The Shape of Time


A few weeks ago I went to the ‘Report on Progress’ exhibition at the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (which is a weird place, and definitely worth a visit). The exhibition is on the evolving perception of time, and there were a couple of things which really grabbed me. This post very much falls into the random research genre, by the way, but I think it’s something that you can usefully consider when world building. It’s a very interesting way to differentiate culture, and informs a huge amount of how characters think.

In the secular West today we imagine time moving uniformly against an absolute measure of nanoseconds and millennia. This is how time is objectively, or so it seems. But even that picture of time flowing makes time into a thing, fixing it in space, meaning it’s no longer time. We are shaped by our models of time. They influence how we understand the past, how we give attention to the present and how we judge our power to create the future.  ~ Cathy Haynes, Timekeeper in Residence, UCL Petrie Museum

The Egyptians had two definitions of time: neheh and djet. Neheh implies a quality of change, things that fluctuate or move in cycles, like tides and moon phases. This is the snake eating it’s tail, which moves and changes and then begins again. Djet is for static, completed things that are enduring and continuous, like the pyramids.

Ancient Stoic philosophers saw time as a perfect circle. Everything has a lifetime – in modern times, we measure our actual lifetime against that which we could reasonably expect. The same goes for food, or the endurance of stone, or anything. We see what is a line of reasonable prediction and compare a line of what’s actually achieved against it, and then either feel lucky or bereft. But the Stoics saw every lifetime as a perfect circle. If it ended in 30 years instead of 80, it was just a smaller circle, but still perfect.

The ancient Hebrew view of the past and future was visualized as a shadow. We usually view the future as ahead of us – the direction our bodies move in space. The Hebrews viewed the past as ahead, where you could see and know it, and the future behind in shadow.

Scientifically speaking, time is relative and passes more slowly the deeper you are inside the Earth’s gravitational field. If you have a sufficiently varied terrain, will that impact the speed of time between settlements? Or even between species (bottom of the ocean vs. mountain tops)? Again, something to play with when world building, perhaps.

One response »

  1. I find that Egyptian idea of two different concepts of time particularly interesting. Like the fact that different cultures have different numbers of colours depending on how they group the shades together, it draws attention to the way thinking’s more invention than discovery.

    The difference in viewing time I’m most familiar with is the cyclical vs linear model – we see time as moving forward, from a beginning to an end, whereas many native cultures in both north and south America traditionally regarded it as a cycle.

    Now I want to go invent my own fantastical concept of time, but the clock says I should be elsewhere instead.

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