Dádìsì Speaks

This well-known Egyptian symbol is actually an early math problem

In Culture, Science on 13/05/2012 at 15:00

The All Seeing Eye of Ra or Heru

Chances are you’ve seen this symbol before, because it’s one of the most well-known Egyptian symbols. It’s called the Eye of Horus. It’s been in the background of plenty of mummy movies, and been turned into a lot of necklace charms.

Some people think it’s writing. Actually, it’s math.

Top image: Jose Ignacio Soto/Shutterstock.com

The Eye of Horus is, from a design standpoint, both beautiful and iconic. And whoever created it might have been thinking of exactly that while dreaming it up. But it’s not just a stylish symbol. It has a deeper meaning: The Egyptians used it to express fractions of volume. Each stroke counts for a subdivided piece of the whole.

The inner corner of the eye indicates one half, the iris is one fourth, the eyebrow is one eighth, the outer corner of the eye is one sixteenth, and the decorations below the eye are one thirty-second and one sixty-fourth respectively. They were combined, in various ways, to measure the unit capacity for grains.

This eye may seem like a straightforward notation system, but it’s not just that. It’s also a pictogram. A good analog for this is a simple tally system kept by a child. Four slashes indicate units, and one diagonal slash across the four indicates a group of five. Look over a list, and it’s easier to get a sense of the different amounts that have been tallied than to read the numerals for all of them. (Similarly, some people in East Asia still use the character for “correct” as a kind of tally system.)

By using different marks to make a complete Eye of Horus, people in charge of many different quantities of something can skim a list quickly. And they can get a sense of how many storage units are at what capacity, just by looking for how many completed eyes there are, and whether the incomplete eyes are built from the inside out or the outside in. (cont … io9)

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