© Photo copyright Jon Bodsworth. Used with permission.
Thoth was portrayed by the ancient Egyptians in various ways. Thoth sometimes assumed the shape of a baboon. For domestic use, effigies of Thoth as a baboon were made. There is an ode to Thoth where the god is addressed as a statuette studded with precious stones representing the god as a baboon. But whenever Thoth took action or made pronouncements, he appeared in human form with the head of an ibis. In hieroglyphic script and among the emblems carried in temple processions, he was immediately recognizable whenever the ibis occurred. The ibis apparently expressed the essence of Thoth better than the baboon.
The ibis occurs on the standard of the 15th nome of Lower Egypt, whose capital was called Hermopolis parva in later days. The name indicated Thoth was venerated in that nome. Thoth was also worshipped in other delta towns. Thoth is said to have been identified with an ibis-god in Hermopolis parva (Boylan, 1922, p. 75). Thoth became the dominant god in Upper Egypt's Hermopolis magna, or 'town of Eight.'
Plutarch's statement about the ibis attracted attention. The ibis destroyed noxious reptiles and set a standard for cleanliness. The ibis taught the priests the art of purgation, and it only drank from clean water sources. So the ibis was a typical combatant of hostel beings. Plutarch wrote (Isis and Osiris, 75), "The ibis, which kills the deadly creeping things, was the first to teach men the use of medicinal purgations when they observed her employing clysters and being purged by herself. The most strict of the priests take this lustral water for purification from a place where the ibis has drunk."
Egyptians often understood the essence of their gods through the epithets associated with them Thoth was frequently called 'the son of Re.' A stunning pronouncement in the Pyramid Texts (§1271), it is said of Thoth, 'you have no mother.' Mysterious is the name of Thoth as '(son of) the stone (who came forth) from (the two eggshells)' (Allen, 1974, 219; Book of the Dead [BOD] Spell 134). This stone is the eggshell he split in two at his birth, which suggest the remnants of another creation account with Thoth as the creator god. Another strange announcement is Thoth emerged from the skull of Seth after Horus had impregnated him (in 'The Contendings of Horus and Seth'). Thoth is called 'the one who emerged from the skull.' In ancient Egyptian, the word 'skull' (/wp.t/) is reminiscent of the word 'judge' (/wp, wpw/), and Thoth often acted as a judge. Another strange statement about the birth of Thoth is contained in a late text from the temple of Esna. Re, embittered by the rebellion of mankind, sent Thoth out to crush the rebellion. The role is consistent with Thoth as a chastiser of evildoers. Thoth was also a peacemaker and it was said of him, 'he makes peace between the two combatants (Horus and Seth)... he dispels the sorrow of the older generation, he settles the discord of the younger generation, he catches the suffering of Isis [about the death of Osiris] as though in a net' (BOD Spell 110). The god who promotes the state of satisfaction in the cosmos is Thoth. In the Pyramid Texts (§1465), Thoth is called 'the one who signifies the peace of the gods.'
Thoth was considered one of the oldest gods. However he is not a part of the famous Heliopolitan Ennead. He was accounted as one of the ten members of the dynasty of gods who ruled earth before earthly kings (Turin Royal Canon). Thoth's primacy is suggested in the fascinating story told by Plutarch (Isis and Osiris, 12) that Hermes (i.e. Thoth) won five extra days for the year by playing a game (senet?) with Selene (moon). These five extra days became the birthdays for the deities Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis, and Nephthys.
Thoth was a benefit both to the gods and mankind. Thoth helped revive Osiris. He acted as Osiris' advocate during the trial. Thoth assisted Isis to rear Horus in the marshes. Thoth punished Seth and all evil doers. Thoth was a legislator, judge, and scribe. He restored order and brought harmony to the world. He assisted mankind as a protector of the weak and of those whose property was violated.
An important task in the cosmos was ascribed to Thoth in the Shabaka Text, or Memphite Theology, which is usually called a 'logos doctrine.' According to the text, creation took place because a thought arose in the heart of the deity and the tongue uttered that thought. The thought and the word were personified in the gods Horus and Thoth. That word is active in all living creatures: the gods, the people, the cattle, etc. The word brings forth all manner of food and nourishment. Thoth is therefore the safeguard and guardian of all the regulations of creation. Thoth makes justice triumphant in the world of man.
Thoth was the inventor of the sacred writings. He was patron of the scribe. Mention is made of 'the hieroglyphic writings, the books of Thoth.' The writers in the temple scriptoria were under the supervision of Thoth. Sacrificial rituals were said to be performed 'according to the writing that Thoth made for Osiris in the house of god's book.' The text containing the lament of Isis and Nephthys about their murdered brother states, 'Thoth recites thine (Osiris) hymns and invokes thee with his spells.' Thoth also played a role in the founding of temples. Mention is made of a temple 'which Ptah built with his fingers and which Thoth founded.'
Thoth's assistance to the deceased is well-known from his presence recording the result of judgment at the scales. Two spells in the BOD (95, 96) state a purpose for the deceased to be by the side of Thoth. The deceased even yearns to be identified with Thoth.
Thoth was the patron god of scribes, lord of the sacred writings, legislator, judge, recorder of decisions and pronouncements, arbiter of disputants, queller of noisy division, aid to those suffering injustice or sickness, founder of temples, personification of thought uttered, and restorer of order and harmony. He was a fitting god to be called twice greatest, thrice greatest and even Trismegistus by the Greeks. How much of the Corpus Hermeticum can be traced back to the Egyptians is unclear, but the roots or hermetic lore are certainly to be found in Ramesside Egypt starting with the Memphite Theology and on the walls of the Hibis temple.
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Babbitt, J.C. (translator). Plutarch Moralia V [Isis and Osiris]. Harvard Press, 1936.
Bleeker, C. J. Hathor and Thoth: Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion. Leiden, Brill, 1973.
Boylan, P. Thoth, the Hermes of Egypt. 1922.
Faulkner, R.O. The Ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts. Oxford Press, 1969.
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