(Tehuti, Djehuty) Thoth is the God of learning and of wisdom, depicted as an ibis-headed man, as an ibis, or, less often, as a baboon (in this form generally with a lunar crescent on his head), and frequently holding the brush and palette of a scribe, since the wisdom of which he is the master is in particular that contained in sacred texts. Thoth has also strong lunar associations, to the extent of being often identified with the moon itself (for instance, CT spell 156 states that “what is small in the full month [i.e., the new moon] and great in the half-month [the full moon], that is Thoth”), but more systematically Thoth is the God responsible for healing the wedjat, the Eye of Horus, after it was injured by Seth, and since the wedjat‘s regeneration is embodied in the waxing lunar cycle, Thoth is the God who restores the light of the moon. The symbolism of the Eye of Horus extends well beyond the moon, however, and Thoth’s activities in relation to the Eye of Horus are virtually coextensive with his entire sphere of activity; in CT spell 249, Thoth states “I have come that I may seek out the Eye of Horus, I have brought and examined it, and I have found it complete, fully numbered and intact.” Thoth’s identification with the moon probably also involves an idea known to many cultures, namely that the moon, as the nocturnal sun, symbolizes the powers of the human intelligence to supplement that which nature provides and as an intermediary between the divine and mortal realms. Thoth is not only the embodiment of wisdom, but also its advocate in the world: “Content are all the Gods … with this great and mighty word which issued from the mouth of Thoth for Osiris,” (PT utterance 577). Thoth is also a peacemaker who reconciles Horus and Seth and who pacifies the wrathful Goddesses, especially Sekhmet. In this latter role, expressed in the epithet sehetep neseret, ‘the one who pacifies/propitiates the divine flame’, Thoth mediates again between the mortal and the divine, for the fiery blast of wrathful Goddesses, which is called neseret, forms a barrier of sorts between these realms. Thoth’s cult center is Khemenu (known as ‘Hermopolis’ by the Greeks); his consort is Nehmetaway or Seshat, although the latter is sometimes regarded as his daughter. Thoth’s association with Nehmetaway underscores that in addition to his role as lord of knowledge and of magic, he is also lord of justice and of truth, “whose abomination is falsehood … lord of laws, who makes writing speak … who witnesses truth to the Gods, who so judges that ma’et [truth] is upheld, who vindicates the loser, savior of the needy one and his possessions … who rescues the needy from the powerful,” (BD spell 182).
In the conflict between Horus and Seth, Thoth, although clearly Horus’s partisan in the quest for the sovereignty, nevertheless was understood to heal both Gods of their injuries, the eyes of Horus and the testicles of Seth. Thoth can be understood to express an actual, if conflictual, bond between Horus and Seth. In the wake of a homosexual encounter between Seth and Horus, which Seth subsequently tries to use before the divine tribunal in order to disparage Horus, Thoth himself becomes the recipient of the luminous disk which emerges from Seth’s head after Seth is tricked into ingesting lettuce contaminated with the semen of Horus, this disk apparently standing for the lunar disk which Thoth bears on his head. The allegorical value of such a tale, in which wisdom is born from the conflict of other principles, was likely not lost on Egyptians; we know that in the Late Period, at least, an extended allegory known as “The Blinding of Truth by Falsehood” was in circulation which bears certain analogies with the conflict myth, although it includes nothing like this episode. Another aspect of Thoth’s role as mediator between Horus and Seth can be seen from the terminology which is used for this act: Thoth “separates” [wp] the combatants, a term which has the sense both of separating physically but also of deciding or discerning. The same terminology of “separating” is used in oracle consultations, where the God being consulted is asked to “separate” [wp] two complementary petitions, that is, to choose the correct claim and discard the other. A hymn to Thoth generalizes this function, calling Thoth “the legislator in heaven and on earth, he who sees to it that the Gods remain within the limits of their competency, each guild fulfills its obligations and the countries know their frontiers and the fields their appurtenances” (Bleeker 1973, 137), while in PT utterance 570 Thoth is he “in whom is the peace of the Gods.”
Thoth facilitates the exchange across the border between the human and divine realms in his function as lord of sacred texts. In the Book of the Celestial Cow, when Re is about to withdraw from his role as immanent sovereign of humanity to take his place on the heavenly plane, he says to Thoth, “I am here in heaven, in my place … be a scribe here, have power over those who are here … thou shalt be in my place, my deputy,” (Piankoff, 32). Re empowers Thoth by a series of formulae linked to Thoth’s diverse forms—the ibis, the moon, and the baboon. First, Re grants him the authority to send forth the other Gods through spells and invocations and to check their actions in turn, this power corresponding to the ibis. Next Re bids him to “encompass the two heavens with thy beauty and thy light,” this corresponding to the moon. Finally, Re charges him with traversing the lands of the Ha-nebu, the ‘Northern Lords’, a vague term for the islands of the Aegean (cf. CT spell 785: “O mighty of magic … the Gods, the lords of all things, circulate about you in your name of Him who goes round about the Isles,” that is, the islands of the Ha-nebu), perhaps implying a circuit around the Mediterranean and thus through many foreign lands—a hymn to Thoth states that he “made different the tongue of one country from another,” (Bleeker 1973, 140); this last power corresponds to the baboon.
A large body of speculative literature in ancient Egypt was attributed to the authorship of Thoth. In the hands of bilingual Egyptian priests, these texts were surely to some degree the inspiration for the Greek literature known as the ‘Hermetica’, which date from the first through the third centuries CE. To make more substantial claims about doctrines common to the Egyptian speculative literature and the Hermetica, however, is hazardous because only fragments of this genre of Egyptian literature survive. The most significant surviving work of this kind, although it too is a tissue of fragments, is a Demotic text which has been dubbed the ‘Book of Thoth’ although its actual title does not survive (see Jasnow and Zauzich 2005). Much of the text is hopelessly enigmatic, but it takes the form of an initiatory dialogue between Thoth, called ‘He who praises knowledge’, and a disciple, ‘The one who loves knowledge’ or ‘who wishes to learn’. Occasionally joining the dialogue is a figure named by an epithet which could variously be translated as ‘He who has judged upon his back’ (i.e., lying upon his bier), ‘He who is upon his mound’, or ‘He who wears the atef‘ (the distinctive Osirian crown), thus suggesting Osiris, or as ‘the opener upon his standard’, an epithet of Wepwawet. Prominent roles are also accorded to Seshat and to Imhotep, the latter as an initiator into the mysteries of Thoth. The dialogue is wide-ranging, including discussions of the tools and craft of the scribe, the nature of language and its origins, the art of interpreting sacred texts, cosmogony, the netherworld, and animals, both sacred and mundane. Symbols and concepts from the afterlife literature are deployed throughout the text, although the ‘Book of Thoth’ is clearly not itself funerary. Unfortunately, the state of the text is such that it is far easier to say what subjects are discussed than just what is said about them. One theme coming through strongly is the idea that wisdom is continuous through the whole of nature; thus the text says at one point, “Is a learned one he who instructs? The sacred beasts and the birds, teaching comes about for them, but what is the book chapter which they have read? The four-footed beasts which are upon the mountains, do they not have guidance?” (B01, 1/6-7). [On the ‘Book of Thoth’, see my “Opening the Way of Writing: Semiotic Metaphysics in the Book of Thoth” (2013).]
Although he stands apart from the familial organization of the Children of Nut, due to his extensive involvement on behalf of Osiris and Horus Thoth is sometimes regarded as being among their number. Thus in BD spell 1, Thoth states, “I am one of these Gods, the children of Nut, who slay the enemies of Osiris and keep the rebels away from him. I belong to thy people, Horus. I fought on thy behalf; I intercede in behalf of thy name.” In BD spell 175, however, in a dialogue with Atum, Thoth shows that he transcends an exclusive identification with this divine family circle. In this spell, Atum complains to Thoth, “O Thoth, what is to be done with the Children of Nut? They have made war, they have stirred up turmoil, they have committed wrongs, they have started rebellions, they have made carnage, they have put under guard … Give thou effective help, O Thoth.” Atum, as representing the most primordial order of Gods, laments the disorder generated by all sides in the conflicts associated with the children of Nut, without preference. Thoth responds to Atum, “Thou shalt not experience wrongs … Their years have been shortened, their months have been brought near, since they have made a mockery of secrecy in all that thou hast done.” The operator of the spell proceeds to affirm, “I am thy palette, O Thoth; I have brought thee thy water-bowl. I am not among these who betray their secrets.” In this fashion, the operator, with the help of Thoth, identifies himself with a principle transcending the cosmic principles themselves, which are conceived here as betraying the ‘secrecy’ or latency of the precosmic state. Elsewhere, Thoth is called “the one with whose word Atum is content,” (Bleeker 1973, 119). Thoth is also distanced somewhat from the drama of the Children of Nut in PT utterance 218, in which Seth and Thoth are called “brothers who did not mourn” Osiris, while PT utterance 219 goes further, saying of Seth and Thoth alike that “your brother Osiris … has been caused to be restored that he may live and punish you.”
In PT utterance 534, in a series of formulae which are designed to repel ordinarily beneficent deities in case they come with evil intentions for the deceased, the formula to be used against Thoth is that he is “motherless”. To some extent this surely foreshadows Thoth’s frequent designation in later texts as the “heart [i.e., mind] of Re” (see Boylan 1922, 114f). In a text from Esna (Sauneron, Esna V, 226, text 206, 11; III, p. 33; Sauneron in Mél. Mariette, p. 234-5) it is said that Thoth comes forth from Re’s heart “in a moment of grief.” Sometimes Thoth’s origins are too primeval to speak of his having parents; thus in BD spell 134, Thoth is referred to as “son of the stone, who came forth from the twin eggshells [lit., ‘female stones’].” A tradition of local importance at Armant, however, identifies the Goddess Raettawy as Thoth’s mother. In this capacity Raettawy bears the epithet Snk(t)-Nt, or “Nurse of Neith,” (el-Sayed 1969, 73ff). Thoth is sometimes called “son of Neith” and Neith “divine mother of Thoth,” probably in a more symbolic than mythical sense. Some texts add that Raettawy created Thoth “for Horakhty,” the solar form of Horus closely associated with Re, or refer to her as “Raettawy, the wet-nurse who nurses her heir, she is Snk(t)-Nt beside Re.” It is also stated that she brought Thoth forth “in the sha’ê,” the great pool at the beginning of the universe, and that she “shines in the Nun [i.e., the precosmic abyss] with Shu,” all of which serves to convey that Thoth’s origins lie in the earliest discernible moments of the cosmogenesis.
On the other hand, Jørgensen 2015 discusses several texts that seem to suggest a tradition in which Thoth is born from the menstrual blood of a Goddess of variable identity. In the Delta Mythological Manual, the rape of the Goddess Horit by Seth results either in a pregnancy and miscarriage/abortion, or in her first menstruation. In either case, Horit expels an unformed, monkey-like fetus into the water, where it is found by the black ibis, associated with the dark of the moon. In the Manual (§25 in Meeks 2006), the child thus born is identified as the “Son of the Two Lords” and as “Thoth who emerges from the forehead”; hence this episode is presented as analogous to the account of Thoth’s birth (or the birth of his symbol) from the semen of Horus that came forth from Seth’s brow. Similarly, in PT utterance 669, the king is identified with Thoth—“Yours is rebirth in the nest [of] Thoth within the Field of Tamarisk,” the king being he “who issued from the leg,” i.e., the crescent moon, and he “who judged the rivals, who parted the combatants,” as is said of Thoth—but also said to have been “spat out” with “no legs” and “no arms”, and needing accordingly to be “knit together” into a functioning organism. Again, in PT utterance 570, the king is said to be born from the menstrual blood of Isis and of Nephthys and referred to as ‘representative’ (sti) of Re, hence identified with Thoth as thus designated in the Book of the Celestial Cow. Such an account of Thoth’s birth would be similar to his birth from the homosexual encounter between Horus and Seth inasmuch as it situates the God of ideality as having a birth somehow contrary to ‘nature’, or in which nature must be supplemented or augmented, but adds an element of potentiality, symbolized by the menstrual blood or fetus, as inherent to this ideality. The wnšb object, as offering frequently shown being presented by Thoth to the Distant/Returning Goddess, once thought to be a clepsydra, is argued by Jørgensen to represent returning to the Goddess the potentiality embodied in her menstrual blood, symbolically equivalent in certain respects to the efflux from the body of Osiris (note in the Tebtunis Mythological Manual that the ibis of Thoth is said to get its name from having gorged, hb, upon the limbs of Osiris, TM 6, 19-25, trans. in Jørgensen 2014, p. 96). The wnšb, which includes a baboon (sometimes mummified), a receptacle, and what is arguably the sign for a uterus, is regarded by Jørgensen as representing “a creature in a potential state of being” (Jørgensen 2015, p. 161-2).
A mythic incident involving an injury to Thoth’s shoulder is alluded to in Ramesseum Papyrus XI, which places it alongside the more well-known injuries to the eye of Horus and to the testicles of Seth. An ambiguous passage from the Papyrus Jumilhac may recount this incident (Vandier pp. 106-108 on 17, 3-6/570-573). The text is extremely problematic, but according to one possible reconstruction, it tells of Seth attacking Thoth and cutting off his arm after having stolen Thoth’s sacred books and thrown them into the river. Thoth magically reattaches his arm, painting with his brush over the spot where the arm fastens in order to fix it securely in place. The text says that “the qniw exist on account of this,” the qni being a kind of ceremonial cape worn over the shoulder by sem priests (p. 107 n. 3). CT spell 156, for “knowing the souls of Khemenu,” by way of comparison, refers to a plume which is fastened to the shoulder of Osiris and grows, perhaps as a symbol for wings.
Thoth is rarely spoken of as having mythic offspring, but CT spell 201 refers to “Wenpy, son of Thoth.”
“The Nature and Functions of Thoth in Egyptian Theology,” Appendix A in The Scribing Ibis: An Anthology of Pagan Fiction in Honor of Thoth, ed. Rebecca Buchanan et al. (Bibliotheca Alexandrina, 2011).
“Opening the Way of Writing: Semiotic Metaphysics in the Book of Thoth,” pp. 215-247 in Practicing Gnosis: Ritual, Magic, Theurgy and Liturgy in Nag Hammadi, Manichaean and Other Ancient Literature. Essays in Honor of Birger A. Pearson. Ed. April D. DeConick, Gregory Shaw, and John D. Turner. (Leiden: Brill, 2013).
Allen, T. G. 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [BD]
Bleeker, C. J. 1973. Hathor and Thoth. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Boylan, Patrick. 1922. Thoth, the Hermes of Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Faulkner, R. O. 1969. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [PT]
Faulkner, R. O. 1973-8. The Ancient Egyptian Coffin Texts. 3 vols. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd. [CT]
Jasnow, Richard and Karl-Theodor Zauzich. 2005. The Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.
Jørgensen, J. K. B. 2014. Egyptian Mythological Manuals: Mythological structures and interpretative techniques in the Tebtunis Mythological manual, the manual of the Delta and related texts. Københavns Universitet, Det Humanistiske Fakultet.
——. 2015. Myths, Menarche and the Return of the Goddess. Pp. 133-164 in R. Nyord & K. Ryholt, eds. Lotus and Laurel: Studies on Egyptian Language and Religion in Honour of Paul John Frandsen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum.
Meeks, Dimitri. 2006. Mythes et Légendes du Delta: d’après le papyrus Brooklyn 47.218.84. Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale.
Piankoff, Alexandre. 1955. The Shrines of Tut-Ankh-Amon. New York: Bollingen.
Vandier, Jacques. 1961. Le Papyrus Jumilhac. Paris: Musée du Louvre.
el-Sayed, Ramadan. 1969. “Thoth n’a-t-il Vraiment pas de Mère?” Revue d’Égyptologie 21: 71-76.