Thoth, from The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt


A deity with a wide range of associations, including nature, cosmology, writing, science, Medicine, and the afterlife, Thoth (Eg. Djehuty) was worshiped throughout Egypt from the Early Dynastic period through Roman times. The meaning of his name is obscure. Because Thoth was the divine messenger, the Greeks associated him with Hermes, calling him Hermes Trismegistos (“thrice great Hermes”), a title probably derived from his Egyptian epithet p3 ‘3 ‘3 ‘3.

Thoth takes two major iconographic forms. As a squatting dog-headed baboon, he appears in figurines as early as the first dynasty (c.3050-2850 BCE). Early Dynastic slate palettes show ibises on standards, an image clearly associated with Thoth by the Old Kingdom. In later periods, he is frequently depicted as an ibis or ibis-headed human, often carrying the palette and pen of a scribe. His headdresses include the crescent moon and disk, the atef crown, and the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt. In both baboon and ibis forms, Thoth is portrayed overseeing and protecting scribes. In scenes from temples, he and Horus anoint the king with water. They also pour libations over the deceased on cartonnage coffins of the Third Intermediate Period. In scenes of divine judgment, such as the vignettes accompanying chapter 125 of the Book of Going Forth by Day (Book of the Dead), Thoth records and announces the verdict, typically appearing as an ibis-headed man, and sometimes as a baboon seated atop the scales of justice.

As a moon god, Thoth regulated the seasons and lunar phases and counted the stars. Hence, he was associated with astronomy, mathematics, and accounting. As the god of scribes and writing, Thoth, the “lord of the sacred word”, personified divine speech. Seshat, the goddess of writing and literature, was said to be either his wife or daughter. By the Middle Kingdom Thoth, as a god of wisdom and justice, was connected with Maat, the personification of rightness and world order. The Greeks viewed him as the source of all widow and the creator of languages.

At Hermopolis, Thoth was worshipped as a cosmogenic deity, believed to have risen on a mound from the primeval chaos to create the Ogdoad consisting of Nun, Naunet, Heh, Hehet, Kek, Keket, Amun, and Amaunet, coordinated male and female couplets representing various forces of nature. In solar religion, Thoth and Maat navigated the bark of Re. Some sources refer to him as the son of Re. The Book of Going Forth by Day describes him as returning Re’s eye, which had wandered away. According to Plutarch, after Re had forbidden Nut from giving birth during any month of the year, Thoth tricked the moon goddess Selene into giving him some of her light, which he used to create the five epagomenal days, on which Nut gave birth to the great Ennead. Texts from the Ptolemaic temples of Edfu and Dendera credit Thoth with traveling to Nubia on behalf of Re to pacify the raging Tefnut and persuade her to return to Egypt.

Textual evidence for Thoth and his cult is found throughout Egyptian history. The Pyramid Texts portray him as the advocate and protector of the deceased king, destoying his enemies and carrying him across the river if the ferryman refuses. The dead king may be transformed into a bird with the wings of Thoth. Thoth introduces the king to Re. He also appears as a lunar god, the nightly manifestation of Re, and as a god of thunder and rain. By the Old Kingdom, the festival of Thoth is regularly mentioned in funerary offering formulas. In the Middle Kingdom, the Coffin Texts associate Thoth with divine justice, claiming that his verdict can satisfy both Horus and Seth. The Book of Two Ways refers to the deceased as stars, which reside in the sky beside Thoth. Middle Kingdom instructions and tales regularly use Thoth as a metaphor for justice, and in funerary autobiographies, officials demonstrate their impartiality by claiming to be “truly precise like Thoth.” In the New Kingdom, Thoth figures prominently in the Book of Going Forth by Day, of which he is said to be the author. He acts on behalf of the deceased before a series of divine tribunals; just as he had done for Osiris. He also conducts the interrogation, records the results of weighing the heart against maat, and announces the verdict. Hymns and prayers to Thoth, focusing on his role as patron of scribes, were used as school texts (as in Papyrus Anastasi V) and appear on statues of scribes. New Kingdom didactic literature, such as the Instructions of Amenemope, refers to Thoth as a symbol of justice. The Book of Thoth, believed to contain all knowledge of laws, magic, nature and the afterlife, figures prominently in the Ptolemaic stories of Neferkaptah and Setna-Khaemwaset, both of whom seek to appropriate the book’s information, only to suffer unforeseen consequences.

Thoth plays the role of aide and mediator in the Osiris legend. He assists Horus and Anubis in reconstructing the body of Osiris and teaches Isis the spells necessary to revive him. In one version, he heals the infant Horus after Isis finds him dead of a scorpion bite. He is a staunch advocate of Horus in his battle against Seth, finding and restoring Horus’s eye after Seth casts it away. He replaces the head of Isis after Horus cuts it off in a rage, and after Seth has eaten lettuce containing Horus’s semen. Thoth invokes the semen to appear as a sun disk from the head of Seth. Finally, he helps to bring the proceedings to a conclusion by suggesting that the Ennead contact Osiris for his opinion.

The principal cult center of Thoth was at Hermopolis, ancient Egyptian Khemenu near the modem town of el-Ashmunein. This was the site of a major New Kingdom temple, at which Amehotep III claims to have dedicated a pair of thirty-ton quartzite baboons. The biography of the fourth-century BCE high priest of Thoth, Petosiris, from his tomb at Tuna el-Gebel, recounts his renovation of the temple, said to house the egg from which Thoth had hatched, following the Persian invasion. Tuna el-Gebel was also the site of a massive fifth-century BCE cemetery of sacrificed baboons and ibises, as well as a sacred lake around which the ibises lived. Saqqara was home to a similar cemetery at which more than five hundred thousand ibises and baboons were buried in subterranean passageways; it was also the site of an oracle of Hermes Trismegistos. The Ogdoad of Hermopolis, headed by Thoth, was worshipped at Thebes because of its association with Amun. Sanctuaries of Thoth existed at a number of other sites as well.

Quoted from: “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt”, Oxford University Press, 2001 (by Denise M.Doxey)

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