Thoth: The Story of the Multitasking Egyptian God of Knowledge
Identifying Thoth as the Egyptian god of knowledge is like calling the internet a place to find cat videos. The breadth of specific types of knowledge attributed to Thoth covers all fields of study, all facets of daily life, and even the journey to the afterlife.
Ancient Egyptians preferred to have a god governing each part of their lives. Often, the duties of a god would change over time, reflecting important events or evolving aspects of society. As for Thoth, his persona stayed the same, but he was given credit for more types of knowledge. Egyptians and Greeks alike revered Thoth as the inventor of all knowledge, above and below.
Who Is Thoth in Egyptian Mythology?
Thoth’s persona had so many facets that this section will only cover his attributes in brief. Significant areas of his influence are detailed in the following sections.
– Thoth as the Deity of Knowledge and Wisdom
As one of the earliest gods worshipped in the region, Thoth was simply the deity of knowledge for a long time. Since he commanded practical use of his knowledge, he was the Egyptian god of wisdom as well. As time passed, discoveries were made, and new practices were adopted.
Anything that would broadly fall under the categories of knowledge and wisdom was under the jurisdiction of Thoth. Even when other gods or goddesses governed some knowledge-based topic, it was believed that said deity was Thoth in disguise.
Ancient Egyptians believed that Thoth invented science, language, law, medicine, philosophy, time, and civil and religious practice. A myth records that he wrote 42 books containing all the knowledge in existence. One of the texts attributed to Thoth was the Hermetica.
– Thoth: The Protector of All Scribes
As the inventor of language and writing, people referred to Thoth as the Scribe of the Company of the Gods, or sometimes the Voice of Ra. He was the patron and protector of all scribes, teaching them how to write on papyrus. In the afterlife, Thoth kept the roster of the dead and recorded the results when a soul’s heart was weighed against the Feather of Truth.
– Thoth as a Lunar God
Thoth was a lunar god. In this role, he established the precise location and movement of the Earth and other celestial bodies. This gave him command of astronomy, astrology, and the recording of linear time by clock and calendar. The lunar calendar served as the organizational basis for much of Egyptian society’s civil and religious rituals and events.
Besides governing all “knowable” knowledge, Thoth was also a great magician who commanded all types of hidden knowledge. Apparently, he was the creator of religious rituals and the author of the spells in the Book of the Dead. When Osiris was killed, Thoth provided the spell that resurrected him.
– The Depictions of Thoth
The ibis and the baboon were Thoth’s sacred animals. Therefore, he was anthropomorphized as either of these animals, depending on which attributes the artist wished to emphasize. The two beasts represented particular aspects of Thoth.
His ibis form was associated with the moon because its beak is shaped like a crescent. When wearing this form, his governance of the calendar and the lunar cycle were in play. As Ra’s counselor, he wore his baboon form. This probably depends on the fact that Egyptians observed that wild baboons would make chattering noises at the morning sun.
In short, Thoth embodied many attributes. Sometimes, believers worshipped him as an alternate form of a different god, wearing that god’s headdress to signify the link between them. However, artists would often depict Thoth as bearing a scribe’s palette and a stylus.
Other times, he was pictured holding an ankh, the symbol of life, and a was-scepter, the symbol of strength. When not wearing the headdress of another god, he wore a crescent moon, the Atef crown, or the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt.
– Seshat: Thoth’s Spouse or Female Form of the God?
Since Thoth was the creator of language and writing, his designated consort was Seshat, the goddess librarian. If Thoth created language and writing, Seshat ensured that these creations were accessible to the people. Some sources record that Seshat was not Thoth’s consort but his female aspect. As such, she assumed the name of “the goddess Thoth.”
The Surprising Truth About Thoth’s Name
Thoth is as Egyptian as any of the gods in the pantheon, with his anthropomorphized head and all the symbolism attributed to him. However, the word Thoth is the Greek version of his name.
Initially, the accepted Egyptian form of Thoth’s name was Djehuty. Other spellings included Jehuti, Tehuti, and Techu. The Thoth hieroglyph can be translated as dhwty, beginning with dhw, which is the earliest designation of the ibis. The addition of the suffix -ty indicated that the person took on the attributes of the named creature. Therefore, Djehuty (dhwty) means “he who is like the ibis.”
One pharaoh in the 16th Dynasty took the name of Djehuty, but he only reigned for three years. Other pharaohs took the name Tuthmosis, which means born of Thoth.
Three Versions of Thoth’s Creation Story
There are several myths associated with Thoth’s birth, some of which involve the creation of the universe as well.
Some of the earliest stories record that Thoth was self-created, which is not surprising for such an intelligent god. Considering that Thoth was the god of writing and language, this idea brings to mind the well-known biblical quote, “In the beginning was the Word.” After appearing in the void, he transformed into an ibis and laid the cosmic egg. Its hatching was the birth of the universe.
– The Cosmic Egg and the Eight Frog-Headed Deities
In one version of the creation myth, the egg hatched and gave birth to the eight frog-headed deities known as the Ogdoad. These four pairs of deities governed the creative powers of the universe:
- Nun and Nunet, god and goddess of the primordial waters
- Heh and Hauhet, rulers of eternity
- Kuk and Kuaket, sovereigns of darkness
- Amun and Amaunet, representations of air
– Thoth: The God Without a Mother
According to another story, Thoth was born from the lips of Ra. As such, he was called the god without a mother. Ra was credited with the sole parentage of several of the significant gods, including Shu and Tefnut.
– Thoth and the Saga of Osiris, Seth and Horus
The most elaborate myth about Thoth’s birth is part of the long saga of Osiris, Seth and Horus, and contains a significant discrepancy. This myth is recorded in an Egyptian manuscript called The Contendings of Horus and Seth, written around 1100 BCE.
After the death of Osiris and his transition into the god of the underworld, Seth and Horus engaged in fierce battles to assume Osiris’s vacant throne. During the struggle, these two male deities engaged in sexual intercourse. From this union, Thoth was born. With the god of chaos and the god of stability as his parents, the role of Thoth as the god of balance appears appropriate.
After his birth, Thoth mediated the argument between Seth and Horus and recorded the results of their physical contests. Several times, he healed Seth or Horus so that the contest would continue to be fair.
The contradiction is that Thoth also had a role in the earlier portions of this myth. When Seth killed and dismembered Osiris, Thoth and Isis reassembled the pieces of the dead god, and Thoth provided the magic spell that brought Osiris back to life.
Thoth’s Role in the Realm of the Dead
Thoth made his regular home in the afterlife, where souls would rest in his mansion for a time. He gave them spells to protect them from the demons they would face on their journey.
In the afterlife, Thoth assumed his baboon form as Aani, the god of equilibrium. He kept a roster of the dead and served as the scribe who recorded the weighing ceremony, where the deceased person’s heart was weighed against the Feather of Truth.
If a person’s heart was heavier than the feather, the ferocious beast Ammut would devour the deceased person. On the contrary, if the feather and the heart weighed the same, the person would pass on into the afterlife.
Thoth was also the creator of all funerary rites. According to the myth, he helped Anubis develop the ceremonies of embalming and mummification.
Thoth and the Modern Calendar
As one of the gods of the moon, Thoth governed the recording of time and created the lunar calendar. In addition, would appear that the creation of the modern 365-day calendar was his doing.
According to the myth, in ancient times there were only 360 days in the year. Nut, the primordial goddess of the sky, became pregnant by Geb, the god of the earth. This enraged Ra so much that he forbade Nut from giving birth on any day of the year.
Thoth gambled with Iah, the moon, asking for 1/72nd of his light. He won the bet, and the light added an extra five days to the calendar. Since these additional five days were not part of the days governed by Ra’s punishment, Nut could finally give birth to her children. She thus birthed Osiris, Isis, Seth, Horus and Nephthys.
Eventually, Ra reconciled with his daughter Nut and praised Thoth for his ingenuity. After that, Thoth often served as Ra’s counselor.
The Myth of Thoth and the Distant Goddess
The Distant Goddess is a tale with many variations. Sometimes, even the identity of the protagonist female deity changes. However, the premise of each legend is the same. One of Ra’s daughters argues with him and flees to a remote land.
Since the story always includes the Eye of Ra in some manner, the goddess in question may be one of those goddesses who was often called the Eye of Ra: Bastet, Sekhmet, Hathor, Tefnut, or Shu.
In the myth, the goddess must be persuaded to come back, rather than forced. Ra calls upon Thoth to perform the office. In his baboon form, Thoth finds the goddess and asks her to come home a total of 1,077 times. Through perseverance, humility, and cunning, he finally achieves his goal. In appreciation for his deed, Ra gives Thoth the goddess Nehemtawy as his consort.
The Worship of Thoth and the Cult at Hermopolis
The worship of Thoth likely lasted for well over 5.000 years, making him one of the longest worshipped gods in world history. Though he had numerous shrines in other cities, the central cult of Thoth was at Khmun, at the necropolis of Tuna el-Gebel.
Archaeologists found thousands of mummified baboons and ibises that were given to the temple as offerings. In 2020, Egyptian officials announced the discovery of a cache of tombs and collective graves in Tuna el-Gebel that appeared to contain revered members of the clergy from the cult of Thoth.
Tuna el-Gebel was a focal point of the city, and it provided many services for the community, including counseling, food distribution, and medical treatment. Naturally, the priests of Thoth were highly educated and associated with the ruling class. However, Thoth was worshipped not only by the elite but by commoners as well. People from all walks of life wore an amulet of Thoth’s head, either in his ibis or baboon form.
Thoth and Hermes
In the Ptolemaic era, the Greeks began associating Thoth with Hermes, and the two gods were combined into a form called Hermes Trismegistus, or Thoth the Thrice Great. As the Greeks gained more prominence in the area, Khmun became known as Hermopolis.
Eventually, Hermes Trismegistus was reinterpreted by the early Church’s fathers as a mortal man known for his contributions to knowledge. The myth of the 42 books containing the knowledge of Thoth was circulated by Clement of Alexandria, who lived in 150-215 AC.
The Hermetica and the Prophecy of Thoth
Another significant body of texts is the Hermetica, a dialogue between Thoth (in his guise as Hermes Trismegistus) and his pupils. The collection discusses the essence of ancient Egyptian wisdom and the nature of humanity. The famous Lament of Hermes is part of these texts, and it has proved to be frighteningly relevant to modern society.
In Thoth’s prophecy, he is speaking to Asclepius, mourning the fate of the Egyptian religion.
“O Egypt, Egypt, of thy religion, nothing will remain but an empty tale, which thine own children in time to come will not believe; nothing will be left but graven words, and only the stones will tell of thy piety.”
-Hermetica, Asclepius III
To the Egyptians, Egypt represented the whole world. As Thoth’s lament continues, it is easy to interpret his words from a modern perspective.
“Darkness will be preferred to light, and death will be thought more profitable than life; no one will raise his eyes to heaven; the pious will be deemed insane, and the impious wise; the madman will be thought a brave man, and the wicked will be esteemed as good.”
-Hermetica, Asclepius III
A Hope for the Future: The Restoring of the Ma’at
Thoth goes on to describe this fall of humanity in even greater, gloomier detail. Luckily, all is not lost. Thoth also relates to a time of redemption where the balance of the Ma’at is restored.
“But when all this has befallen, Asclepius, then the Master and Father, God, the first before all, the maker of that god who first came into being, will look on that which has come to pass, and will stay the disorder by the counterworking of his will, which is the good. He will call back to the right path those who have gone astray…
And thus, he will bring back his world to its former aspect, so that the Kosmos will once more be deemed worthy of worship and wondering reverence, and God, the maker and restorer of the mighty fabric, will be adored by the men of that day with unceasing hymns of praise and blessing.”
-Hermetica, Asclepius III
Thoth was one of the oldest deities in Egyptian mythology and one with a vast number of responsibilities. Below are just a few of the things we know about this deity.
- Thoth is the god’s Greek name. His Egyptian name was Djehuty.
- The Greeks associated him with Hermes, so much so that they created a synthesized god called Hermes Trismegistus.
- He governed all types of knowledge, language, and writing.
- He was anthropomorphized as an ibis or a baboon.
- Scholars differ as to whether Thoth was self-created, the son of Ra, or the son of Seth and Horus.
- He governed astronomy and astrology and created the 365-day calendar.
- He was the first magician, and he wrote the spells in The Book of the Dead.
- He had a mansion in the afterlife, and he recorded the results of the weighing ceremony for all deceased persons.
- He was integral in the myth of the Distant Goddess.
- His cult resided at Khmun, which was later known as Hermopolis.
- In Hermetica, he reveals a prophecy for humankind that is eerily relevant to modern-day humanity.
Though the active worship of Thoth faded somewhat in the Early Dynastic Era, he continued to be a significant and enduring figure in the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people for thousands of years.