Thoth was considered one of the most important deities of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, who was often depicted with the head of an ibis. His chief shrine was at Khemennu, where he was the head of the local company of gods, later renamed Hermopolis by the Greeks (given his identification with the Greek God Hermes) and Eshmûnên by the Arabs. Shrines in his honor were also constructed in Abydos, Hesert, Urit, Per-Ab, Rekhui, Ta-ur, Sep, Hat, Pselket, Talmsis, Antcha-Mutet, Bah, Amen-heri-ab, and Ta-kens.
He was considered to be the heart and tongue of Ra, as well as the means by which Ra's will was translated into speech. Given this association with divine speech/will, he has also been likened to the Logos of Plato and to the mind of God. In Egyptian mythology, he has played many vital and prominent roles, including being one of the two gods (the other being Ma'at) who stood on either side of Ra's boat during its daily circumnavigation of the human world and the underworld. Also, his relationship with the divine will meant that he was affiliated with arbitration (specifically with regards to the souls of the deceased), magic, writing, and science.
|Common names for Thoth |
According to Theodor Hopfner, Thoth's Egyptian name written as ḏḥwty originated from ḏḥw, claimed to be the oldest known name for the ibis although normally written as hbj. The addition of -ty (an associative suffix), which denotes the possession of attributes, means that his name could be roughly translated as "He who is like the ibis".
The Egyptian pronunciation of ḏḥwty is not fully known, but may be reconstructed as *ḏiḥautī, based on the Ancient Greek borrowing Θωθ Thōth or Theut and the fact that it evolved into Sahidic Coptic variously as Thoout, Thōth, Thoot, Thaut as well as Bohairic Coptic Thōout. The final -y may even have been pronounced as a consonant, not a vowel. However, many write "Djehuty," inserting the letter "e" automatically between consonants in Egyptian words, and writing "w" as "u," as a convention of convenience for English speakers, not the transliteration employed by Egyptologists.
Djehuty is sometimes alternatively rendered as Tahuti, Tehuti, Zehuti, Techu, or Tetu. Thoth (also Thot or Thout) is the Greek version derived from the letters ḏḥwty.
Over and above differences in spelling, Thoth, like many other Egyptian deities, had many names and titles. Some of his alternate names included A, Sheps, Lord of Khemennu, Asten, Khenti, Mehi, Hab, and A'an. In addition, Thoth was also known by specific aspects of himself, for instance the moon god A'ah-Djehuty, representing the moon for the entire month, or as jt-nṯr "god father."
Further, the Greeks related Thoth to their god Hermes, due to the similarities between their attributes and functions. One of Thoth's titles, "three times great" (see Titles) was translated to the Greek τρισμεγιστος (Trismegistos) which yielded the composite deity Hermes Trismegistus.
Thoth in an Egyptian context
As an Egyptian deity, Thoth belonged to a religious, mythological and cosmological belief system that developed in the Nile river basin from earliest prehistory to around 525 B.C.E. (This particular "cut-off" date has been chosen because it corresponds to the Persian conquest of the kingdom, which marks the end of its existence as a discrete and (relatively) circumscribed cultural sphere. Indeed, as this period also saw an influx of immigrants from Greece, it was also at this point that the Hellenization of Egyptian religion began. While some scholars suggest that even when "these beliefs became remodeled by contact with Greece, in essentials they remained what they had always been" (Erman, 203), it still seems reasonable to address these traditions, as far as is possible, within their own cultural milieu.)
Indeed, it was during this relatively late period in Egyptian cultural development, a time when they first felt their beliefs threatened by foreigners, that many of their myths, legends and religious beliefs were first recorded. (The numerous inscriptions, stelae and papyri that resulted from this sudden stress on historical posterity provide much of the evidence used by modern archeologists and Egyptologists to approach the ancient Egyptian tradition.) The cults were generally fairly localized phenomena, with different deities having the place of honor in different communities. Yet, the Egyptian gods (unlike those in many other pantheons) were relatively ill-defined. As Frankfort notes, “If we compare two of [the Egyptian gods] … we find, not two personages, but two sets of functions and emblems. … The hymns and prayers addressed to these gods differ only in the epithets and attributes used. There is no hint that the hymns were addressed to individuals differing in character.” One reason for this was the undeniable fact that the Egyptian gods were seen as utterly immanent—they represented (and were continuous with) particular, discrete elements of the natural world. Thus, those Egyptian gods who did develop characters and mythologies were generally quite portable, as they could retain their discrete forms without interfering with the various cults already in practice elsewhere. Furthermore, this flexibility was what permitted the development of multipartite cults (such as, the cult of Amun-Re, which unified the domains of Amun and Re), as the spheres of influence of these various deities were often complimentary.
The worldview engendered by ancient Egyptian religion was uniquely defined by the geographical and calendrical realities of its believers' lives. The Egyptians viewed both history and cosmology as being well ordered, cyclical and dependable. As a result, all changes were interpreted as either inconsequential deviations from the cosmic plan or cyclical transformations required by it. The major result of this perspective, in terms of the religious imagination, was to reduce the relevance of the present, as the entirety of history (when conceived of cyclically) was defined during the creation of the cosmos. The only other aporia in such an understanding is death, which seems to present a radical break with continuity. To maintain the integrity of this worldview, an intricate system of practices and beliefs (including the extensive mythic geographies of the afterlife, texts providing moral guidance (for this life and the next) and rituals designed to facilitate the transportation into the afterlife) was developed, whose primary purpose was to emphasize the unending continuation of existence. Given these two cultural foci, it is understandable that the tales recorded within this mythological corpus tended to be either creation accounts or depictions of the world of the dead, with a particular focus on the relationship between the gods and their human constituents.
Throughout the development of Egyptian mythology, Thoth, like the majority of multi-faceted Egyptian gods, has been depicted in a variety of forms. Most often, he is portrayed as an humanoid figure with the head of an ibis, which is in keeping with the etymology of his name. When not depicted in this common form, he is sometimes represented entirely zoomorphically, as either an ibis or a baboon, or entirely anthropomorphically (as in the form of A'ah-Djehuty).
In many of these forms, Thoth's identification with the moon is visually represented by the presence of the lunar disk atop his head. Conversely, when he is depicted as a form of Shu or Ankher, the god will often be portrayed wearing the respective god's headdress. Also, in some later images that stress the god's relationship with the ruling dynasty, he is sometimes shown wearing either the atef crown or the double crown (which symbolizes the rulership of both Upper and Lower Egypt).
Attributes and mythological accounts
Egyptologists disagree on Thoth's nature depending upon their view of the Egyptian pantheon. Most egyptologists today side with Sir Flinders Petrie that Egyptian religion was strictly polytheistic, in which Thoth would be a separate god. Corresponding to this characterization were some origin tales that described Thoth emerging fully-formed from the skull of Set. His contemporary adversary, E. A. Wallis Budge, however, thought Egyptian religion to be primarily monotheistic where all the gods and goddesses were aspects of the God Ra, similar to the Trinity in Christianity and devas in Hinduism. In this view, Thoth was characterized as the heart and tongue of Ra, representing the both the cosmic order (Ma'at) and the means through which it was incanted into the created world. In this context, Thoth and Ma'at (both personifications of order) were understood to be passengers on Ra's celestial barque, regulating its regular, systematic progression through the heavens.
Regardless of the overall characterization of the god, it is undeniable that his roles in Egyptian mythology were both numerous and varied. First, Thoth served as a mediating power, especially between the forces of good and evil, making sure neither had a decisive victory over the other. This aspect was particularly relevant in his arbitration of the conflict between Set and Horus. Likewise, Thoth's mediative role was also evident in his netherworldly alter ego A'an, the god of equilibrium, who monitored the posthumous judgment of deceased mortals and recorded the results in a celestial ledger.
Thoth was also understood to serve as the scribe of the gods, and was resultantly credited with the invention of writing and alphabets. As a result, he was also acknowledged as the progenitor of all works of science, religion, philosophy, and magic. In the Hellenistic period, the Greeks further declared him the inventor of astronomy, astrology, numerology, mathematics, geometry, surveying, medicine, botany, theology, civilized government, the alphabet, reading, writing, and oratory. They further claimed he was the true author of every work of every branch of knowledge, human and divine.
In the cultic system centered in Hermopolis (the Ogdoad), Thoth was also characterized as a creator deity: the self-begotten and self-produced One. In this context, he was understood to be the master of both physical and moral law, both of which corresponded to the proper understanding and application of Ma'at. As such, he was credited with making the calculations for the establishment of the heavens, stars, Earth, and everything in them, and to direct the motions of the heavenly bodies. In this particular construal of the Egyptian pantheon, Thoth's this-worldly and other-worldly power was almost unlimited, rivaling both Ra and Osiris. Also, this cosmogony creditec him with giving birth to Ra, Atum, Nefertum, and Khepri by laying an egg while in the form of an ibis (or, according to some accounts, a goose).
Thoth was also prominent in the Osiris myth, being of great aid to Isis. After Isis gathered together the pieces of Osiris' dismembered body, he gave her the words to resurrect him so she could be impregnated and bring forth Horus, named for his uncle. When Horus was slain, Thoth gave the formulae to resurrect him as well.
Mythological accounts also assign him credit for the creation of the 365 day calendar. According to this tale, the sky goddess Nut was cursed with barrenness by Shu, who declared that she would be unable to conceive during any of the months of the year. Coming to her aid, Thoth, the crafty god, discovered a loophole—since the calendrical (lunar) year was only 360 days long, the addition of days that were not contained in any given month (epagomenal days) would circumvent the hex. Thus, Thoth gambled with Khonsu, the moon, for 1/72nd of its light (five days) and won. During these five days, the goddess conceived and gave birth to Osiris, Set, Isis, Nepthys, and (in some versions) Kheru-ur (Horus the Elder, Face of Heaven). For his exploits, Thoth was acknowledged as "Lord of Time."
As mentioned above, Thoth was, from the earliest mythic accounts, associated with the scribal profession. For this reason, Thoth was universally worshiped by ancient Egyptian administrators, scribes, librarians, and copyists, who viewed him as their patron. This identification was also a "two-way" phenomenon, as the ibis (the sacred bird of Thoth) came to be a visual shorthand for scribes. In a more general context, "the wisdom and magical powers ascribed to Thoth meant that he was naturally invoked in many spells utilized in popular magic and religion."
During the [late period of Egyptian history, a cult of Thoth gained prominence, due to its main center, Khnum (Hermopolis Magna) becoming the capital. This led to millions of ibises being sacrificed, mummified and buried in his honor. The rise of his cult also led his followers to adjust the mythological corpus to give Thoth a greater role. One of these developments can be seen in the Book of the Dead, where the god's affiliation with natural/social law (ma'at) allows him to be seen as the scribe of the underworld, recording the results of each individual's judgment in a celestial register. Likewise, Thoth was seen as the author of the entire corpus of spells and charms designed to aid the dead in their traversal of the underworld. The increasing importance of the cult of Thoth is also attested to by the fact that Djehuty (Thoth), a Sixteenth Dynasty pharaoh (ca. 1650 B.C.E.), took the god's name as his own. This augmented veneration of Thoth remained a relative constant of Egyptian religion until well into the Hellenistic period.
|Titles belonging to Thoth |
Scribe of Ma'at in the Company of the Gods|
Lord of Ma'at
Lord of Divine Words
Judge of the Two Combatant Gods
Judge of the Rekhekhui,
the Pacifier of the Gods,
who Dwelleth in Unnu,
the Great God in the Temple of Abtiti
Three Times Great, Great
Thoth, like many Egyptian gods and nobility, held many titles. Among these were "Scribe of Ma'at in the Company of the Gods," "Lord of Ma'at," "Lord of Divine Words," "Judge of the Two Combatant Gods," "Judge of the Rekhekhui, the pacifier of the Gods, who Dwelleth in Unnu, the Great God in the Temple of Abtiti," "Twice Great," "Thrice Great," and "Three Times Great, Great."
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