had seven members, and in one of his festivals, a model of his body was embalmed and kept for seven days before being buried.  This ritual reflected the myth that he had remained in the womb of his sky goddess mother Nut for seven days[8].

The series of doublings from seven to 14 and then 28 continues in Plutarch's rendering of the myth.  Plutarch echoed the then common opinion that Pythagoras had derived his doctrine from Egyptian symbolism and occult teachings[9].  According to him, the disciples of Pythagoras asserted that Seth “was born in an even factor of  fifty-six”, (whatever that may have meant) and “the dominion of a polygon of  fifty-six sides” belonged to this god[10]. 

For all we know, the enigmatic attribution of this number to Seth might have connected him with the 56-year cycle of the lunar orbit nodes that determines eclipses of the moon, or its temporary death[11], another possible lunar parallel to the temporary death of Osiris.   

On the other hand, it may also reflect that  56 equals 2 x 28 and so allude again to the death of Osiris.  The 56 would have been a logical choice for Seth as twin brother of Osiris because Seth was made from the same factors as Osiris and came after him, just as his number in this series of doublings comes after that of Osiris. 

In any case, whether or not the mace designer was already aware of e and its division into 14 parts before we encounter this constant more clearly a few centuries later, the custom of combining functions of pi and phi as numbers of the sun and of renewal on commemorative trinkets from Heb- Sed celebrations continued after Narmer.  You can see this on the next oldest surviving items with numbers on them, the two Heb-Sed statues of king Khasekhem who reigned from about 2711 to about 2691 BCE.



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