The Limits of the Ancient Egyptian World

Let me start with the story of Osiris and Isis. In Egyptian mythology, Osiris was the god ruler of Egypt. After returning home after a business trip, his brother Set (also brother to Osiris’s wife, Isis; don’t worry too much about familial relations) had a plan to take over: he built a chest the exact size of Osiris, then offered to throw a welcome home party. At the party, Set decided to skip “Charades” and play the “Lie down in the coffin *cough* I mean chest” game, with the winner receiving the chest. Presumably after a few too many beers, Osiris decided to give it a shot, but when he got into this perfectly shaped chest, Set closed the lid, nailed him in, and threw it into the Nile. The other party guests were probably too drunk to realize that this wasn’t part of the game.

Isis heard the bad news, then went to go look for the chest. By then, it had floated all the way to modern-day Lebanon, where a well-fertilized tree managed to grow completely around and envelop the chest. The king of this land was so impressed by this huge tree that he insisted on using it to build his castle (carpentry wasn’t very good back then, so they never actually cut into the tree to find the chest). After a pointless undercover mission where Isis thought she needed to be a nurse to get to the chest but ended up getting it anyways when she was revealed and the king let her have it, she took the chest back to the Nile River delta, where an very lucky Set happened to stumble across Osiris’s body hidden while hunting. He cut the body into a ton of pieces, and poor Isis had to find and reassemble the parts before reincarnating him. Technically, Osiris’s junk was eaten by a crab, but Isis wanted to have a child badly enough that she ended up making some new parts for Osiris, then followed through by having a son, Horus. Although Horus went on to be a very successful god when he grew up, it’s possible that all the stress and substitution involved in his birth led to him having a falcon head.

Although you’ve likely guessed that much of my fascination with Egyptian mythology has to do with the plot holes, I’m also intrigued by the apparently very narrow scope that constituted stories of epic proportion. Osiris was the son of Nut, the goddess of the sky, and yet, he never really left Egypt, except when his body floated out to Lebanon. It just seems strange that the Egyptians would have thought that the sky and Egypt was proportionally fair divisions of the world for different gods to rule. Even Nut, the goddess of the sky, was imagined to be supported on her fingers and toes across 4 mountains, which were supporting points from Geb, the god of the earth. But even this conception seems somewhat odd. At some point, some Egyptian must have gone up to the top of a mountain and realized that the sky was no closer. And unless Geb had really bad eczema, the fact that they were picking up dirt from the earth and turning it into buildings should have been a clue that these phenomenon were not gods.

Today, these characterizations seems comically bad, but taking the long view that is necessary when comparing ourselves to people 5000 years before ourselves, we’ll be the bad joke of cyborgs in the year 3000. We can’t get past a simple point: we understand the world in terms of what we know. This idea feel intuitively true and is the premise of our schooling: we learn numbers to learn addition to learn multiplication to learn division to learn fractions to learn decimals and so forth. It also determines how we as a society view the world. Collectively, we only know so much, and that constrains the representations we develop.

For ancient Egyptians, the universe was the size of a country and a few bordering nations. Osiris was the ruler of the world because they didn’t know about the Americas. The sky could be a single entity because the clouds were just as unreachable as the stars. The gods might as well be humanoid, if with the heads of different animals, since the only intelligent beings they knew were other humans. And all the entities of the universe, from the earth to the sky, might as well be humanoid gods or evil spirits in the forms of snakes.

Take the sun and moon, specifically. Being people of a very fertile land, they worshipped the sun in many ways, including as multiple gods, including the popular Ra. Its counterpart in the sky was the moon, which appeared only at night. With 2 globes in the sky, they made the natural connection to their own experience: the sun and moon were the eyes of Horus (and don’t ask what it was like when Osiris was king and Horus wasn’t born yet. Technically, Horus the Elder was already around, but again, don’t ask questions). The moon, being the weaker of the two eyes, was apparently the product of a vicious fight between Horus and Set as Horus got in a fight after looking for the man who tricked-buried-and-cut-up his pa. Set, in the form of a “black pig”, tore out Horus’s weaker eye, and the lunar cycle represented this struggle between gods. To reiterate, they couldn’t understand the moon as a satellite with Earth’s shadow, and instead, they took their own knowledge and turned that into a story. And apparently, their cultural context involved a lot of fights with black pigs.

Although we may now know that the sun and moon are not the eyes of a god, we’re just as constrained by what we’re capable of understanding. In my own education, I think the computer and brain are a great example of this. Descartes thought that the nervous system was a series of strings, with various parts tugging on them. At that time, the best technology they had were fancy toys using basic hydraulics and simple machines. Later, Luigi Galvani shocked frog legs, and then, the brain was based on electricity.

Nowadays, we think of the brain and thinking as a digital computer and calculations, even going as far as to draw connections between short-term and long-term memory with RAM and hard drive space. It’s helpful in our exploration of the brain, but given our history as a species, it seems wrong to think that this is the right representation. Given another a few centuries, and I’m sure we’ll have moved well past this model of thought. Even our theory of computing is probably suspect. Despite most of a century of development, computation is still based on a long tape of symbols being fed into a state machine and manipulated, one symbol at a time. The Church-Turing Thesis, at a high level, hypothesizes that this representation encapsulates all possible computation. In this case, we’re constrained by the physical manifestation of a machine. And despite my training in understanding the brain and theoretical computer science, and even my own work in modeling the brain with computers, history seems to suggest that we’re clearly wrong.

But it’s still worth trying. We may only understand the world in terms of what we know, but it all gradually accumulates. Everyday, the world is a little bigger than the day before. We can amuse ourselves by comparing our world a few millennia later, as long as we remember that we’re just as limited and should continue to look forward to what we may know next.

(Edit: Citing my source for all of this. Great book for those interested in Egyptian mythology)

Bibliography

Ions, Veronica. Egyptian Mythology. New York: P. Bedrick, 1983. Print.

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