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Who was the mysterious Thoth in Ancient Egypt?

The ibis was an object of religious veneration in ancient Egypt and was associated with the deity Djehuty -which means “He who is like the ibis”- or also called in Greek Thoth. He is responsible for wisdom, knowledge, writing, mathematics, measurement and time, as well as the moon and magic. He was one of the three most important divinities in the Egyptian pantheon, as his worship extended from the Pre-Dynastic period (6000-3150 BC) to the Ptolemaic period (323-30 BC).

Thoth was in charge of promulgating the decisions of the gods, recording them in writing and enforcing them. As keeper of the records of the gods, Thoth kept count of the days of human beings. He was invested with numerous responsibilities in the administration of the world, for example, when he intervened alongside Osiris and Anubis in the Hall of Truth as the scribe who kept the accounts of the life of the soul of the deceased and recorded the result of the weight of the heart against the pen of truth. In the complex iconography of the trial of Osiris, although the figure of Thoth appears on many occasions as the one in charge of verifying the verdict, the manipulation of the scales is always placed in the hands of Anubis. 

During the Late Period (664-30 BC) Thoth was popularly depicted as an ibis-headed man in the act of writing. Thoth chose two animals to manifest himself: the ibis, an example of restraint and regularity, and the kinocephalus monkey or baboon in a lunar context and as a patron of scribes, who would spill a drop of their ink in honour of Thoth before beginning their daily work.

Although the god Thoth was widely worshipped throughout the land of Egypt, he had his main centre of worship and adoration at the city of Hermopolis Magna, now Ashmuein, in Middle Egypt, of which very little remains visible, except for two colossal statues of cinquefoils erected by Amenophis III.

On the occasion of festivals and processions, the priests in charge of the cult transported statuettes from the temple of Thoth to Hermopolis, to the nearby sacred necropolis of Tuna el-Gebel, where they were placed in underground galleries. During the Ptolemaic or Late Roman period, it became customary for the faithful who went to the temples to dedicate to the gods a mummy of the animal that represented him, such as an ibis in the case of Thoth, which the priests then deposited in immense catacombs, in which today hundreds of thousands of such animals are excavated. In fact, in ancient times, whoever wanted to go to Thoth went to the priests, who bred many ibis, and bought one that flew, then had it killed, mummified and buried. When it reached the afterlife, it would transmit the message to Thoth.


The sons of Nut

According to Egyptian legend, the years originally consisted of only 360 days. At one stage of creation when Ra ruled, it was foretold that his granddaughter Nut would have relations with Geb, which, according to the prophecy, would result in a son who would take power away from him. The young woman was already pregnant, so in order to prevent this Ra put a curse on Nut, so that she could not bear children on any day of the year. The deity was desperate, but the god Thoth came to her aid and devised an ingenious method to enable her to do so.

Thoth turned to the moon god Jonsu, with whom he proceeded to gamble time and moonlight. Thoth won multiple times, so that over the course of the game he was able to buy enough time to create five days. These days, which were not part of the year, could be used by Nut to give birth to her children. And so the goddess was able to give birth to Osiris, Seth, Isis and Nephthys, of whom Osiris would attain the position of their father..

Hermes & Thoth

The Greeks identified Thoth with their messenger god, Hermes. Firstly, Thoth’s function as an intermediary between the gods and men cannot be overlooked; this work coincides with the work of Hermes as herald of Zeus, for Thoth was also considered a symbolic link between the creator demiurge and the gods themselves. Secondly, Hermes was a personification of speech, of communication and also of intelligence, three peculiarities that defined the god Thoth as a divine scribe.


Hieroglyphic writing

As mentioned above, Thoth was the god of the scribes and was considered the inventor of hieroglyphic writing. Writing was born in Egypt because of the need to write down economic aspects: harvests, salaries, taxes, etc., and this made the figure of the scribe necessary. The scribe’s mission was to write all kinds of documents, and his work was so valuable that his social status was considered one of the highest.

In ancient Egypt there were three types of writing: hieroglyphic, which was the sacred writing and was represented by symbols and drawings; hieratic, which was written on papyrus and was used by the priests for their records; and demotic, which was simpler and had no drawings.


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