meaning of Thoth's name ("DHwtii" or "Djehuti"),
represented by the hieroglyph of the Ibis, is unknown.
Egyptologists propose "he of Djehout" (an unknown
location), "he of the castle of speech", "he
who speaks in the temple", "messenger",
"he who selects", "he who chooses".
(1914) thinks that "DHw" could have been the oldest
name of the Ibis, implying that Thoth would mean : "he
who has the nature of the Ibis". Nothing is certain. He
seems an accumulation of cognitive deities.
This bird appeared perched on a standard on slate palettes of
the Terminal Predynastic Period. The sacred Ibis had a long
curved beak, suggestive of the crescent New Moon, and black
& white feathering reminiscent of the Lunar phases of
waxing & waning.
In the Old Kingdom, the association between the Ibis and Thoth
had already been made, for in the afterlife, the wings of
Thoth carried Pharaoh over the celestial river.
god of scribes, science, magic, time medicine, reckoning,
cults, wisdom and the peace of the gods
companion of MAAT
drawing by Stéphane Rossini
less common, pictogram for Thoth was the squatting baboon, who
greeted the dawning Sun with agitated, chattering sounds.
These baboons are also represented on their hind legs with
front paws raised in praise and greeting of Re, facing the
rising Sun. Thoth often wears a crown representing the
crescent Moon supporting the disk of the Full Moon. In the
Middle Kingdom, he was worshipped in all of Egypt. In all
major temples, the cults of both Thoth (and that of his spouse
Maat) were present.
god's birth was, according to one legend, unnatural (he sprang from
Seth's head). Thoth was the secretary of Re, the "scribe of the
gods" and also Re's messenger who promulgated Atum-Re's laws. He
was the great conciliator among the deities, because the "peace of
the gods" is in him. He was a traveler and an international deity,
for his name can be found in many ancient languages : neo-Babylonian,
Coptic, Aramean, Greek & Latin. Thoth represented the embodiment of
all knowledge and literature. He had invented writing and wrote himself.
He was at the command of all the divine books in the House of Life
attached to all major temples of Egypt. The wisdom of Thoth was revered
and considered too secret for profane eyes.
In the story of the magician Djedi, a man of a hundred and ten, we read
that he knew the number of the secret chambers of the sanctuary
of Thoth, the "word of the god Re". He is called the "son
of Re" and "Lord of the eight gods" (the Ogdoad of
Hermopolis). In the funerary rituals, Thoth acted the part of the
recorder, and his decision was accepted by all deities. Thoth observed
whether the heart (mind) of the deceased was light enough to balance the
feather of truth & justice. This by "weighing the words",
for the heaviness of heart was the result of unwholesome speech
(cf. the insistence on silence also served magical purposes). Thoth was
also the ultimate teacher of magic, ritualism & the words of power
which opened the secret pylons of the underworld.
His original home was Khemenu, or "eight-town", referring to
the four pairs of mythical chaos-gods existing before creation, of which
Thoth became the leader and head. The Greeks called it Hermopolis
("city of Hermes").
In Hermopolitan theology, the Nun was personified by the Ogdoad, showing
that this theology was intimately linked with the "mind of Re"
speaking its Great Word (the sacred Ibis dropping the Great Word in the
limitless ocean of inert possibilities), which transformed the
pre-creational, chaotic Ogdoad (cf. the four female snake-goddesses
& four male frog-gods with Predynastic roots) into the Ennead of
Hermopolis headed by the "first of the eight", the Great Word
of Re. The Hermopolitan scheme is cognitive, conceptual and promotes the
Eastern idea that speech has creative & magical power.
As in Memphite theology of Ptah, the original great god (here Thoth)
creates it all with divine words in his mind and on his tongue, a prefiguration
of the Greek
logos-philosophy. The Heliopolitan scheme added the
self-generative aspect of the deity (the great "he/she" being
"causa sui"), as well as the eternal participation (from the
first moment) between the One and his children (Shu and Tefnut), i.e.
the triadic conceptualization of the godhead, a trinity of divine
persons (expanding into "millions"), the principle of intra-divine
Greeks had to acclimatize to Egypt, they took the initiative in
identifying their gods with native divinities. Thoth was probably the
most popular and diverse deity of the Egyptian pantheon. Indeed, in the
Late New Kingdom, Third Intermediate and Late Period, individual destiny
and fate had become increasingly important. Both lay in the hand of the
Although a national deity, Thoth had local associations and
particularities and was regarded as a Moon-god, determining the rhythms
of Egyptian national life (festivals & calendars). As "Lord of
Time", Thoth, the mysterious, ruled individual destinies too, and
was thus very popular. By extension he was lord of knowledge, language,
all science, magic, writing and understanding. He was the creator who
called things into being merely by the sound of his voice. As guide and
judge of the dead, Thoth owed much popularity with common people, and
the "power of the Moon" was invoked in the wisdom
The Greek settlers identified their god Hermes with Thoth. Like Thoth,
he was Lunar, and associated with medicine and the realm of the dead.
Both were tricksters and messengers. Hermes was the "logos",
the interpreter of Divine Will to humanity. In Stoic philosophy, Hermes
is both "logos" and "demiurge", which probably owed
something to the Hermopolitans. In Alexandrian Egypt, the Greek Hermes
(identified with Thoth), became cosmopolitan and Hellenistic, but
Egyptianized and known throughout the Roman world as "the
Egyptian". Interestingly, by intermingling native Egyptian (Thoth)
and Greek theology (Hermes) with Hellenistic philosophy, a syncretic sum
was produced, a major and crucial archetypal idea, which encompassed the
function of the cognitive in the Mediterranean cultures of before
Christianity : Hermes
Trismegistus, or Hermes the "Thrice Greatest", for
during their rituals, the Egyptians used to call Thoth "Great !
Great ! Great !".
However, by people of Greek culture, Trismegistus was not envisaged in
the same way as the Egyptians saw him. The Greeks produced fictional
stories to explain the emergence of Hermes Trismegistus (cf. the Tabula
example, it was widely circulated that Homer was an Egyptian and a son
of Hermes ! The learned Greeks invented a "human" Trismegistus.
The "philosophical" Hermetica (the Corpus Hermeticum)
presented Hermes as a teacher of wisdom. However, in the
"technical" Hermetica (the Greek magical papyri which readapt
Egyptian magic), Thoth appeared, for there Trismegistus was seen as a
cosmic deity, able to dwell in the heart of his devotees and object of
identification for the magician. This ambiguity of Hermes Trismegistus,
the dual-union between the Divine and the human, must have struck many.
It may explain why Hermes is mentioned in early Christian literature
(cf. the two natures of Christ). Hermetical principles were imported in
Europe in the XI - XIIth century by the monastic movement (as part of
the "Orientale Lumen" - cf. Bernard of Clairvaux, Willem of
there is little Christian polemical literature directed against the
Hermetists, for pagans were in general less of a threat to the Church
than heretics, and Trismegistus in particular had anyway been a prophet
of Christ. For that reason -and others- he was often quoted, even
approvingly, by the Fathers ..."
Hermes Trismegistus the wisdom-teacher influenced both Christianity and
Islam. Besides its dogmatic canon, Early
Christianity was influenced by neo-Platonism and Stoicism,
both linked with Alexandrian
Hermetism, and the pagan notions of "Divine Mind",
"World Soul", "Demiurge" and "Pure Act"
(developed in the New Kingdom and returning in Classical Greek
philosophy). Through Harran, Hermes established his place in Islamic
sciences, which in turn would help initiate the European Renaissance in
XIIIth century Italy. It is at this point that a new mixture was brewed,
one which called into being a re-Platonized egyptomanic Hermeticism that
would conquer Europe and finally the New World. It is still with us in
Egyptian Masonic Orders and the various branches of Californian New Age
Three fundamental phases appear :
Hermopolitan theology : the perennial worship of the native
Egyptian Thoth, "Thrice Greatest", centered in Hermopolis
("Hermoupolis Magna") ;
Hermetism : the identification of Thoth with Hermes Trismegistus,
who, in his Graeco-Alexandrian, philosophical teachings (between
ca.150 BCE and 250 CE) is Greek
and human (although Egyptian elements persist), but who assumed, in
the technical Hermetica, the cosmicity of the Egyptian Thoth ;
Hermeticism : the Renaissance produced a fictional European
Trismegistus, based on the
historical Egyptian Hermes and a misunderstood Ancient
Egypt. Trismegistus became the patron of alchemy, magic, mystery
orders, freemasonry, astrology, the New Age, the
Western tradition ... and all matters occult.