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The God Thoth and the Invention of Writing

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Relief carving of Thoth from the Temple of Ramesses II, Abydos

Plato ; Phaedrus

(14, 274c-275b)


"I heard, then, that at Naucratis, in Egypt, was one of the ancient gods of that country, the one whose sacred bird is called the ibis, and the name of the god himself was Theuth. He it was who invented numbers and arithmetic and geometry and astronomy, also draughts and dice, and, most important of all, letters.

Now the king of all Egypt at that time was the god Thamus, who lived in the great city of the upper region, which the Greeks call the Egyptian Thebes, and they call the god himself Ammon. To him came Theuth to show his inventions, saying that they ought to be imparted to the other Egyptians. But Thamus asked what use there was in each, and as Theuth enumerated their uses, expressed praise or blame, according as he approved or disapproved.

The story goes that Thamus said many things to Theuth in praise or blame of the various arts, which it would take too long to repeat; but when they came to the letters,

“This invention, O king,” said Theuth, “will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memories; for it is an elixir of memory and wisdom that I have discovered.”

But Thamus replied,

“Most ingenious Theuth, one man has the ability to beget arts, but the ability to judge of their usefulness or harmfulness to their users belongs to another; and now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess.

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.

You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise."

[ Hermes Trismegistus may be associated with the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. Greeks, in the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, recognized the equivalence of Hermes and Thoth through the interpretatio graeca. Consequently, the two gods were worshiped as one. Wikipedia ]

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History


"Osiris, they say, founded in the Egyptian Thebaid a city with a hundred gates, which the men of his day named after his mother, though later generations called it Diospolis, and some named it Thebes. (...)

The one most highly honoured by him was Hermes, who was endowed with unusual ingenuity for devising things capable of improving the social life of man.

It was by Hermes, for instance, according to them, that the common language of mankind was first further articulated, and that many objects which were still nameless received an appellation, that the alphabet was invented, and that ordinances regarding the honours and offerings due to the gods were duly established.

He was the first also to observe the orderly arrangement of the stars and the harmony of the musical sounds and their nature, to establish a wrestling school, and to give thought to the rhythmical movement of the human body and its proper development.


The Greeks also were taught by him how to expound (hermeneia) their thoughts, and it was for this reason that he was given the name Hermes. In a word, Osiris, taking him for his priestly scribe, communicated with him on every matter and used his counsel above that of all others. The olive tree also, they claim, was his discovery, not Athena's, as the Greeks say."

Relief carving of the Egyptian god Thoth, Luxor

Name & Origin

Thoth's Egyptian name was Djehuty meaning "He Who is Like the Ibis". The ibis was a sacred bird in ancient Egypt as well as a popular pet and associated with wisdom. Other forms of his name are Jehuti, Tehuti, Tetu, and Lord of the Khemenu (the later city of Hermopolis) which was his major cult center.

Hermopolis was so named because of the Greek association of Thoth with their god Hermes and to the Greeks Thoth became Hermes Trimegistus (Thoth the Thrice Great often given as "Three Times Great, Great").

Worship of Thoth began in Lower Egypt most likely in the Pre-Dynastic Period (c. 6000-3150 BCE) and continued through the Ptolemaic Period (323-30 BCE), the last dynastic era of Egyptian history, marking Thoth's veneration as among the longest of the Egyptian gods or any deity from any civilization.

He is most commonly depicted as a man with the head of an ibis or a seated baboon with or without a lunar disc above his head. He was the patron god of scribes and it was said that scribes would pour out one drop of their ink in Thoth's honor before they began their daily work.

Scribe at work, reading an unrolled papyrus under the protection of Thoth

Thoth & the Written Word

Thoth created the written word people used to record their history and keep track of their daily lives. According to some stories, Thoth invented the word and gave it to humanity while, in others, Thoth was the creator and his consort Seshat gave words to the people.

In still other variations, Thoth was the creator but Osiris or Isis gave words to humanity. In every case, Thoth is the creator of written language and the literary arts both for humans and the gods.

Geraldine Pinch writes:

Thoth, the "excellent of understanding", observed and wrote down everything that happened and reported it to Ra every morning. As the record keeper of the gods he was paired with the librarian Seshat. Thoth and Seshat knew the future as well as the past. They inscribed a person's fate on the bricks on which their mother gave birth and the length of a king's reign on the leaves of the ished tree.

Egyptian goddess of writing Seshat, Luxor

As the record keeper of the gods, Thoth also kept account of the days of human beings. He is seen in a number of images keeping track of the days and numbering the years by which the Egyptian scribes were able to record the country's history.

Scribes, naturally, claimed Thoth as their patron and began each day honoring him. A statue from the 18th Dynasty shows Thoth as a baboon with the lunar disc on his head seated above a working scribe at his writing desk. The work of these scribes was, hopefully, approved of by Thoth who then gave leave to Seshat to house them in her immortal library and protect them in earthly ones.

The concept of writing making the author immortal was well respected in Egypt as a scribe's work lived on after his death through the written words in books but was also known by the gods as Seshat kept the words in her heavenly books as well. Scribes had every reason to believe they would be welcomed warmly after death in the Hall of Truth and pass on to paradise in the Field of Reeds.

Thoth as a baboon

Thoth in the Afterlife

Thoth appears regularly at the side of Osiris and Anubis in the Hall of Truth as the scribe who has kept accounts of the life of the soul of the deceased and who records the outcome of the weighing of the heart against the feather of truth.

Scholar Richard H. Wilkinson writes:

In vignettes of the Book of the Dead, Thoth stands before the scales which weigh the heart of the deceased and record the verdict. This role gave Thoth a reputation for truth and integrity and is seen in the common assertion that a person had conducted his life in a manner "straight and true like Thoth".

[This detail scene, from the Papyrus of Hunefer, shows the scribe Hunefer's heart being weighed on the scale of Maat against the feather of truth, by the jackal-headed Anubis. The ibis-headed Thoth, scribe of the gods, records the result. Source ]

His home in the afterlife, known as the Mansion of Thoth, provided a safe place for souls to rest and receive magic spells to help them against the demons who would prevent them from reaching paradise. His magic was also instrumental in the revitalization of the soul which brought the dead back to life in the underworld.

The association of writing with magic gave rise to the belief that Thoth had written magical treatises based on all he knew of the heavens, the earth, and the afterlife, and that these books were hidden away to be found by the initiates of later generations.

Pinch writes:

"All funerary spells could be regarded as works of Thoth. A tradition grew up that Thoth had written 42 books containing all the knowledge needed by humanity. Some of this was occult knowledge to be revealed only to initiates who would not misuse the power it gave them.

The Greeks identified Thoth with their messenger god, Hermes. The body of literature known as the Hermetica claimed to preserve the teachings of Hermes Trismegistus (Thoth the Thrice Great). Hermes Trismegistus was eventually reinterpreted as a great thinker who had lived thousands of years in the past."