Thoth: Egyptian God of Writing and Wisdom
Trickster, Recordkeeper, Sage of Ancient Egypt
Thoth, Tehuti or Djehuty in ancient Egyptian, is the god of wisdom, writing, speech, measurement, the moon, and magic. He serves as the vizier (prime minister) to Re, King of the gods. He's also the gods' official record-keeper. He's Mr. Science, the Answer Man, and divine Secretary-in-Chief.
The Name of Thoth (Hieroglyph)
The name "Thoth" seems to be a shorthand version of his name that the Greeks who conquered Egypt found easier to pronounce. Here is Thoth's name in Egyptian hieroglyphics. There's variant spellings, but they all feature this ibis-hieroglyph striding across a horizontal arm atop a flagpole.
He appears in three different forms. Sometimes he is an ibis-headed man (above). Sometimes he's a baboon. Sometimes he's an ibis, a wading bird found along the banks of the Nile.
Thoth in Baboon Form
Baboon? Ibis? What's With The Weird Animals?
We sometimes forget Egypt's part of Africa, but it is! A lot of old African cultures are very close to the natural world. For many of these cultures, animals are sacred, and people see no reason to assume that god keeps to a human-shaped form.
So most Egyptian gods have a few animal shapes as well as human ones, and often have animal heads even when they're walking on two feet.
There's two or three reasons for the baboon shape. First of all, like the Greek god Hermes (with whom he became identified), Thoth is a trickster. Baboons are clever animals. So that fits. Also, strangely enough, many bands of baboons line up facing east before sunrise and howl the sun up. The Egyptians worshiped the sun as Re, the King of the Gods and source of all life, so they thought the baboons were doing the same thing. Finally, some scholars guess that the Egyptians saw a "baboon in the moon" instead of a man's face, and Thoth is a moon-god.
What about the ibis? Well, in case you haven't met one, an ibis is a long-legged marsh bird that walks along slowly and deliberately scanning for small fish and other food. It finds things hidden beneath the water's surface. Thoth, as god of wisdom, sees deeper than most. Also, in ancient Egypt, after the yearly Nile flood that piled up fertile mud on the riverbanks, the king's scribes would fan out across Egypt re-surveying the fields and assigning boundaries, measuring the land one stride at a time. To the Egyptians, it looked like the ibis was out there surveying the riverbanks just like the scribes! Pretty smart for a bird.
At certain periods, animals associated with gods were kept in temple sanctuaries as honored pets and mummified after death, so archaeologists have found thousands of baboon and ibis mummies!
Three reasons to love the Egyptian God Thoth
- He's a trickster. Who doesn't love a trickster god?
- He's the god of magic. Dumbledore, step aside!
- He's makin' a list, checkin' it twice; he knows if you've been naughty or nice -- and if you land in the "naughty" column, your heart gets eaten by a crocodile-headed hippo. So stay on his good side.
The Egyptians also loved Thoth as a trickster god. In one myth, Hathor, the hot-tempered goddess of love and destruction, stormed off across the desert in a snit. She was called the Eye of Re -- the personification of the sun's heat -- so Re needed her back. Thoth, as the moon-god and so-called second Eye of Re, was assigned to fetch his missing counterpart.
Thoth had a problem. In this myth, he took the guise of a small baboon, sent to fetch a goddess who had assumed the form of a huge ravening lioness with the devouring heat of the desert sun. Once he found her, he played the same trick later found in The Arabian Nights: "Please don't kill me, ma'am, until I've told you this wonderful story!" Inching towards Egypt a few steps at a time, he kept stringing her along with stories.
The moral of most of the stories was that powerful folks should be nice to the little guys. Hathor got the point, and decided that the little monkey had entertained her well enough that she wouldn't eat him.
I once worked on a Greek manuscript containing one of Thoth's stories, and adapted it for oral performance. Here you may listen to my re-telling of "The Tale of Two Jackals."
In another myth, Re grew angry with Nut the sky-goddess and wouldn't let her give birth to her children on any day of the year, because he knew her son, Osiris, might supplant him. Nut was cursed to stay pregnant... forever! In desperation she asked Thoth for help.
No problem! In this myth, the moon-god was actually a separate deity named Khons. Thoth challenged Khons to a game of senet, an ancient Egyptian form of backgammon. The Man in the Moon bet his own light as the stakes. Thoth won enough light for an extra five days. These days weren't part of the regular year, so Nut was able to give birth to her five children. The lost light accounts for the moon's waxing and waning, and the extra time explains why the year isn't an even 360 days.
The Egyptians invented one of the oldest writing systems in the world. They had to! Without organized record-keeping, they would never have been able to use Egypt's resources so efficiently and redistribute grain to everybody during the lean seasons. So writing was incredibly important.
The Egyptians also noticed that people and things from a few centuries ago were quickly forgotten and essentially disappeared, unless there was a record of them. So in Egyptian mythology, Re the Creator god first spoke the names of things to make them, and then Thoth wrote them down to make them stick. Egyptians would say, "In the beginning was the Word... and Thoth took note of it."
The Egyptians thought that turning sounds into pictures was a magical, almost alchemical process. So you can see how writing, speech, and "magic words" all came to be related for the Egyptians. Words have power! For the Egyptians, words were the stuff of creation itself.
According to legend, Thoth wrote the king's name on the leaves of the sacred tree of Heliopolis (city of Re) each year of the king's reign. He also recorded all happenings during the reign to "fix" them in history. His royal recordkeeping helped to maintain the reign's stability and to ensure the pharaoh's immortality. Many relief sculptures show Thoth (and Horus) pouring water over the pharaoh's head to establish him as king.
In the all-important Weighing of the Heart ritual shown in Egyptian tombs, where the deceased was brought before Osiris and the Hall of Judges to prove himself worthy of the afterlife, the dead man had to declare all his good deeds and proclaim himself innocent of sin. Anubis the god of mummification weighed the dead person's heart against the Feather of Truth (Ma'at).
Thoth recorded everything on a tablet. If all went well, Thoth announced: "What you have said is true. [X] is righteous."Without those magic words, the heart would be gobbled up by a monster lurking under the scales, and the deceased's soul would be lost.
Thoth's wife is sometimes said to be Ma'at, truth or "righteousness," the way things are or at least ought to be. The Egyptians are fond of visual puns, so you will sometimes see statues of an ibis facing a little figure of Ma'at. The empty space between them makes the symbol of Ma'at, a feather. Thoth challenges you to find the hidden truth.
Recommended Links on Hieroglyphs
- Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Good intro to Egyptian writing. Some of the vowel pronunciations are late. After the Greeks conquered Egypt, these were the signs used for vowel sounds, but earlier in Egyptian history the vowels weren't written or may have been pronounced differentl
- Hieroglyphs.net's Name Page
Hieroglyph.net's name transliterator. Note: it's using classic Egyptian, which didn't have signs for most of the vowels.
- Egyptian Hieroglyphs Flash Cards
Online flash cards teaching you the transliterations Egyptologists use for all the basic signs!
In the myths about Isis and Osiris, Thoth was the tutor of Isis, lady of magic, and later saved her son Horus when he was stung by a deadly scorpion.
In later myths, Thoth was said to have written a book containing all the secrets of the universe. There is a famous legend about a prince of Egypt who found and read the Book of Thoth. The god cursed him and his family for using knowledge forbidden to mortals. Later the prince's ghost saved a son of Ramses the Great from making the same mistake. Read the whole myth here.
When the Greeks conquered Egypt, they brought with them philosophers, early scientists and doctors. In those days science and medicine blurred into magic, since both involved secret and arcane knowledge. Greek and Egyptian scientists and scholars pooled their resources and began investigating the secret words and substances that they thought were the building blocks of creation. From this fusion of ancient lore, alchemy was born. The patron of the alchemists was Thoth, renamed Hermes Trismegistos, a combination of Hermes and Thoth.
Many magical texts were transmitted into the Middle Ages that were supposed to be written by Thoth. To this day, there are certain esoteric groups who believe they are preserving the wisdom and secret books of Thoth. If you Google "Thoth," you'll find a lot of odd websites and books put together by these groups. Here is one example. I suggest you treat these websites and books with a hefty dose of skepticism, but they do show one thing: Thoth isn't just a god of the ancient Egyptians, but an idea and symbol that still resonates with people today.
Good Links on Ancient Egypt
- Guardian's Egypt Portal
Oldest and best index of Egypt on the web. Sometimes a bit out of date.
- Ancient Egypt: The Mythology
Myths, gods, and symbols of Egypt. Text of myths mostly lifted from Tales of Egypt by Roger Lancelyn Green.
- Theban Mapping Project
Hardcore Egyptology: all the tombs and excavations in the Valley of Kings (where Tut's Tomb was found).
- The Plateau: Zahi Hawass
I don't always like his circus ringmaster style, but Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egyptian Antiquities, tells the world about Egypt and the latest discoveries.
© 2007 Ellen Brundige