Friday, July 13, 2012

She Who Is Foremost In The Library - Ancient Egypt

Here we are on Friday the 13th! I have to confess I’ve never been concerned about the number thirteen or had any bad events happen to me on that date. Now the twelfth hasn’t been good to me, but that’s another story!

For this post, since my mind was on the topic of dates and numbers, I decided to see if the Ancient Egyptians had superstitions toward any particular number. In the Egyptian worldview, numbers were not only odd and even, but also male or female, and symbolized the energy of nature. The goddess Seshat, the Enumerator, was viewed as the personification of numbers and patroness of the many uses to which the Egyptians put their math. Her titles included Lady of Writings, Scribe, Head of the House of Divine Books and Lady of Builders. I think I could have used Seshat’s help when I was struggling with geometry in high school, since she rules over books and math!

But my all time favorite title for Seshat was “She Who Is Foremost in the Library.” As a writer or reader, you have to love that designation!

She was often depicted with a seven pointed emblem over her head, the meaning of which has sadly been lost but I think we could infer the number 7 was considered “lucky” or propitious even in 2000 BC. Seshat  is often shown holding a notched palm branch because she kept track of the time allotted to each pharaoh for his time on earth. The notches represented how many years he’d been given to accomplish his great deeds. She was also depicted holding other tools, as befitting her many tasks, including building and surveying.  Seshat is dressed in clothing made from either a cheetah or a leopard skin, or else her entire dress has a spotted pattern. Scholars believe the spotted pattern represented the stars. If you did everything right, both in life and in your passage through the underworld after death, Sheshat would  “open the door of heaven for you,” according to a famous coffin text.

A renowned papyrus about math dating back to 1650 BC proclaimed that inside were contained “Rules for enquiring into nature and for knowing all that exists, every mystery, every secret.”  The scroll is 15’ long and contains math problems of all types, including some rudimentary algebra and my particular bane – geometry. (Maybe if my geometry teacher had told me this was the answer to EVERY mystery and secret, I might have paid more attention LOL)

I enjoy the fact they used the eye of Horus symbol as the “1” on top of their fractions! Many of the math problems in the papyrus seem to involve calculating the strength of beer, how much bread you’d need to feed different numbers of men, and dividing grain among your fowl and oxen. Down to earth, usable stuff! There are also problems and solutions for designing pyramids. No surprise there.

The Egyptians felt the number 3 was important, for good or bad. The god Ra got three names; a doomed prince got three Fates (death by dog, monkey or crocodile – hmmm, perhaps a novel there); the Knot of Isis (which figures in my novella PRIESTESS OF THE NILE) has three loops….

5 came in for some appreciation but was not mentioned as often – the god Thoth added five days to the year by winning the light from the Moon in some kind of wager, for example.

But lucky Seven was associated with perfection, effectiveness and completeness. Isis was guarded by seven scorpions.  A rather famous famine lasted seven years and then the Nile flooded four times seven (28 cubits in all) to overcome the famine.  And of course the Goddess Seshat wears her mysterious seven pointed symbol.

What’s your lucky number?

1 comment:

Annie Nicholas said...

my lucky number has always been 7. :)