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In Egyptian mythology, Thoth was a moon god, and a deity of languages, learning, writing, science, art, and magic. Thoth’s name meant ‘He who is like the Ibis‘, a bird that represented knowledge and wisdom.
Thoth was the adviser and representative of the sun god, Ra. The Greeks associated him with Hermes, due to their similarity in roles and functions.
Let’s take a closer look at Thoth and his various roles in Egyptian mythology.
Origins of Thoth
In Pre-dynastic Egypt, emblems of Thoth appeared in cosmetic palettes. But it is only in the Old Kingdom that we have textual information about his roles. The Pyramid Texts list him as one of the two companions that crossed the sky with the sun god Ra, placing him as a solar deity in the beginning. Later on, however, he became better known as the god of the moon, and he was held in great reverence in astronomy, agriculture, and religious rituals. There are several myths about Thoth’s birth:
- According to The Contendings of Horus and Seth, Thoth was the offspring of these gods, having emerged from Seth’s forehead after Horus’ semen found its way into Seth’s interior. As the offspring of these deities, Thoth incorporated both the characteristics of chaos and stability and therefore, become a god of balance.
- In another story, Thoth was born from the lips of Ra at the very beginning of creation and was known as the god without a mother. According to another account, Thoth was self-created, and he transformed into an Ibis, which then laid the cosmic egg from where all life sprang.
Thoth is predominantly associated with three Egyptian goddesses. He was said to be the husband of goddess Ma’at, the deity of truth, balance and equilibrium. Thoth was also associated with Nehmetawy, the goddess of protection. Most writers, however, connect him with Seshat, the goddess of writing and the keeper of books.
Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the statue of Thoth god.
Symbols of Thoth
Thoth is associated with several symbols which link to his associations with the moon, and with wisdom, writing and the dead. These symbols include:
- Ibis – The ibis is an animal sacred to Thoth. The curve of the ibis’ beak may have been associated with the crescent shape of the moon. The ibis was also associated with wisdom, a trait attributed to Thoth.
- Scales – This represents Thoth’s role in the Judgement of the Dead, where the heart of the deceased was weighed against the Feather of Truth.
- Crescent moon – This symbol reinforces Thoth’s role as a moon god.
- Papyrus scroll – As the god of writing, Thoth is often portrayed with symbols of writing. He is also believed to have taught the Egyptians to write on papyrus.
- Stylus – Another symbol of writing, the stylus was used to write on papyrus.
- Baboon – The baboon is an animal sacred to Thoth, and he is sometimes depicted as a baboon holding a crescent moon.
- Ankh – Thoth is typically depicted holding an ankh, which represents life
- Scepter – Thoth sometimes is shown holding a scepter, which represents power and divine authority
Characteristics of Thoth
Thoth was predominantly represented as a man with the head of an Ibis. On his head, he wore either a lunar disk or the Atef crown. Some images show him holding a scribe’s palette and a stylus. In some depictions Thoth was also represented as a baboon or a man with a baboon’s head.
Thoth as a Patron of Scribes
Thoth was a patron god and protector of scribes. He was believed to have invented Egyptian writing and hieroglyphs. Thoth’s companion Seshat kept scribes in her immortal library and provided protection to the writers on earth. Egyptian deities gave immense importance to scribes, due to the power of their immortal and everlasting words. Scribes were also valued and respected in their journey to the afterlife.
Thoth as a God of Knowledge
For the Egyptians, Thoth was the founder of all major disciplines such as science, religion, philosophy, and magic. The Greeks extended Thoth’s wisdom, by including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and theology. For both the Egyptians and Greeks, Thoth was venerated and honored as a God of knowledge and wisdom.
Thoth as a Regulator of the Universe
Thoth was given the primary task of maintaining balance and equilibrium in the universe. For this purpose, he had to ensure that evil did not grow and foster on earth. Thoth played the role of a wise counselor and mediator to several gods, such as Horus and Set. He was also the advisor and consultant of the sun god, Ra. Most myths speak of Thoth as a man with impeccable persuasive and speaking skills.
Thoth and the Afterlife
Thoth had a mansion in the Underworld and this space provided a safe haven for deceased souls, before their judgment by Osiris.
Thoth was also the scribe of the Underworld and he kept accounts of the souls of the deceased. He played a significant role in determining which individuals would ascend to heaven, and who would go to Duat, or Underworld, where the judgment took place and the spirit of the deceased would stay if they were deemed unworthy. For this purpose, Thoth and his fellow god Anubis, weighed the hearts of the deceased against the Feather of Truth, and their judgment was reported to Osiris, who then made the final decision.
Thoth as an Organizer
Thoth was a very efficient organizer and he regulated the heavens, stars, earth, and everything in them. He created a perfect balance and equilibrium between all the elements and the various living things.
Thoth also gambled with the moon and created a 365-day calendar. Initially, the year only had 360 days, but five more days were extended so that Nut and Geb, the creator gods, could give birth to Osiris, Set, Isis, and Nephthys.
Thoth and the Daughter of Ra
In one interesting myth, Thoth was chosen by Ra to go and fetch Hathor from distant and foreign lands. Hathor had run away with The Eye of Ra, which was required for the governance and rule of people, resulting in restlessness and chaos across the land. As a reward for his services, Thoth was either given the goddess Nehemtawy, or Hathor herself, as his consort. Ra also gave Thoth a seat in his sky boat as a way of honoring him.
Thoth and the Myth of Osiris
Thoth played a minor but important role in the myth of Osiris, the most elaborate and significant story of ancient Egyptian mythology. Some Egyptian writers say that Thoth aided Isis in gathering the dismembered body parts of Osiris. Thoth also provided Queen Isis with the magical words to resurrect the dead king.
Thoth had a significant role in the battle between Horus and Osiris’ son, Seth. When Horus’ eye was damaged by Set, Thoth managed to cure it and bring it to life again. Horus’ left eye was associated with the moon, and this is another story that consolidates Thoth’s moon symbolism.
Symbolic Meanings of Thoth
- In Egyptian mythology, Thoth was a symbol of balance and equilibrium. He safeguarded the state of Ma’at by serving as a counselor and mediator.
- Thoth was an emblem of knowledge and wisdom. For this reason, he was represented by the Ibis bird.
- As a patron of scribes, Thoth symbolized the art of writing and Egyptian hieroglyphs. He was the scribe and account keeper of the deceased souls in the Underworld.
- Thoth was an emblem of magic, and he used his skills to help revive the body of Osiris.
Myth of Thoth in Popular Culture
The myth of Thoth became a popular motif in literature, from the 20th century onwards. Thoth appears as Mr. Ibis in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and his presence is frequently noted in The Kane Chronicles book series. The magazine The Wicked + The Divine mentions Thoth as one of the most important gods in Egyptian mythology.
The character of Thoth appears in the video games Smite and Persona 5. The film, Gods of Egypt, also portrays Thoth as one of the important deities of Egypt. British magician and esotericist Alesiter Crowley created a Tarot card game, based on the myth of Thoth.
Thoth features in the logo of The University of Cairo.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Thoth was an important deity who was worshipped across Egypt. There have been discoveries of several shrines and temples built in his honor. Thoth continues to be relevant even today and is easily recognized by his baboon and ibis-headed depictions.