All this earlier splitting off from the intangible was very nice for the remote and abstract past, but to start a self- sustaining procreation for the rest of the world and of the numbers, even the gods had to get physical.
Shu and Tefnut did and so brought birth into being. Their twin children were Geb the male earth and Nut the female sky. These followed their parents’ example, but Shu objected to their intimate embrace and separated them.
In a scene that became very popular in New Kingdom funerary art, Shu lifted Nut high up into her position as sky and enlisted the eight “million”-gods to keep her up there while Geb stayed below where the earth remains to this very day. However, the interruption came too late to keep Nut from becoming pregnant.
The only coherent account that survives of the subsequent events is the one we owe to the Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch (about 46 to 120 CE). This account is quite late, but many of its individual details are attested in older sources, some as far back as the Pyramid Texts.
It seems therefore that the gist of Plutarch’s report corresponds to actual Egyptian traditions, and that its protagonists had long anticipated and far outdone anything the writers of Peyton Place would later come up with. Here is how the saga continues :
“[Shu] invoked a curse upon [Nut] that she should not give birth in any month or any year; but Hermes (= Thoth), being enamored of the goddess, consorted with her. Later, playing at draughts with the moon, he won from her the seventieth part of each of her periods of illumination, and from all the winnings he composed five days, and intercalated them as an addition to the three hundred and sixty days.
The Egyptians even now call these five days intercalated and celebrate them as the birthdays of the gods. They relate that on the first of these days Osiris was born ...”1
The second of these so-called “epagomenal” extra days before the beginning of the next year with twelve 30-day months was the birthday of “Horus the Elder”, and on the third the unruly Seth broke with a blow through his mother’s side and lept out.
On the fourth day the goddess Isis was born who became the wife of Osiris, and on the fifth day her sister Nephtys came out who married the sterile Seth but bore a child of Osiris whom she had tricked into believing she was Isis.
Plutarch further reports that only Seth and Nephtys were Geb’s children whereas Isis was the daughter of Thoth, and Osiris was the son of Shu whose outrage about his daughter’s involvement with Geb is thus explained but also revealed as highly hypocritical.
Horus was rumored to be a son of Shu, or else of Osiris and Isis who had already made love while both were still in Nut’s womb. If the purpose of all this hanky- panky was to introduce birth, it certainly brought plenty of proliferation.
The number of gods involved in all this birthing and being born amounted to nine, and that was a clear indication that there were more to come.
As we saw above, three was the number of plurality and stood for many. Nine is three times three and so signifies the plural of plurals, or many times many. A group of nine gods, or “Ennead”, often represented not only the gods shown or named as its members but stood usually for a general or even all- encompassing group, just as, for instance, the “nine bows” traditionally symbolized all of Egypt’s enemies2.
The enumeration of these nine gods underlines therefore that once this business of being born had begun there would be no end to it, and the multiplication would continue.
Said frenzy of fecundity was appropriately pictured in the numeral system by the above tadpole that meant 100,000 and was the logical offspring from the often frog- headed gods of the preceding generation.
Richard H. Wilkinson explains in his guide to “Reading Egyptian Art” that the tadpole appears not only as a numeral but also independently as a writing sign with the meaning of “regeneration” and “repeating life”, a concept with which the frog as the tadpole’s final stage was also closely identified:
“Because of its prodigious reproductive capacity, the frog was a symbol of creation, fertility, birth, and regeneration. As an underworld animal, it was associated with the forces which initially brought life into being. The four male gods of the primeval group of eight gods who ruled before the creation of the world (...) were thus frog- headed. Most important, however, the frog was sacred to Heket, the goddess of childbirth.”3
The tadpole numeral stands thus for the beginning of procreation, the begetting and births of the early gods who then multiplied further into a large pantheon.
Simultaneously, that tadpole can also be seen as the proliferation of the numbers beyond the first ten, and as a symbol of their fertile capacity to produce the infinite number sequence, an ancient equivalent of our inflationary universe’s explosion- like expansion from its minuscule start.
Tadpoles have no arms, but they metamorphose into frogs with hands and fingers, and the image of a straight finger was the next lower numeral sign:
Continue to Finger Counting (This next page, and the rest in this series, are not yet completed. Go directly to the creation story from Genesis One told in quasi- equations of constants.)