Thoth : Moon-god presiding over scribes and knowledge (George Hart)

Thoth : Moon-god presiding over scribes and knowledge

Thoth — `Djeheuty’ in Ancient Egyptian — can be represented under two forms:
(a) Sacred ibis
The ibis that becomes associated with Thoth appears perched on a standard on slate palettes of the late Predynastic period. Certainly by the Old Kingdom the association between the bird and the god had been made: in the next life the wing of Thoth will carry the king over the celestial river if the ferryman is reluctant. Further, the king can transform into a bird whose wing feathers are those of Thoth `mightiest of the gods’. The ibis symbol also appears early on in courtiers’ tomb inscriptions, in reference to offerings being regularly left for the deceased on the Festival of Thoth.
(b) Baboon (Papio Cynocephalus)
By the first dynasty the baboon in its formal squatting posture which was to become the symbol of Thoth had made its appearance in glazed composition figurines from Abydos.
Thoth can be depicted as the ibis or baboon appear in nature or, in the case of the ibis, anthropomorphic with the bird’s head superimposed on his shoulders. In each instance the god wears a crown representing the crescent moon supporting the full moon disk. Both his sacred creatures can be interpreted in terms of lunar symbolism. Thoth as moon-god could manifest himself as the sacred ibis whose long curved beak hints at the crescent new moon and whose black and white feathering could be seen as indicating the waxing and waning of the moon. Baboons make agitated chattering sounds at dawn and consequently this could be understood as a greeting to the rising sun by creatures of the moon-god. Certainly the baboon is shown is Egyptian art in such an attitude of deferential greeting, e.g. in the vignette accompanying the hymn to the sun-god at the beginning of the Book of the Dead baboons stand on their hind legs with front paws raised in honour of Re, or, above the colossal statues of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel, a frieze of baboons is carved to face the rising sun. It is also possible — but not provable — that the Egyptians had noticed that the hierarchy of a baboon pack mirrored to a certain extent their own society — dominant aloof male = pharaoh, select female baboons = royal harem — and therefore this animal exhibited a wisdom worthy of the god Thoth in his role as sacred repository of knowledge. In typical Egyptian fashion scribes did not concern themselves with the historical or logical development that might have led to the adoption of these creatures as sacred to Thoth but explained their association with the god by a series of puns — e.g., Thoth as the ibis (= hib’) treads on (= `hab’) his enemies.
The god’s birth was, according to one legend, unnatural in that he sprang from the head of Seth. Elsewhere, such as in the inscription of the statue of Horemheb as a scribe in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Thoth is called the son of Re.
There is a clear concept of Thoth as a conciliator among the deities because, as one text puts it, the ‘peace of the gods’ is in him. The skill of his words brings order to warring factions in Egypt itself. However, as early as his appearance in the Pyramid Texts there are hints that Thoth could be merciless to enemies of truth, decapitating them and cutting out their hearts. He is a staunch advocate of Horus and is seen opposite him on temple walls in the ritual of pouring signs of life over the monarch between them.


Thoth as ‘lord of the sacred words’ gave to the Egyptians the knowledge of how to write by picture symbols, hence hieroglyphs could always possess a magical force. Scribes regarded themselves as ‘followers of Thoth’. They were a privileged professional class and, according to one hymn to Thoth, the eye of the baboon watched out for scribes who abused their skill by applying it to illicit self-gain.
The palette which contained their red and black ink and their pens became the symbol of their expertise. The close relationship between the scribe and Thoth is evidenced in two statuettes. One, in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, shows the official supporting the baboon of Thoth on his shoulders and the other, in the Louvre Museum, is of Nebmertuwef seated cross-legged on the ground with his papyrus roll stretched across his knees listening to the dictates of the baboon on an altar beside him.
Thoth represented to the Egyptians the embodiment of all scientific and literary attainments, being in command of all ‘the sacred books in the house of life’. The ‘house of life’ (or ‘per ankh’) was a revered resource centre accessible only to scribes, containing a wealth of knowledge on papyri — all under the protection of Thoth — e.g., medical manuals, mathematical problems and instructional documents on social etiquette. The idea of Thoth transmitting wisdom, too secret for profane eyes, to a few initiates (notably to scribes in charge of temple libraries) comes across in the Middle Kingdom story set centuries before in the reign of King Khufu (Dynasty IV) and a magician called Djedi: Djedi knows the number of the secret chambers in the sanctuary of Thoth, powerful knowledge not even possessed by the pharaoh himself.


The god is himself the scribe of the Ennead, responsible for writing letters on all important decisions or disputes. His impartiality and integrity are beyond question — hence a common assertion made by an official about his life was that he had been ‘straight and true’ like Thoth. It is Thoth’s duty to record all the souls entering `Duat’ or the Underworld. In the Hall of the Two Truths the god is in charge of the balance, an Ancient Egyptian equivalent of the lie detector. In vignettes from the most elaborate Books of the Dead (especially those of Ani or Hunefer, royal scribes, or Anhai, a priestess, in the British Museum) Thoth, ibis-headed, appears in front of the scales in which the heart of the deceased is weighed against the feather of Truth. He holds his reed brush and palette ready to write down the result of the examination of the heart. Frequently, in his shape of a baboon he sits on top of the balance. He has the vital task of announcing to Osiris, ruler of the Underworld, that the deceased has led a blameless life and is `true of voice’.

Quoted from: “A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses”, ©  George Hart, Routledge, 2006

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