Wednesday, March 3

Accountants are actually High Priests, drawing order out of chaos.

Accountants are actually High Priests, drawing order out of chaos.

When I read a paper by Mahmoud Ezzamel on how accounting was performed in Ancient Egypt, I could not suppress a chuckle. Once that was done, it made sense to me. So what is Dr. Ezzamel’s argument? In effect, he is saying that the ancient Egyptians in the New Kingdom (1552-1080BC) had a world view which was defined by the Gods, the Pharaohs, the living and the dead. As long as the relationship between these four parties was established and on track, everything was fine and dandy. It was the scribes (read accountants in modern parlance) who were responsible for making sure that the right numbers of wheat ounces, gold weights, cattle etc. were offered to the Gods by the Pharaohs, and were mentioned in the tombs, etc.

Where does accounting come in? Well, accounting as formally defined is a practise of entering in a visible format, a record of items and actions. There is a value attached to these accounts and a way of capturing them and the definition of these values. In Ancient Egypt, this was inextricably linked with religion. The example of the Eye of Horus story links into this. See the pictorial representation of how fractions ½, ¼, 1/8, etc. break down pictorially in an ordered, descending geometric series.

The philosophical idea behind this, to follow the legend of Horus, is that accountants measure and ascribe value to goods and activities. You might want to think of this as a scale. The higher the value, the closer you are to the God. Another example is the weighing of the heart on Judgement Day as expressed in this papyrus image:

Again, you can see how the measurement of gifts, offerings, actions, activities in real life translate in a measurable manner to link the living with the dead and combining this with the Gods (see the Gods in the centre) and the Pharaoh(who is sitting on the far right). Measurement is the word which is crucial in this case, as it was the scribes, (the accountants) who would judge the value of the offerings made to the gods. And if the scales would not balance, then the jackal headed god will swallow the heart. I dare not say what is the modern day equivalent of what happens if our balance sheet or accounts do not balance, but I am sure you can think of people like regulators and auditors who will eat your figurative heart if this happens.

Temple walls from Ancient Egypt and papyri, etc. were full of lists and values of offerings made to the Gods, portions offered to the ancestors or kept aside for offerings in case of your own death, and portions offered to the Pharaoh. There was a very complex set of definitions which ruled over these offerings. Reading them made me feel that I am reading a GAAP or IAS manual of modern times.

Here is a scene from a tomb which explained precisely what was being offered.

This is an interesting philosophical point. Accountants actually draw order out of chaos, allow measurement to happen and frankly are perhaps indeed the high priests of order in our society. So if somebody says that they are boring, they are boring in the sense that the skeleton in our bodies is boring, but without it, we will just be a pool of skin and fluids.

Order and accounting as a performative ritual: Evidence from ancient Egypt by Mahmoud Ezzamel published in Accounting, Organizations and Society 34 (2009) 348–380

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