Ma’at was both a concept and a goddess in ancient Egypt. Truth, order, balance, and morality, she stood on Ra’s boat that carried the sun through the sky. In the underworld she weighed your heart against an ostrich feather in a test for eternal life. If you failed, your heart was thrown into a lake of fire or devoured by a crocodile-cat-hippopotamus monster. Good times.
As a goddess Ma’at’s counterpart was Thoth, the mediator, but as a concept she also had a counterpart: Isfet. Isfet as a concept means chaos and injustice, but she too was also a goddess who had to be replaced by Ma’at before the world was born.
Duality seems to have great importance in every human mythology, from yin and yang to angels and demons. We like to simplify our desires and hates into opposing creatures, as if we can balance them on either side of a teeter-totter and watch them play.
April Fools makes me nervous, but I wanted to celebrate so I looked for foolish facts to find something worth sharing. I found Tetraphobia, the fear of the number 4.
In Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and several other languages the pronunciation of the word for 4 is similar to the pronunciation of the word for death. This has developed an aversion to 4 so profound in East and Southeast Asia it should not be mentioned at festivals or near ill relatives. Numbers that contain 4 like 14, 40, etc are also avoided. Telephone numbers, license plates, addresses, they all omit this threatening number.
What fascinates me isn’t the extent of the aversion but how it developed in the first place. We know the words are similar, but that isn’t a full answer because these languages didn’t arrive from nowhere. They developed over time, and the same people who used this sound to express 4 were using something nearly identical to express death. Why did this happen? How quickly?
I mean no cultural disrespect by examining this superstition. Of course I can find no truly satisfying origin for Triskaidekaphobia, the Western aversion to 13, either. In that case there isn’t even a pronunciation clue. It’s how many people were at the alleged Last Supper, one number off our current number of months, and might have once been considered auspicious, just like the Swastika.
So which bizarre 21st century tics will future humans wonder about? What foolishness is currently developing into a universally accepted superstition?
Hypatia lived from 355 to 425 and was the leading astronomer and mathematician of her time. As she was Neoplatonist, Hypatia was considered pagan. She was murdered by Christians who may have been associated with Saint Cyril, or maybe not. It was a long time ago.
But Hypatia’s story fascinates me. She was around as the ashes of the Library of Alexandria were cooling (metaphorically–it was being destroyed for ages in one way or another) and her life’s work, as far as we can tell, was to ensure the survival of Greek mathematics and astronomy. But nothing she wrote has survived to our time. The Encyclopedia Britannica says “her philosophy also led her to embrace a life of dedicated virginity” and here we are accepting knowledge about the sex life of a woman who lived 1600 years ago. Sure we are.
I don’t know how she spent her days. Maybe she woke at 5am and wrote in a journal until heading out to debate and breakfast. Maybe she had two good years and spent the rest of her life in a crushing depression. She might have been a virgin until her death, or she might have been gay, or she might have been asexual and relieved to be removed of the burden of sex by academic structure. All I needed was these few details: math, astronomy, a woman, a pagan, remembered. It makes me wonder who alive today will be remembered 1600 years from now, and for what.