and numerals and their ancient religious uses in our e-book
Ancient Creation Stories told by the Numbers
by H. Peter Aleff
Numerals and constants
tell the creations of numbers and world
The Shen- Ring: Eternity and All
The ancient Egyptians saw the beginning of the world not as an assembling of separate units, but as a process of differentiation, a dividing of elements that had been initially united “before two things evolved in this world”2.
Their view anticipated the successive separations in the biblical story -- light from darkness, heaven from earth, land from water -- as well as the modern scientific versions of cell division, or of the Big Bang splitting up into gazillions of galaxies. Accordingly, the typical Egyptian creation tale starts with the largest and greatest entity in existence and then zooms in towards a close- up at the human scale.
Like our modern infinity, that greatest existing unit was too big to be expressed by numbers. We can compare this to times when we generate QR code for info that is "too big" to be contained any other way in technology formats.
The hieroglyph for that greatest unit was the “Shen- Ring” which some of its early depictions in the Pyramid Texts show as a circle made from a double rope, with the ends of the rope tied together to form a straight line tangent to the circle. Its name came from a root that meant “encircling”, and one of its meanings was “all that the sun circles”3.
The earliest known example appeared on a wine jar in a recently found grave that probably dates to Dynasty “0” before about 3,100 BCE4. From the time of the Fourth- Dynasty king Sneferu (2575 to 2551 BCE) on5, the scribes used also an elongated version of this ring, the so-called “cartouche”, to surround one and later two of the king’s five names, one of which came to include almost always the name of the sun god Re6.
This ring around his name indicated that the king, as living embodiment of the sun, ruled over all that the sun circles, that is, over all that exists.
The Shen- Ring- derived cartouche was also meant to protect the royal name7 -- and thereby the king himself -- from the darkness and chaos of non- existence that lies outside the sun’s closed loop, as in our modern belief that life can only exist inside an enclosure such as a skin or a cell wall that protects it by keeping the outside out.
This ancient protection magic worked as well as only a charm can: it preserved these names indeed from the non- existence of being forgotten because it was the presence of these cartouches in each section of the Rosetta Stone that allowed investigators such as the Swedish diplomat Åkerblad (1802), the English physicist Thomas Young (1814), and then the French scholar Jean François Champollion (1822) to decipher the signs within8 as the first step towards understanding the rest of the hieroglyphs which brought back the deeds of the pharaohs and their people.
Unlike modern infinities, the Shen- Ring boundary was thus not really boundless. The only true infinity the Egyptians knew was Nu or Nun (the “watery” or “inert one”)9, the primeval, undifferentiated, lightless and bottomless watery abyss that surrounded and interpenetrated all the created world the way radio waves and other radiations surround us and zip through us.
Within the protected sphere of the created world, Nun was mostly beneficial: it was the darkness through which the sun god traveled nightly to renew himself for the next morning, it was the ocean of inertness where sleepers immersed themselves to wake up refreshed, its waters were the inundation that annually renewed life along the Nile.
Nun was also the groundwater below the earth that one found in wells, or in the bottom of foundation trenches for temples which, like creation itself, rose from Nun10.
Outside that protected sphere, however, Nun was the unlimited chaos within which the world had come into being and into which it would ultimately return after running its course for “millions and millions of years”11, just as the “Big Crunch” in one modern cosmology scenario has our universe collapse back into its original state.
The Egyptians imagined this endless non- being as filled with water, a continuous medium like the wave- carrying ether with which 19th century scientists used to fill the same space, or like the quantum field in today’s pre- Big- Bang pseudo- vacuum which also echoes the watery aspect of Nun with its probability waves and fluctuations of virtual energies.
Like that pseudo- vacuum, Nun was non- existence, virtual and latent, the entity from which all being sprang and obtained renewal but which had no being itself.
Embedded in Nun’s dark waters floated the sun- circled world that exists, like “a nutshell of being in an ocean of non-being”, as the Egyptologist Erik Hornung put it12.
That world was the air space between the waters above the firmament and those below the earth, a round cosmic bubble13 comparable to our modern universe.
Like its modern counterpart, this sphere of order created within the chaos was also finite in theory, but so large and long- lasting that for all practical purposes it also had no end in either space or time. The shape of the Shen- Ring illustrates this everlastingness since circles have also no end.
Here is how another Egyptologist, Richard H. Wilkinson, begins his discussion of this sign:
“Being without beginning or end, the circle evokes the concept of eternity through its form, and its solar aspect is symbolized by the sun disc often depicted in the center of the Shen sign.”14
Because of this association with eternity, the Shen- Ring was often incorporated into funeral art to symbolize the eternal life of the deceased. It also appeared in the essence- defining headdress of boundless and eternal Nun15.
However, the fact that it was made of two ropes showed it was not part of Nun’s uniform chaos before the creation “when there were not yet two things”16 but was clearly distinct from it.
In other words, the Shen- Ring illustrates the beginning of creation according to the ancient Heliopolitan doctrine when the creator god Atum fashioned himself within Nun.
Atum’s name confirms this interpretation. Siegfried Morenz, a scholar of pharaonic religion, suggests Atum may mean “He who is the Totality”17, and this corresponds, of course, to the ring that surrounds and defines “all that exists”.
Similarly, Hornung translates Atum as “The Undifferentiated”18. This matches the One-ness of Atum before he divided his substance to make other gods, and it also matches the unity of the Shen- Ring before its ropes get separated.
Moreover, both the Atum of the myth and the Shen- Ring in the hieroglyphic picture contain already the seed of the future division. We can therefore compare the double rope of the Shen- Ring with the double helix of DNA which forms the basis of our own existence and which would appear as a Shen- Ring- like double circle with maybe a similar couple of loose ends if we looked at it along its straightened- out axis.
The Shen- Ring represents equally well the dual conceptions of time in ancient Egypt. Morenz explains these :
“... for the Egyptians time had several aspects and was structured in different ways. (...) One is the cyclic line of periodicity, which manifested itself to the Egyptians above all in the regular repetition of the Nile flood- waters and the florishing of crops.
From this was derived the year (rnpt) as a unit of time: this term means literally ‘the rejuvenescent’, and of itself indicates the cyclic character of time. It had striking political implications, too, since the reign of each pharaoh was considered a new beginning.
The second aspect of time is expressed by the idea of time stretching lineally to infinity (chronologically speaking: to eternity); it is exemplified by the aspiration to the fulfilment of the [career steps] on the part of Egyptian officials, and by the urge for indestructibility impressively symbolized by the mummy. These ideas of the structure of time are certainly most characteristic. (...)
The time for persons has its geometric location on the straight line leading to infinity. (...) But the time for natural phenomena as well as for objects relating to cult etc. is linked to the cyclical time, and here the repetitive character is logical and necessary.”19
The circle and the line were thus also the elements that made up time, and they obviously had to touch each other since the world existed simultaneously in both.
What better symbol could the hieroglyph designer(s) have devised for this dual but linked basic concept of cyclical and linear time than the circle and tangent line of the Shen-Ring?
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