- Thot -

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Name
 
   

Thot’s name is usually written with a hieroglyphic sign representing an ibis perched on a standard  , only rarely accompanied by phonetic signs  .  Sometimes a sign that represents a baboon is used to write the same name  . These two different ways of writing Thot’s names, reflect the animals that are associated with him (see below: iconography).

In whatever way Thot’s name is written, it is transcribed as DHwtj (Djehuti). The pronunciation "Thot" comes from Greek, which was based on the way the Ancient Egyptians pronounced this name at the time they came in contact with the Greeks. 

The Ancient Egyptian theologists themselves tried to explain Thot’s name as being derived from the word dhr, "be bitter", when it was said that Thot was born from the heart of Re when it was bitter. Such etymologies, however, always need to be approached with caution, since they are most often based on a play with words that had a similar sounding and they were mostly late of date.

Modern-day  Egyptologists, on the other hand, have not been more successful in translating Thot’s name. Several possible etymologies have been proposed: 

  • Thot’s name may have been derived from the name of a (hypothetical) city, "Djehu" and that it would mean "the one from Djehu". This city, however, is never mentioned in the Ancient Egyptian texts and more than likely never existed. 
  • Other researchers have proposed that it would mean "the messenger", which would seem to be confirmed by Thot’s character. 
  • Yet other Egyptologists would support an association with a similar sounding word that means "to choose", ...

The fact of the matter is, however, that there is no generally accepted or acceptable etymological explanation for the name "Thot". 

Iconography

Thot is usually represented as an ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus), a man with the head of an ibis or a baboon (Papio Cynocephalus). The most common representation of Thot is as an ibis headed man, holding a reed pen and a palette or  tree leaf in his hands.
 

 

Thot in his guise of lunar god, represented as a baboon.

 

 

Thot as an ibis headed man (left) and as a baboon (right).
The image on the left is from: Faulkner, Book of the Dead, pl. 3

As an ibis, Thot often appears perched on a standard or on a slate palette of the Early Dynastic Period. The oldest known representations of an ibis god are dated to the Early Dynastic Period, and although it is not certain that this god actually is Thot, no other god was ever represented as an ibis. The association between Thot and the ibis can at least be traced back with certainty to the Pyramid Texts from the second half of the Old Kingdom, where we can read that "in the afterlife the wing of Thot will carry the king over the celestial river if the ferryman is reluctant", or that "the king can transform himself into a bird whose wing feathers are those of Thot, the mightiest of gods".

This association is probably to be explained by the lunar character of this god (see below: nature): the curved beak of the ibis may perhaps have been seen as a symbol for the moon's crescent, and the black and white feathering of the animal as representing the waxing and waning of the moon. 

The association between Thot and the baboon can probably be explained by the cheering and chattering of baboons at sunrise and the close relationship that Thot, as a lunar god, held with the sun god Re. In this baboon shape, Thot was associated with the Early Dynastic god Hedj-wer, "the great white one"

Nature

Like so many Ancient Egyptian gods, Thot has a very complex nature. In the following paragraphs, his most important features are discussed. 

The god of writing 

Certainly one of the most important aspects of Thot’s complex nature is that of a god of writing and of the scribes. Thot is credited by the Ancient Egyptians with the invention of the hieroglyphic writing, the "words of god", evidenced in his epithet "the one who created writing".

He can often be seen holding a reed pen and a scribe's palette. Among his many epithets "lord of the reed pen" clearly shows his association with these attributes of writing. It is therefore not surprising to see the scribe's palette being presented to Thot, or one of the gods associated with him, in ritual scenes.

Thot was the archetype of the Egyptian scribe: he was meticulous, worthy of trust and very precise. In the so-called "Ptolemaic" writing, the hieroglyphic sign representing an ibis, Thot’s sacred animal, was used to write the notion of "excellence".

Scribes were regarded as "followers of Thot" and they were a privileged class that was held in high esteem in the Ancient Egyptian society. As followers of Thot, they were supposed to be as meticulous and trustworthy as Thot himself. According to one hymn to Thot, the eye of the baboon watched out for scribes who took advantage of their skill by using it for self gain. The close relationship between the scribe and Thot is shown in statuettes of a scribe seated cross-legged on the ground with his papyrus roll stretched across his knees listening to the dictates of the baboon on an altar next to him, as can be seen in the following example.
 

   
 

Thot, represented as a baboon, oversees, protects and inspires a scribe.

 

As the scribe of the gods, Thot also recorded and imparted their decisions and thus came to be considered as the messenger of the gods in general and of Re in particular. In this role, he was identified by the Greeks with their god Hermes, which is, in fact, a very narrow restriction of Thot’s far more complex nature.

The lunar god

Represented as an ibis or a baboon, Thot is often crowned with the crescent and disk of the moon, demonstrating his lunar character. In the Pyramid Texts, he is called upon next to the solar god Re and both are described as the "two companions who traverse the sky" (PT 128 b-c). In the Coffin Texts, the deceased proclaims that he "knows the one who is small on the second day of the month and big on the fifteenth, it is Thot", referring to the waxing moon of the first half of the lunar month.

Like the two most important other lunar gods, Iah, whose name simply means "moon", and Khonsu, whose name "the wanderer" refers to the cycles of the moon, Thot is very closely associated with the calculation of time in specific and arithmetic in general. As the master of passing time, he is called "the scribe who counts the years".

As a lunar god, he was responsible for completing the moon during its cycle, that is to say, to make sure that time passes as it is supposed to. He is thus often called "the one who completes (the moon)" or "the one who counts the things that are brought (to him)", where "the things that are brought (to him)" refers to the pieces of the wounded lunar eye (the moon). The waning and waxing of the moon were explained in mythology as the eye of the moon being wounded (waning) and healed (waxing), and Thot was the god who took care of the healing.

As such, Thot becomes much more than just a lunar god. He is the guardian of the moon, the healer of the lunar eye and, together with the sky god Shu, the protector of Osiris when the latter god is associated with the moon. It is in this way that one needs to understand the unique representation in the Sokar-chapel of the temple of Dendara, which shows the udjat-eye as a symbol for the moon, being held in a net by Shu and Thot.

Thot was not only responsible for the lunar cycle, but also for the movements of the stars. Again in the Coffin Texts it is said that Thot was the "bull among the stars" and during the New Kingdom, the stars are said to be in Thot’s following.

As the master of passing time, Thot is the god who records the annals of the king on a palm tree leaf, where that type of leaf represents the notion of "years".

In his relationship to the solar god Re, Thot (the moon) is said to be his companion or his substitute. The moon was often called the substitute of the sun at night. One of Thot’s epithets describes him as "herald of Re in the sky". 

The god of wisdom 

An aspect of Thot’s nature that is very closely linked to his lunar nature, is that of god of wisdom. We have already seen that Thot as lunar god was responsible for the phases of the moon, the movement of the stars and the calculation of time. He was also responsible for the counting of the different pieces of the lunar eye.

From this, his nature was extended and he was credited with knowledge in general. He was called "the one who is sharp of perception", the inventor of mathematics, astronomy and engineering. As a mathematician, he helped the gods and the king to keep track of their possessions.

Thot was the god of knowledge par excellence, which is reflected in such epithets as "the one who knows all that is", "the one who knows the Two Lands" or just simply "the one who knows". His knowledge was not restricted to that what ordinary people or most other gods knew, he also knew that what was hidden to others. This made Thot a great lord of magic, "adorned with magic", "the creator of spells", who taught Isis all the spells that she needed to restore her murdered husband Osiris to life long enough to conceive with him. He also taught her all the magic formulae with which she cured and protected her infant son Horus when he was growing up in the Nile Delta.

Thot himself was believed to be the author of a book of magic and the forty two volumes that contained all the wisdom of the world. During the 18th Dynasty, these volumes were brought into the court of law for reference, for they largely dealt with legal matters.

Another special kind of wisdom that was credited to Thot, was that of the moral rules that governed the Ancient Egyptian society, known today as wisdom texts

The god of justice

From the Middle Kingdom on, Thot becomes more and more associated with the goddess Maat, who is, among other things, the deified personification of the concepts of  "law, justice and order". Thot brings Maat, he is the "bull of Maat" or the "Lord of Maat" and Maat is his pectoral, that is his heart and conscience. In temple scenes of the Greek-Roman Period, Thot and Maat are often represented together. In other temple scenes where the king presents the seated image of Maat to the gods, Thot is very often mentioned or referred to. An earlier example, in the Kestner Museum in Hanover (Germany) shows the ibis Thot perched before a seated statuette of Maat.
 

   
 

Thot is cosely related to the concept of Maat, cosmical order, represented here as a squating woman with a plume on her head.

 

As early as his appearance in the Pyramid Texts there already are hints that Thot was without mercy to enemies of justice, decapitating them and cutting out their hearts. It is therefore not unlikely that Thot’s Middle Kingdom association with Maat was due to both gods’ inclination towards justice.

The honorific title "supreme judge" given to Thot during the Old Kingdom and still reflected in the many temples that were built and/or decorated during the Greek-Roman Period, clearly shows Thot as the god of justice. Another title accorded to him is that of "judge" or "the one who judges". All these titles can especially but not exclusively be found on temple gates that were considered "gates where justice is passed" either used for Thot himself or for any god associated with him, such as Khonsu.

As a god of justice, Thot was unbiased, honest and fair. He would always be on the side of justice and was a fierce foe to all that was not just. Many texts mention that his "abomination is partiality" and that he "loathes choosing sides" or those that do so.

He is therefore considered a conciliator among the gods, who has, as one text puts it, "the peace of the gods" in him. His epithet "the one who separates the two companions" is based upon his role in the struggle between Horus and Seth. As the unbiased champion of justice, he intervened several times to give Osiris’ heritage to his rightful heir, Horus, and not to the usurper Seth. It is therefore not surprising to find Thot mentioned in rituals that deal with Horus’ inheritance of the Two Lands, reflected in the epithet "the one who unites the two parts (of the country) for the son of Isis". This also explains the very close association between Horus and Thot, who are sometimes shown together purifying the king with water, when the latter enters a temple.

The succession of kings was considered to be a repetition of Horus’ succession of Osiris, and thus yet another aspect of Maat. Because the king was a Horus and his deceased predecessor was an Osiris, it was again Thot who awarded the living king his heritage, the kingdom of the Two Lands.

Thot and the afterlife 

All the aspects of Thot’s complex nature combined result in his close association with life after death. He was the god who taught Isis the magical formulae to bring her husband Osiris back to life. He also judged Osiris and declared him "true of voice", thus making it possible for Osiris to continue living after his death. From then on, Thot was responsible for judging all the deceased and allowing them to enter the world of Osiris if the deceased had led a moral and just life.

Thot not only judged the deceased, he also recorded the result of the weighing of their hearts (conscience) carried out by Anubis. In vignettes from the most elaborate Books of the Dead (especially those of the royal scribes Ani and Hunefer or the priestess Anhai) Thot appears in front of the scales in which the heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather that symbolises Maat or even the seated figure of the goddess Maat.  He holds his reed pen and palette ready to write down the result of the examination of the heart.  Frequently, in his shape of a baboon, he sits on top of the balance.
 

   
 

Thot, the scribe, records the result of the Weighing of the Heart of Ani. From the papyrus of Ani.

 

At least from the New Kingdom on, Thot is often represented on the sides of sarcophagi, yielding a stick to make holes in the heavens. These holes allowed the passage of fresh air inside the sarcophagus, thus enabling the deceased to breathe.

His association with life after death can also be linked to his lunar nature: the moon was thought to be reborn every month after having grown old and died. 

Primary cult centres

Thot’s major cult centre was in modern el-Ashmunein in Middle Egypt.  Greek visitors called it Hermopolis after the god in their pantheon they associated with Thot. The Ancient Egyptians called this city Khemenu or "town of the eight", a name referring to four pairs of primaeval deities who were eclipsed in importance by the arrival of Thot, "lord of the city of the eight". Despite its current ruined state, Thot’s temple at el-Ashmunein was once of great importance. As part of his elaborate building program throughout Egypt, Amenhotep III set up two 30 ton baboons carved out of quartzite in honour of Thot.  Much later in the 4th century BC Petosiris, a high priest of Thot, following the turmoil of the Persian invasion of Egypt, renovated the temple monuments and restored the park for the sacred baboons and ibises. The most important event, however, mentioned in his autobiographical inscription, is that part of the shell of the sacred cosmic egg (probably envisaged as an ibis egg) from which the sun-god emerged at the beginning of time still existed at Hermopolis.

Thot also had temples in Nubia, in the Dakhla oasis in the Western Desert and  he was an important deity in Sinai, controlling and recording the mining of turquoise.