Thoth; from “Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt” (Lewis Spence)


Thoth, or Tehuti, was a highly composite deity. His birth was coeval with that of Ra. Let us enumerate his attributes before we seek to disentangle his significance. He is alluded to as the counter of the stars, the measurer and enumerator of the earth, as being twice great and thrice great lord of books, scribe of the gods, and as possessing knowledge of divine speech, in which he was ‘mighty.’ In general he was figured in human form with the head of an ibis, but sometimes he appears in the shape of that bird. He wears upon his head the crescent moon and disk, the Atef crown, and the crowns of the North and South. In the Book of the Dead he is drawn as holding the writing reed and palette of the scribe, and as placing on his tablets the records of the deceased whose heart is being weighed before him. There is no reason to suppose that Thoth was totemic in character, as he belongs to the cosmogonic or nature deities, few or none of whom were of this type. Another form of Thoth is that of the dog-headed ape, which, it has been stated, symbolizes his powers of equilibrium. His principal seat of worship was Hermopolis, where Ra was supposed to have risen for the first time. To Thoth was ascribed the mental powers of Ra, and, indeed, the dicta of Ra seem to have come from his lips. He was the Divine Speech personified. […]

It is pretty clear that Thoth is originally a moon-god. He is called the ‘great god’ and ‘lord of heaven.’ Among primitive peoples the moon is the great regulator of the seasons. A lunar calendar is invariably in use prior to the introduction of the computation of time by solar revolution. The moon is thus the ‘great measurer’ of primitive life. Thus primitive peoples speak about the ‘seed moon,’ the ‘deer moon,’ the ‘grain’ or ‘harvest moon,’ and so on. Thoth, then, was a measurer because he was a moon-god, and conversely because of his lunar significance he was the measurer. As Aah-Tehuti he symbolizes the new moon, as it is from the first appearance that time is measured by primitive peoples. His eye signifies the full moon in the same manner that the eye of Ra signifies the sun at mid-day. But it also symbolizes the left eye of Ra, or the cold half of the year, when the sun’s rays were not so strong. It is sometimes also called the ‘black eye of Horus,’ the ‘white eye’ being the sun. This serves to illustrate how greatly the attributes of the Egyptian deities had become confused. As he was a moon-god, so he was to some extent connected with moisture, and we find him alluded to in chapter XCV of the Book of the Dead as a rain and thunder god.

Thoth as Soul-Recorder

It is, however, as the recorder of souls before Osiris that Thoth was important in the eyes of the Egyptian priesthood. He held this office because of his knowledge of letters and his gift of knowing what was right or in equilibrium. Again, he had the power of imparting the manner in which words should be correctly spoken. As has already been said, the mode of speech, the tone in which words were pronounced, spelt success or failure in both prayer and magical incantations. The secret of this Thoth taught to men, and this it was that the Egyptians especially desired to learn. Through the formula of Thoth the gates of the Duat were opened to the deceased, and he was safeguarded against its terrors. The Book of the Dead was indeed believed to be the work of Thoth, as was the Book of Breathings, a much later work.

The Greek writers upon things Egyptian imagined Thoth, whom they called Trismegistos, or Hermes the Thrice Great, as the prime source of all learning and wisdom. They ascribed to him the invention of the sciences of astronomy and astrology, mathematics, geometry, and medicine. The letters of the alphabet were also his invention, from which sprang the arts of reading and writing. According to them the ‘Books of Thoth’ were forty-two in number, and were divided into six classes, dealing with law and theology, the service of the gods, history, geography and writing, astronomy and astrology, religious writings and medicine. It is almost certain that most of this mass of material was the work of Alexandrian Greeks sophisticated by ancient Egyptian lore.

Quoted from: Project Gutenberg’s Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt, by Lewis Spence

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