An eye for a story

13th May 2005 at 01:00
A tale about the Ancient Egyptian god Horus can add a touch of magic to fractions, says Serena Alexander

We have all taught reluctant mathematicians. "Maths is boring," they often say. A quick poll of your class will probably find that fractions come very high on the list of what they find boring.

Children entering secondary school at 11 have already been used to the instant gratification of a calculator as part of their key stage 2 tests.

They are quite happy to deal with decimals because they can work out decimal problems using a calculator. More sophisticated pupils may have learnt how to use a calculator with fractions, but fractions are, by their nature, more complex and therefore less appealing.

In the UK, unlike in other countries, the history of mathematics is not taught as part of our exam courses, but there is no reason why you cannot weave it into your scheme of work. Looking at the past is a good way of introducing a topic to pupils who may feel that they have heard it all before. This is particularly true of fractions, which were most important in the days of non-metric measurements.

You could offer your class a tale of gods and heroes, and magic - all of which is found in the legend of the Eye of Horus, who was the son of two of the main gods in Egyptian mythology, Isis (the nature goddess) and Osiris (the god of the underworld). He was considered the god of the sky, of light, and of goodness.

Horus had an evil uncle, Seth, who murdered his own brother Osiris, Horus's father. Horus battled with Seth to avenge his father's murder.

During the fight, Seth plucked out Horus's left eye and tore it apart.

Thoth (god of wisdom and magic) found the eye, pieced it together - as if it were a cracked grain of barley - and added some magic. He returned the eye to Horus, who in turn gave it to his murdered father Osiris, thereby bringing him back to life. Thereafter, Horus defeated Seth.

Each part of the eye became a hieroglyphic sign for a fraction used in measuring out bushels of grain.

When the fraction symbols are put together, the restored eye looks like the image below.

You can see that if you add up the fractions, your answer is not quite 1.

The missing fraction was the bit of magic needed for a dead eye to shine again with life.

The Eye of Horus (or udjat) became a powerful symbol of health in ancient Egypt. It was worn as an amulet to ensure good health and ward off sickness. It is depicted as a human eye and eyebrow, decorated with the markings seen under the eyes of falcons, because Horus had the head of a falcon. The left eye is sometimes said to be the origin of the pharmacist's symbol for a prescription, "Rx".

Now you know the legend, you can use it to liven up the teaching of fractions.

* Add up the six fractions.

* What fraction is the bit of magic needed to make the eye whole again?

* What fractions can you make by adding and subtracting different Eye of Horus fractions?

lWrite as many fraction equations as you can using the fractions from the Eye of Horus. You can use +, - , x and V, but you can also use index numbers and roots. Apart from these you can use no other numbers.

Serena Alexander is the author of So You Really Want To Learn Maths Prep Books 1 and 2 published by Galore Park

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