THOTH was the god of wisdom from Hermopolis in Middle Egypt. According to the Hermopolitan cosmology (which is best known from texts found at other sites), the eight primordial gods representing "hiddenness," "darkness," "formlessness" (?), and the "watery abyss" produced an egg that appeared at Hermopolis when the inundation subsided and from which the creator god appeared and brought everything else into being. When mentioned in the Heliopolitan Pyramid Texts, this creator god was Atum, but in the local Hermopolitan tradition he could have been Thoth.
Thoth was the moon god and as such was the companion of Re, the sun god, but he also had his own following among the stars in the night sky. One mortuary tradition, probably originating at Hermopolis, permitted the dead who knew the correct spells to accompany Thoth in the sky. Thoth was the son of Re, but he also represented the injured eye of the falcon-headed sky god, Horus, whose sound eye was Re. For unknown reasons Thoth is identified with both the ibis and the baboon. He is regularly depicted as a human with the head of an ibis. Baboons often appear in temple reliefs worshiping the sun god, and this association might indicate his subordinate relationship to Re. In the judgment scene of chapter 125 of the Book of Going Forth by Day, Thoth as the ibis-headed god presides over and records the weighing of the heart of the deceased owner of the book. A baboon is also represented in this scene seated atop the balance, apparently to ensure its accuracy. Thoth is credited in Egyptian mythology with separating the two contenders, Horus and Seth, as well as with magically restoring Horus's injured eye. He has one of the major supporting roles in much of Egyptian religious literature, and a number of hymns are addressed to him directly, although Re and Osiris are the principal gods discussed and invoked in these texts.
Thoth was renowned for his wisdom and praised as the inventor of writing. The mdw-ntr ("god's words," i.e., hieroglyphs) were recognized as perhaps his greatest contribution, and he was frequently shown with brush and papyrus roll in the attitude of the scribes, whose patron he was.
In the eighteenth dynasty several kings took as their throne name Thothmose ("Thoth is the one who bore him"). This Thutmosid family included several other members with ʿi'ḥ ("moon") in their names, so it is clearly Thoth's position as moon god that is being recalled. Remains of two small temples to Thoth survive in the Theban area, one very late and poorly decorated. Since the eighteenth dynasty was of Theban origin and the son of Amun-Re at Thebes was the moon god, Khonsu, these two moon gods could have been assimilated, but the family could also have chosen the name of the northern god (Thoth) when they moved their residence (capital) to Memphis.
In Egyptian literature there clearly was an ancient tradition concerning the secret knowledge of Thoth. Secret rooms and mysterious books were sought by learned scribes, priests, and princes. This tradition was carried over into some of the Coptic gnostic library tractates, and the question arises whether these were Egyptian or Greek in origin since the Greeks had early identified their god Hermes with Thoth. The origins of the continuing traditions of Hermes Trismegistos and gnosticism can be traced to Egypt, to Thoth, and perhaps even to the Hermopolitan cosmology, but the extent of Egyptian influence on these beliefs remains to be determined.
The great temple of Thoth at Hermopolis has not survived, although its location is known from finds in the area. A large catacomb for the burial of mummified ibises and baboons has been found nearby at the necropolis of Tuna al-Gabal.
Bleeker, C. Jouco. Hathor and Thoth: Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion. Leiden, 1973. Issued as a supplement by the periodical Numen.
Boylan, Patrick. Thoth, the Hermes of Egypt. New York, 1922.
Černý, Jaroslav. "Thoth as Creator of Languages." Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 34 (1948): 121–122.
Leonard H. Lesko (1987)
Djehuty, Sheps, Asten
Egyptian Book of the Dead
Son of Ra
Thoth was the Egyptian god of wisdom and knowledge. Honored as the inventor of writing and the founder of branches of learning, such as art, astronomy, medicine, law, and magic, he was the god associated with scribes, the official writers who documented ancient Egyptian culture and beliefs. Ancient Egyptians associated Thoth with the moon and identified him as the son of Ra, the supreme sun god. According to legend, Thoth possessed books of wisdom that contained secret information about nature and magic. Although the books were hidden, certain scribes had access to them.
Thoth played a key role in the Egyptian story of the afterlife. Known to be fair and impartial, Thoth judged the souls of the dead by weighing their hearts against a feather that represented truth. After recording the results, he told Osiris (pronounced oh-SYE-ris), ruler of the underworld or land of the dead, whether the individual had led a just life.
Thoth also played an important role in the creation of the Egyptian pantheon, or collection of recognized gods. According to myth, the goddess Nut —who had married her twin brother Geb against the wishes of Ra—was not allowed to have children during any month of the year, which originally consisted of only 360 days. Thoth felt sorry for Nut and gambled with the moon in an effort to win a portion of its light. Thoth won and turned that light into five additional days for each year. During those five days, Nut gave birth to her five children: Osiris, Isis (pronounced EYE-sis), Set (pronounced SET), Nephthys (pronounced NEF-this), and Horus (pronounced HOHR-uhs).
Thoth in Context
The nature of the god Thoth reflects the importance of the moon and calendars in ancient Egypt. Thoth was originally seen as a moon god, with the curve of the beak on his ibis head even resembling a crescent moon. As the observation of the moon became a crucial part of determining the passage of months and seasons—the basis for early Egyptian calendars—Thoth came to be seen as the god of wisdom and knowledge. The Egyptians used these calendars to determine when to plant and harvest crops, and were one the first societies to establish a month and year cycle similar to what is still used today. The first month of the Egyptian year was even named after their god of the moon and wisdom, Thoth.
Key Themes and Symbols
Thoth represented wisdom to the ancient Egyptians. He was also known as the “tongue of Ra,” the tongue symbolizing his eloquence of speech as the speaker for the supreme god. He was seen as a force of levelheadedness and compromise among the gods, as shown in his acquisition of five extra days in each year for Nut.
Thoth in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
In works of art, Thoth appears as either a human with the head of an ibis—a bird with a long, curved bill—or a baboon that supports the moon on its head. In modern times, Thoth was popularized by occult author Aleister Crowley in The Book of Thoth, which oudined the proper use of a deck of Tarot cards he created known as the Thoth Tarot. The Thoth Tarot has gone on to become one of the most popular decks of Tarot cards ever created.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Calendars played a crucial role in ancient societies. Nearly all important tasks, including religious rituals and agricultural tasks, relied upon knowledge of dates and seasons. Using your library, the Internet, or other available resources, research the ancient Egyptian calendar. How does it differ from the calendar we use today? Does it have any advantages over our modern calendar? Does it have any disadvantages? Does the Egyptian calendar reflect ancient Egyptian beliefs? If so, how?
Thoth was the Egyptian god of wisdom and knowledge. Honored as the inventor of writing and the founder of branches of learning such as art, astronomy, medicine, law, and magic, he was the patron god of scribes. Ancient Egyptians associated Thoth with the moon and identified him as the son—or heart and tongue—of Ra, the supreme sun god.
According to legend, Thoth possessed books of wisdom that contained secret information about nature and magic. Although the books were hidden, certain scribes had access to them.
patron special guardian, protector, or supporter
scribe secretary or writer
underworld land of the dead
Thoth played a key role in the Egyptian story of the afterlife. Known to be fair and impartial, Thoth judged the souls of the dead by weighing their hearts against a feather that represented truth. After recording the results, he told Osiris, ruler of the underworld, whether the individual had led a just life. In works of art, Thoth appears as either a human with the head of an ibis—a bird with a long, curved bill—or a baboon that supports the moon on its head.
See also Afterlife; Egyptian Mythology; Moon; Osiris; Ra (Re); Underworld.