Egyptians & Uncertainty

The concept of uncertainty runs deep in the fabric of human activity. So deep that the concept can be traced back to Ancient Egypt.

In fact, considering that one of the first industries where the concept of modern risk was perfected was the insurance of ships, it is almost poetic that the Egyptian hieroglyphic used to refer to the concept of ‘ill-luck’ or ‘disaster’ was tightly linked with the description of a ‘shipwreck’.1

But even more interesting is the fact that Egyptians played board games based on the concept of ‘chance’,2 which typically presents players with a limited set of outcomes and a mechanism to trigger them (a dice, for example).

With proper information and calculation, games of chance are a situation of risk. Think of Russian Roulette for example. The standard game of Russian Roulette entails a ‘1/n – ε‘ risk of killing yourself, where ‘n’ is the number of bullet spaces in the gun and ‘ε‘ the remote uncertain plausibility of the bullet in the chamber being a dud.

Without proper calculation tools, however, a game of chance places the player in a situation of uncertainty. You just do not know what the chances of killing are once you pull the trigger if you can’t, for one or another reason, count how many chambers a gun has, or calculate probabilities thereon.

I am a romantic so I will not say that Egyptians lacked the tools to calculate the chances of simple board games, although the math needed for one such thing seems to not have been invented until the 17th century by Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat.3 However, it took at least a couple thousand years for humanity to develop the contract of bottomry, the earliest example of something that we can properly refer to as a risk management framework,4 so I seriously doubt Egyptians had the ability to properly estimate the risk of a shipwreck.

In such manner, Egyptians seemed to live their lives more amidst a strong awareness (even fear) of uncertainty than upon accurate calculations of risk. Their awareness of uncertainty was such that their God of science and wisdom was considered to be the personification of “the Unknown and Mysterious”, 5 which shows that Egyptians believed that divine intervention was necessary to overcome uncertainty.

Image credits: By Edgardo W. Olivera (Unmodified). CC BY 2.0.

  1. Budge, E W. 1920. Egyptian Hieroglyphic Dictionary, Vol. 1 and II. London, U.K.: John Murray, pp. 31–32.
  2. Reith, G. 2002. The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture. London, U.K.: Psychology Press, pp. 44–45.
  3. Haueter, N V. 2013. A History of Insurance. Zurich, Switzerland: Swiss Re, p. 9.
  4. Trenerry, C F. 1926. The Origin and Early History of Insurance: Including the Contract of Bottomry. London, U.K.: P. S. King & Son LTD, Ch. 2.
  5. Boylan, P. 1922. Thoth, the Hermes of Egypt: A Study of Some Aspects of Theological Thought in Ancient Egypt. Oxford, U.K.: H. Milford, Oxford University Press, p. 102.