Thoth, God of the Moon, Magic and Writingby Caroline Seawright
August 6, 2001
Updated: November 29, 2012
The wisest of the Egyptian gods was Thoth (Djhuty, Djehuty, Tehuty), the baboon and ibis god of the moon. Thoth was the god who overcame the curse of Ra, allowing Nut to give birth to her five children, with his skill at games. It was he who helped Isis work the ritual to bring Osiris back from the dead, and who drove the magical poison of Set from her son, Horus with the power of his magic. He was Horus' supporter during the young god's deadly battle with his uncle Set, helping Horus with his wisdom and magic. It was Thoth who brought Tefnut, who left Egypt for Nubia in a sulk after an argument with her father, back to heaven to be reunited with Ra.
A very ancient legend, set in the time when Ra lived on earth as King of Egypt, tells of how Tefnut became estranged from her father and fled into Nubia. The cause of the rift between father and daughter is not known; however, once Tefnut reached Nubia, she transformed herself into a lioness and raged throughout the land emitting flames from her eyes and nostrils, drinking blood and feeding on flesh, both animals and human. Re missed his Eye, Tefnut, and longed to see her again. He sent for Shu, and for Thoth, the messenger of the gods, famed for his eloquence, and commanded them to go to Nubia and bring back his daughter. Shu and Thoth, having first disguised themselves as baboons, set off for Nubia.
Thoth found Tefnut in Bugem, and tried to persuade her to return to Egypt. At first, she refused: she had begun to enjoy herself hunting in the desert. Thoth persevered and painted for her a picture of the gloom that had descended on Egypt because of her absence. He promised her that the game that she now had to hunt for herself would be piled high on the altar that the Egyptians would build for her in gratitude if only she would return to them. At last, Tefnut agreed to accompany Thoth and Shu back to Egypt, and the two baboons led her home amidst great rejoicing. Attended by a great throng of Nubian musicians, dancers and baboons, Tefnut made a triumphant progress from one city to another until finally she was welcomed home by Re himself and restored to her rightful position as his Eye.
-- Watterson, B. 1999, Gods of Ancient Egypt p. 34
When Ra retired from the earth, he appointed Thoth and told him of his desire to create a Light-soul in the Duat and in the Land of the Caves, and it was over this region that the sun god appointed Thoth to rule, ordering him to keep a register of those who were there, and to mete out just punishments to them. Thoth became the representation of Ra in the afterlife, seen at the judgement of the dead in the 'Halls of the Double Ma'at'.
The magical powers of Thoth were so great, that the Egyptians had tales of a 'Book of Thoth', which would allow a person who read the sacred book to become the most powerful magician in the world. The Book which "the god of wisdom wrote with his own hand" was, though, a deadly book that brought nothing but pain and tragedy to those that read it, despite finding out about the "secrets of the gods themselves" and "all that is hidden in the stars".
"Praised be thee, Lord of the great gods,
Possessor of the secrets that are in heaven and on earth,
Good god of eternity of old,
Who gave (us) the language and the scripture,
Who has the houses pass by inheritance,
Who founds the temples,
Who sees that the gods remain within the limits of their competence,
Each guild fulfils its obligations,
The countries know their frontiers,
And the fields their appurtenances."
-- Bleeker, C.J 1973, Hathor and Thoth: Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion, p. 1
He was one of the earlier Egyptian gods, thought to be scribe to the gods, who kept a great library of scrolls, over which one of his wives, Seshat, the goddess of writing, was thought to be mistress. The god born of this union was called Hornub. He was associated by the Egyptians with speech, literature, arts, learning. He, too, was a measurer and recorder of time, as was Seshat. Believed to be the author of the spells in The Book of the Dead and a much later work, the Book of Breathings, he was a helper (and punisher) of the deceased as they try to enter the underworld. In this role, his wife was Ma'at, the personification of order, who was weighed against the heart of the dead to see if they followed ma'at during their life. At Khmunu (Hermopolis) he was wed to a goddess of protection called Nehmauit (Nahmauit, Nehmetaway), 'She Who Uproots Evil', with whom he fathered the god Neferhor.
Thoth was usually depicted as an ibis headed man or as a full ibis, or with the face of a dog-headed baboon and the body of a man or, again, as a full dog-headed baboon. The ibis, it is thought, had a crescent shaped beak, linking the bird to the moon. The dog-headed baboon, on the other hand, was a night animal that was seen by the Egyptians who would greet the sun with chattering noises each morning just as Thoth, the moon god, would greet Ra, the sun god, as he rose.
In keeping with his many attributes, he was depicted with a variety of symbols. As a god of Egypt, he carried the ankh, the symbol of life, in one hand, and in the other he held a sceptre, the symbol of power. In The Book of the Dead, he was shown holding a writing palette and reed pen to record the deeds of the dead. As voice of the sun-god Ra, he carried the Wedjat (Eye of Horus or Ra) the symbol of Ra's ubiquitous power. Thoth was variously depicted wearing a crescent moon on his headdress, or wearing the atef crown, or sometimes, the crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.
-- Ingram, F., Edfu
Originally, Thoth was a god of creation, but was later thought to be the one who civilized men, teaching them civic and religious practices, writing, medicine, music and magic. It was Thoth who was thought to have taught men the mode and pronunciation of his writing - prayers and magic spells could fail if not intoned correctly - and so he was the master of magic. He took on many of the roles of Seshat, until she became a dual, female version of Thoth.
The god of learning was also reputed to have been a god of measuring the passage of time, and thus the god of the Egyptian calendar. He was also thought to be the god of the first month of the Egyptian calendar, known as Thuthi by Greek times. It is interesting to note that although he is related to the solar calendar in myth (where he won five extra days a year from Khonsu, the moon god), but that as a moon god himself, he was very probably closely related to Egypt's original lunar calendar:
...Researchers of the ancient Egyptian calendar agree that the solar calendar of 360 + 5 days was not the first prehistoric calendar of that land. This 'civil' or secular calendar was introduced only after the start of dynastic rule in Egypt, i.e., after 3100 BC; according to Richard A. Parker (The Calendars of the Ancient Egyptians) it took place circa 2800 BC 'probably for administrative and fiscal purposes'. This civil calendar supplanted, or perhaps supplemented at first, the 'sacred' calendar of old. In the words of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 'the ancient Egyptians originally employed a calendar based on the Moon'. According to R. A. Parker (Ancient Egyptian Astronomy) that earlier calendar was, 'like that of all ancient peoples', a calendar of twelve lunar months plus a thirteenth intercalary month that kept the seasons in place.
-- Sitchin, Z. 1993, When Time Began, p. 201
Thoth's centre of worshipped was at Khmunu (Hermopolis) in Upper Egypt, where he was the creator god, in Ibis form, who laid the World Egg. The sound of his song was thought to have created four frog gods and snake goddesses who continued Thoth's song, helping the sun journey across the sky. He was also venerated at at Ba'h (El-Baqliya) in the Delta. An archaic temple (c. 3,000 BC) was discovered at the west bank of the Nile at Ipet-Resyt (Luxor), known as Thoth Hill, however it is believed that the imagery of Thoth found at the site actually relates to the 11th Dynasty temple built on the hill by pharaoh Sankhkare Mentuhotep.
He was the 'One who Made Calculations Concerning the Heavens, the Stars and the Earth', the 'Reckoner of Times and of Seasons', the one who 'Measured out the Heavens and Planned the Earth'. He was 'He who Balances', the 'God of the Equilibrium' and 'Master of the Balance'. 'The Lord of the Divine Body', 'Scribe of the Company of the Gods', the 'Voice of Ra', the 'Author of Every Work on Every Branch of Knowledge, Both Human and Divine', he who understood 'all that is hidden under the heavenly vault'. Thoth was not just a scribe and friend to the gods, but central to order - ma'at - both in Egypt and in the Duat. He was 'He who Reckons the Heavens, the Counter of the Stars and the Measurer of the Earth'. He was most certainly a major god to the ancient Egyptian peoples.