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The Mathematical Priestess, part III

Urania, goddess of astronomy.

Urania, goddess of astronomy.

Greek mathematics was concerned with understanding underlying rules for numerical relationships and concentrated on geometric proofs. Math became a component of philosophy, a pursuit of the leisure class, and a way of discerning the laws of the gods. Mesopotamian practical applied math could not be disposed of because cities now required it to function, but the philosophical elite would not stoop to learn it.

The Greeks liked geometric proofs because they are tangible, irrefutably a part of the real world. There was a fear that if mathematics diverged from the concrete world it would become fantasy, and that the pursuit of this fantasy math would be a rejection of truth by the learned man.

The fear of deviating from truth meant that there were four important concepts, integral to the way we see the world today, that people were unable to accept in classical times.
1) Algebraic proofs (if you can’t draw it, is it real?)
2) Zero as a number, not just a placeholder (how do you define something that by definition does not exist?)
3) Irrational numbers (why would the gods create puzzles that have no solution?)
4) Negative numbers (again, they don’t exist)

Although mathematically speaking the Greeks had their limits, these obstacles were not germane to Greek philosophy. The point where mathematics moves into abstraction is a point of crisis for any society. There was a Hindu mathematician in the seventh century, Brahmagupta, who proposed using negative numbers for accounting purposes without finding many takers. How can you do accounting without negative numbers? It boggles the mind. Yet it was once hard for people to take numbers, the most irrefutable link to objective truth, into the world of make-believe.

Numerical symbolism was an abstraction the ancients had no problem with, or maybe it was a problem that was resolved in prehistory. Using a word to represent a number is itself a construct, as is all written language, mathematical or otherwise. Numerical symbolism as a predictive device, which was widely used, is complex, difficult and not entirely reliable. It was therefore not difficulty, complexity, or uncertainty that early mathematicians bulked at: it was the idea of consciously embracing something intrinsically unreal (negative numbers) or intrinsically imprecise (irrational numbers).

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The Mathematical Priestess, part I

Hypatia, by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Hypatia, by Julia Margaret Cameron.

Note: This is the first of a four part series

I must admit that I approach this subject with trepidation. I’m concerned that some of my readers may be those for whom the keys to the numerical kingdoms have been denied, those who have bumped against that iron door and convinced themselves that beyond lies a sterile uninteresting yet unfathomable realm, filled with errors and yielding nothing of significance. I feel like I should sing a song and do a dance, maybe bring out a colorful Muppet cast for a chorus routine brought to you by the number nine, all to convince you that numbers have something relevant to say, something even you can understand.

Women have long been shut out of mathematical worlds. I can identify nine of these worlds, which should be intersecting but which are in some cases hermetically sealed. These nine worlds are those of arithmetical computation (including accounting and finance), applied mathematics (engineering, statistics, economics, physics), number theory, statistics, music, puzzles or riddles, philosophy, geometry, and symbolism. I do not say that there are only nine worlds; I like the number nine because it is the number for human gestation.

What makes nine the number for human gestation? That comes from a basic division of time based on the moon cycle, which at one time ruled the menstrual cycle. The first mathematicians were women, inventing numerical systems for calculating their menstrual cycles and the course of their pregnancies. Mathematics is, literally, in the blood.

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Online Presents

A very lucky Friday the 13th to everyone!

This post is about some of the changes I have been making (and will be making) with my web pages.

I now have a blog specifically set up for webinars:

I will continue to post here about upcoming webinars and classes (look for something in the next week or so), but basic information can easily be found on this page. Go ahead, click, and find out what the next webinar will be about. (Hint, it has to do with an animal.)

I have repurposed my name dot com as a hub page to all my web pages.

This should make it easy to find everything, as my online presence becomes more and more complex.

More changes are in the works. I will at some point be updating this blog to be more compatible with phones and other small devices. I’m hoping access to posts here will not be impeded during or after the changeover, but I can’t guarantee that. If you have a favorite post, you might want to cache it. Stay with me, I’ve paid my hosting fees through the year, so I’m still around.

I will be updating at some point to make it compatible with newer electronic devices and to add more material.

I can also be located at Moon Books. If you’re on Tumblr, I’ve started a blog there. I’m on Twitter, though I don’t tweet much. I use it to publish updates about classes and blog posts for people who like to get information that way. There are links at to all my social media accounts.

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Mystick Path of the Deer – corrected link

The link to the webinar Mystick Path of the Deer has been corrected. Here it is again:

This webinar promises to answer many of your questions, including why I’m misspelling the word “mystick.”

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A New Webinar on Phantom Dogs Coming Soon

Befriending the Black Dog
Monday, December 8, 2014
7:00–8:00 pm Eastern Time (US)
Attend live or stream later
Cost $25 $10
Pre-registration required

More information and registration here

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X Marks the Spot

In magic we use symbols frequently: scrawled on a candle, a piece of paper, or even in dirt. The symbol X is a particularly versatile symbol that belongs in anyone’s bag of tricks.

I believe in general that a symbol, like a word, should have a clear definition, that it should mean something, but X is often the symbol for the unknown. In algebra, for example, it is used as the symbol for the unknown quantity and does not necessarily have a precise definition, which is not the same thing as saying it is undefined. It may be a real number, for instance, or a whole number, or a prime number less than 100. Likewise X in a magical equation can stand for a specific unknown – perhaps a manuscript that is sought whose title is unknown. In detective fiction, X often stands for an unknown person, either the person who commits the crime or some other enactor of an anonymous deed. You would not be using X in your magic to summon a criminal (at least I hope not), but X could stand for an unknown donor or other helper.

The X shaped rune gyfu means “A sign of hospitality and friendship, of joy and celebration.”* It may represent an offering to the gods or some other kind of gift. This interpretation of gyfu relates to another important intimation of the symbol X: as a mark on a map indicating the location of buried treasure. X can mean treasure or it can refer to the place that is sought, be it literal or metaphorical.

*D. Jason Cooper, Using the Runes. (Wellingborough, UK: The Aquarian Press), 1986.

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Some Announcements and My First Vlog


Food for the Gods

Sumerian worshiper.

Sumerian worshiper. Photo Rosemaniakos.

In the ancient Mesopotamian view of the universe, humans were created as servants for the gods. In recognition of their status as mortals, not gods, each city built elaborate temples where they performed essential rites to the greater beings. One core duty for the temple staff was the preparation and dedication of food.

By any measure, the gods had humongous appetites. They ate four meals a day: two large and two small meals. At the temple complex in Uruk, one of the smaller daily meals included six sheep, eight lambs, one steer, seven ducks, eight geese, four dormice, four pigs, thirty pigeons, three ostrich eggs, and three duck eggs. Ishtar and three major deities received a total of thirty loaves of bread apiece per day, with minor deities each receiving fifteen. Grapes, figs, dates and candy were also served, along with the ubiquitous beer. Apparently the gods didn’t have to eat their vegetables, because none are mentioned.

In order to understand the process of feeding the gods, it is necessary to move out of a Judeo-Christian concept of offering. As Jean Bottero explains,

Biblical sacrifice, the idea of which we have become more or less accustomed to, is basically a negative gesture: it deprives us – and we willingly accept this deprivation – of something we reserve for God without his having a need or use for it. In Mesopotamia, on the other hand, sacrifice, offerings to the gods, were positive actions: what was given to them, they needed.

bull.grainIn order to understand the role of food in religious life, it is also necessary to move out of contemporary constructs about food. We think of food as fuel or sustenance, we think of food as sensory enjoyment, we think of certain foods as symbolic, and we think of shared food as a means of social cohesion. For Mesopotamians food was all of these things, but it was something more. Food was imbued with certain powers, particularly the power of life. The various prayers and ceremonies involved in the harvesting, milling, butchering, and preparing of food enhanced these powers and added new ones. Recall that when Inanna is trapped in the underworld unable to save herself, the god Enki sends his representatives down to revive her with the “bread of life” and “water of life.” Recall also from the previous post that Ereshkigal participated in an important ceremony not by being present but by partaking in the food that was served. Throughout Sumerian and Akkadian myth the idea is implied but not specifically spelled out that food is a means of disseminating power.

Millers, farmers, herders, and others donated the basic ingredients to meet the voracious appetites of the gods. There were specifications about how animals destined for the temple should be raised and fed. All of the meat was high quality and some of it was exceptional. Special prayers were spoken when butchering temple animals or when milling grain that would be used for temple bread. Though high quality ingredients were used in food preparation, and meals were served on the finest platters and vessels by priests or priestesses dressed in immaculate clothing, the recipes themselves were basic. Meat was grilled or boiled rather than simmered in the elaborate sauces that characterized Mesopotamian cooking from the empire stage onward, at least for people with means. The gods were believed to be traditionalists in their culinary tastes, preferring food as it was prepared in prehistory.

What finally became of all that food? The accounting involved in meeting the meal specifications for the gods must have been daunting in itself. In fact, we have learned much about the feeding of the gods by making inferences from temple accounting records, which are extensive. The food could not have been left outside the city once the gods had gorged themselves without creating a huge problem with lions, hyenas, and other scavengers. Nor could this much food have been consumed by the what must have been a large temple staff. Though Mesopotamian cultures in historic times, and even in the archaeological records of prehistory, were highly class stratified, this food would not have been destined for the tables of aristocrats. As mentioned a few posts back, rich men employed an extensive kitchen staff to prepare elaborate meals catering to their sophisticated tastes. They would not have eaten such simple food except when participating in religious rites. Unfortunately the temple accountants did not see a need to document how the food was disbursed once the gods had eaten their share. Probably it was given away.


Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Temple complex in city of Uruk. Drawing Lamassu Design.

Temple complex in city of Uruk. Drawing Lamassu Design.

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Feasting with the Dead

Mosaic from royal tomb. Photo Alma E. Guinness

Mosaic from royal tomb. Photo Alma E. Guinness

On the last day of the month, as the moon disappeared, Sumerians gathered to celebrate family ties, everyone bringing food to share. The ancestors also took part in these gatherings. The ceremony was called kishiga meaning “food on the ground” by the Sumerians and later kispu by the Akkadians. “Food on the ground” probably referred to the practice of leaving offerings for the dead on the bare earth. The dead were believed to be slight waifs needing little food or water, but they still required regular feedings. Unfortunately we do not know exactly what food was served, but it was probably simple rather than elaborate fare and no doubt included bread and beer.

The timing of the monthly gathering at the disappearance of the moon is curious, because it suggests that menstrual seclusion might not have been practiced among the Sumerians. In most nonindustrial societies women either naturally bled at the disappearing moon, or herbal and other remedies were used to encourage this to happen. The presence of menstruating women at this gathering would mean there were no fears about menstruating women being vulnerable to ghosts, no fears about menstruating women spoiling food, and probably no special diet for menstruating women as well. Either that, or women who were menstruating did not take part in the ceremony and left food preparation to non-menstruating women (or even men). Still another possibility is that the women in menstrual seclusion ate special foods that were prepared for the meal with the ancestors, and they took part in the ceremony not by being present but by having the blessed food brought to them. This last conjecture is plausible because in one myth the gods have a banquet in heaven which the goddess Ereshkigal cannot attend as she is needed at her post in the underworld, and the gods invite her to send a representative to bring banquet food to her. The eating of the food, not presence at the table, counts as participation.

The kispu occurred at other times during the year in addition to the monthly holy day, and sometimes the kispu was a state holiday sponsored by the king. He would arrange this meal to honor past kings (including kings from former dynasties), the dead subjects of the kingdom who might not have descendents to make the required offerings, and those soldiers who died in service to the king.

The monthly meal for relatives dead and alive was not the same as the funerary meal for the newly deceased. In this ceremony, of which we know very little, bodies were usually buried with food and water. Additional food offerings might be left on the graves, and sometimes there was a clay straw leading from the deceased’s mouth to the surface as a conduit for water.

We will wrap up this exploration of the cuisine of Mesopotamia with a look at the food of the gods.


Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Teresa Lavender Fagan, trans. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Bottero, Jean. The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Bottero, Jean. Religion in Ancient Mesopotamia. Teresa Lavender Fagan, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Grahn, Judy. Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.

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More Drinking in Mesopotamia

Another record of beer sale. Photo Babelstone.

Another record of beer sale. Photo Babelstone.

The Sumerians already had the technology of brewing beer when they arrived in Mesopotamia from unknown parts. Dedicated beer drinkers though they were, the Sumerians did not invent the process of fermenting grain and their words related to this process come from an unknown culture. The brew was drunk communally from a large vessel with straws. Mesopotamians consumed beer with food and on its own, and also used beer in cooking and in medicine. Some households made their own beer, but breweries also delivered to houses. Brewing was originally a woman’s occupation, although over time there was encroachment by men into this area. Women owned and managed the taverns.

In some ways the taverns of Mesopotamia were like those of today only more so. They were places for gossip and wasting time. Sexual activity often accompanied the drinking, including prostitution and homosexual activity, which is graphically portrayed in pictures. The euphoric effects of alcohol were as much a purpose of drinking in the tavern as the camaraderie, although scholars do not believe that habitual drunkenness was a feature of Mesopotamian life, partly because the drink was not very potent. Rulers looked on the taverns with distaste. It was not the prostitution, homosexuality, or inebriation they objected to – Mesopotamians held no judgment about these things – but the potential public houses presented for political intrigue. There also seems to have been a general disapproval of people habitually indulging in idle gatherings during the afternoons. Priestesses were forbidden to enter the taverns, perhaps because sexual relations with men were not allowed in some priestess roles.

The subject of drinking often arises in myth. In his epic search for eternal life, Gilgamesh encounters a female tavern owner who urges him to abandon his quest.

until the end, enjoy your life,
spend it in happiness, not despair.
Savor your food, make each of your days
a delight, bathe and anoint yourself,
wear bright clothes that are sparkling clean,
let music and dancing fill your house,
love the child who holds you by the hand,
and give your wife pleasure in your embrace.
That is the best way for a man to live.

The scene sets out starkly the choice humans face of pursuing grand ambitions which may bring frustration and unfulfillment versus the abandonment of dreams for temporal pleasures.


Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992.

Bottero, Jean.The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, trans. Teresa Lavender Fagan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

Mitchell, Stephen.Gilgamesh: A new English version. New York: Free Press, 2004.

Beer drinking scene from a cylindrical seal, circa 2600 B.C.E.

Beer drinking scene from a cylindrical seal, circa 2600 B.C.E.

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