Egyptian God Thoth: Birth, Symbols & Importance
In ancient Egypt, Thoth – the ibis-headed god – was venerated as the god of the moon, knowledge, writing (hieroglyph) and languages. As the patron of scribes, Thoth played such an important role in the temples across the land of ancient Egypt. With his cult center primarily in Khmunu (also known as Hermopolis in Greek), Thoth was seen as a very close wingman and respected counselor of Ra, the sun god. He also had a very close bond with Ma’at, the goddess of justice and order. Together, Thoth and Ma’at carried out the weighing of the heart ceremony in the underworld.
Ancient Egyptians honored him as the creator of science, philosophy, magic, and religion. This also explains why there exist a lot of parallels between Thoth and the Greek god Hermes, the god of commuters, trade, invention, and music.
Birth of Thoth
There are primarily two accounts of the birth of Thoth. The first account of the myth states that Thoth came into being around the same time the universe was created. He is considered a self-created god, almost similar to the manner in which Ma’at came into being. In this account, Thoth is considered as the “god without a mother”. A variation of this story also states that Thoth emerged from the lips of Ra. This was also around the beginning of creation.
With respect to the second account of Thoth’s birth, some ancient Egyptians believed that Thoth’s origin story can be traced to the Horus’ semen. It goes on to say that the god Set (Seth) mistakenly came into contact with the semen and out came Thoth from Set’s forehead.
In many cases, the goddess Seshat is seen in a similar light as Thoth. Seshat was Thoth’s daughter. She helped her father on so many projects. The most important of these projects was the establishment of the library and places of learning in ancient Egypt. The goddess Seshat is therefore seen as the goddess of libraries.
On the other hand, some myths, especially those from Khnum (Hermopolis), state that Nehmauit was the wife of Thoth. Nehmauit was the goddess of protection. She and Thoth gave birth to the god Neferhor.
Finally, the most popular account of Thoth’s family say that Thoth was married to the goddess Ma’at. The two deities seemed like a perfect match considering the fact that Ma’at was believed to be the goddess of law and order while Thoth was in charge of all the knowledge and wisdom in the world. Both deities always featured heavily beside each other during the judgment of dead souls. And regarding Ma’at’s 42 Principles, it is believed that Thoth was the framer of those principles. In some regard, he was also the enforcer of Ma’at’s principles and laws in the universe.
What is the meaning of Thoth in Ancient Egypt?
The name “Thoth” is actually a Greek word. The name the ancient Egyptians used to call the god of wisdom and languages was “Djehuti”, which was the name given to the ibis. Hence, many Egyptians venerated the ibis as an embodiment of wisdom, art, magic, and science. It was common for priests serving in Thoth’s temple to put on the mask of an ibis.
Being a Greek name, Thoth was seen as the Greek equivalent of the Greek god Hermes, the patron god of travelers, trade and arts. During Greece incursions into Egypt, the ancient Greeks merged Thoth and Hermes to form the appellation Hermes Trismegistus. This term translates into “Thoth the Thrice Great” or “Thoth Three Times Great, Great”.
Thoth’s Significance in Ancient Egyptian Society
Considered the creator of writing and language, Thoth can be best described as the chief scribe/counselor for the gods and goddess of Egypt. In his magnificent abode, all manner of knowledge, arts, and science could be found. It is for this reason why scribes, in particular, worshiped him. Kind courtesy of his vast knowledge, Thoth has also been credited with the creation of the Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The next significant role of Thoth borders around his remarkable ability to mediate or serve as an arbitrator. Whenever there was a disagreement between the Egyptian gods, Thoth was called upon to intervene. He was beyond reproach and an absolutely just and fair judge, according to the myth. His famous intervention came when he mediated the fight between Horus and Set. It is believed that he made sure that none of those two gods had an undue advantage over the other.
Due to Thoth’s role as a mediator, he was seen as a very good partner to Ma’at. He helped frame the rules and principles of Ma’at. The Egyptians also believed Thoth on several occasions ensured that the gods were duly aware of those principles so as to ensure chaos did not come to destroy the orderly world. In this role, he served as a very influential counselor to the gods.
Since the beginning of time and creation, Thoth has been around. He burst forth voluntarily in order to take records of the events that transpired during creation. Ancient Egyptians also believed that the universe itself was based on the models and calculations put forth by Thoth. In view of this, his vast knowledge and wisdom can not be rivaled by any god or goddess in Egypt.
Thoth’s Role in the Underworld
As part of his recording work, Thoth plays a very crucial role in the Hall of Truth – a place where the dead souls are judged. He assisted the likes of Anubis, Ma’at, and Osiris in pronouncing judgment on the dead. Once the verdict was given, Thoth would then record the verdict passed on the dead soul. This helped earn him the title “Inscriber of one’s fate”.
Thoth is believed to have a mansion in the underworld – the Mansion of Thoth. In this mansion, the dead could seek solace and safety as they made their journey in the underworld.
All in all, Thoth’s sphere of influence abounds in every form of knowledge ever known to mankind, as well as the gods themselves. Relying heavily on his vast knowledge, the pharaohs of Egypt were able to steer their kingdom clear from the jaws of chaos.
- 10 Most Famous Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt
- The Major Time Periods in Ancient Egypt
- Twelve Greatest Cities in Ancient Egypt
How did Thoth become the god of wisdom and knowledge?
Many Egyptian hieroglyphs state that Thoth started off as a moon god. But because the ancient Egyptians relied so heavily on the phases of the moon in order to tell one season from another, or in order to conduct certain rituals, Thoth’s influence progressively expanded into things related to general knowledge of the cosmos, astronomy, and rituals of the Egyptians. This is how come he became the god of wisdom in general.
Appearance, Depictions, and Symbols
In many ancient Egyptian artworks, Thoth usually appeared with the head of an ibis while a few other arts portray him with a baboon head. The choice of the head was largely influenced by the Egyptian era. Over the millennia, Thoth has taken on several animal heads. Up to this day, historians and archaeologists continue to find out that many of those animals ended up becoming sacred animals in the kingdom.
Another very interesting thing about the appearance of Thoth is that he always had a round lunar disk on top of his head. In addition to this, there have been some discovered artworks that show Thoth wearing the Atef crown. The Atef is an ancient Egyptian crown that combines the crown of Upper Egypt together with the crown from Lower Egypt. By so doing, the Atef symbolizes the unity of the two regions. Anyone depicted wearing the Atef was regarded as the Lord of all Egypt.
Other famous symbols of Thoth include the scales, the crescent moon, papyrus scroll, stylus, pens, and the baboon.
Thoth and the Distant Goddess Story
The Distant Goddess Story, also known as the Run-away Goddess, talks about how Thoth had to use every ounce of his grey matter to bring back Ra’s daughter who had fled to a faraway land.
Ra trusted no one else than Thoth to accomplish this mission. It is also believed that the goddess fled with the all-seeing “Eye of Ra”. As a result of this, the land of Egypt was cast into disrepair, crops failed, the Nile dried up, and foreign invaders attacked Egypt. Ra, therefore, sent Thoth to bring his daughter back.
In order to accomplish this task, Thoth had to disguise himself as a baboon and use humility, intelligence, and perseverance to convince the goddess to come back to Egypt. The story goes on to say that Thoth was so persistent that he asked the goddess more than 1,000 times to come back home.
In the end, the goddess came back to the land of Egypt. As a result of her time spent in distant places, the goddess came along with her so much knowledge and ideas that benefited the people of ancient Egypt.
As a reward for his brave efforts, the sun god, Ra, bestowed on Thoth several gifts and honors, including betrothing the goddess Nehemtawy to him.
Places of Worship
The most popular worship center of Thoth was at Khnum (Khemenu). During Ptolemaic Era (323 BCE to 30 BCE), the place was called Hermopolis, a name in honor of the Greek messenger god Hermes.
Many priests of Thoth were selected from the ruling class of Egyptian society. They had to have an above-average level of intelligence. They also had to be well-educated in order to fully man the temples of Thoth.
It was not uncommon for Egyptians to have paintings and engravings of the baboon or the ibis in their homes. They believed that symbols and amulets of Thoth brought gave them wisdom that could help them better their lives.
Thoth’s Description and Appellations
Thoth in Egyptian mythology means “He who is similar to the Ibis”. As a result of Thoth’s frequent association with the ibis – an ancient Egyptian sacred bird – he was known as “Djehuty”. The bird typically elicited the feeling of wisdom.
In addition to Djehuty, Thoth had a number of monikers such as Tahuti, Jehuti, Tetu, and Tehuti. In praising his divine wisdom and sheer knowledge, the Egyptians often referred to him as “Lord of Khemenu (Hermopolis)”, “the God of Equilibrium”, and “the Master of Balance”. In some cases, Thoth is commonly seen as the ape god A’an, the god of equilibrium.
Other Important Facts about Thoth
Here are 15 other important facts about the ibis god, Thoth:
- When the goddess Isis wanted to resurrect her dead husband Osiris, it is believed that Thoth was the brain behind the magical spell that Isis used to resurrect her husband Osiris from the grave. Thoth was also considered to have extensive knowledge of medicinal healing. After Horus was injured in the eye by Set, Thoth helped Horus in getting back his eye.
- He was so knowledgeable of all things that he often served as the counselor of the Ra himself. As Ra’s esteemed counselor, Thoth was kind and helpful to any god that needed some sort of advice. This helped earn him the title “the voice of Ra”.
- Along with his wife Ma’at, Thoth would journey the sky with Ra. And in the night, he would lend a helping hand to Ra in defeating the tenacious creature, Apophis (also known as Apep).
- The curvature of Thoth’s beak (from the ibis head) comes from the curved nature of the crescent moon.
- Regarding books and libraries, it is believed that Thoth was very instrumental in the writing of the “Book of the Dead”. He also gave the Egyptians a book called the “Book of Thoth”. Legend has it that this book of Thoth contained the universe’s entire secrets. The book bestowed on the reader vast amounts of knowledge and spells that would make the person the greatest magician in the world. The downside of reading the book came with unimaginable curses. Talk about ignorance being bliss!
- At some point in time, Thoth came to be venerated as the creator god himself. It is believed that Thot, in the form of an ibis, laid a magical egg that hatched into Ra, the sun god.
- Archaeologists discovered several thousands of mummified remains of dead animals, particularly dead ibis and baboons, at Thoth’s hub of worship – the Hermopolis (the City of Hermes).
- Regarding the myth about Thoth being a self-created god, the Egyptians believed that it was the power of language that brought Thoth into being.
- Due to his association with the principle/concept of Ma’at (order), Thoth was sometimes called the “Lord of Ma’at”.
- As the patron god of scribes and languages, Thoth was seen as: “the Lord of the Divine Body” and “Lord of Divine Words”.
- For its logo, the University of Cairo in Egypt has the symbol of Thoth sitting on his throne.
- Thoth is also closely associated with the eight deities of the Ogdoad. The myth states that he had a hand in the creation of the following deities: Kuk, Heh, Nunet, Hauhet, Nun, Amun, Amaunet and Kuaket.
- Some of Thoth’s other names are Tehuti, Lord of the Khemenu, and Zehuti.
- The title “Tuthmoses”, which was given to some pharaohs, translates as someone “Born of Thoth”
- In the nutshell, Thoth was the embodiment of time itself. He is venerated as the inventor of the 365-day calendar. Thoth was responsible for changing the total number of days in the year from 360 to 365. The myth says that Ra banned his daughter Nut from giving birth on any day of the year. As a result of this, Thoth devised a clever plan to extend the number of days from 360 to 365. And on those 5 days, Nut was able to give birth to deities – Osiris, Set, Horus, Isis, and Nephthys.