The Theosophical Forum – January 1947

THOTH, DIVINE SCRIBE — N. A. Lewis

Who is this Thoth, of whom so many explanations are made, and who remains, even so, mysterious, inscrutable? We find references to him everywhere in occult writings, and his name is coupled with that of Hermes sometimes, and sometimes with that of Mercury, which gods — or demigods — or teachers — he resembles in his attributes. Above all, we find him associated with secret wisdom and magical arts. He seems, as much as Isis, to be a patron of the occult tradition. There is a legend of the Books of Thoth, which are (supposedly) lost, which contained all the truths, all the records, of mankind. The modern pack of Tarot cards is popularly called The Book of Thoth, although there is reason to doubt that this is the same kind of book as the above-mentioned Books. The legend of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes is probably closely related to this tradition.

We may imagine that Egypt had its Chain of Thoth before the Chain of Hermes received that name.

Thoth is said to have brought to man practically every art and science of civilization, but perhaps the very keyword of his contribution is symbol. With the ability to represent by pictures, diagrams, metaphors, and algebras the cumbersome objects of the material world, man can plan mentally and with a pencil and paper what he would otherwise have to try out physically with much labor, time, and expense, or not at all. Obviously the greatest mastery of time and space — or even of subjective matters —is to be achieved only through the creative use of symbols. Money, too, under the patronage of the later Mercury, is certainly an example of the common utility of symbol, a system obviating the clumsy methods of barter. Movies, with their projection of a large image from a tiny film, show another function of Thoth. We might call reduction to abstraction for efficiency in storing or transporting the principle behind these various functions.

It was under the tutelage of Thoth that the Egyptians evolved their system of hieroglyphs, a very well integrated one, since it entered into every department of their lives. It is hard to tell their art from literature, their literature from art. In other words, their word for a thing, their symbol in writing, was very close to being a picture of the thing itself. It is the reverse of this relationship which is so remarkable; since any object or event was the living hieroglyph for a certain idea. A study of their hieroglyphs reveals that positions of the body, wearing of collars, aprons, etc., colors of clothing, types of headdress, in fact almost everything in life, stood as a symbol of sound and meaning to the educated Egyptian. On this basis, as we may guess, the Mysteries were subtly and secretly taught in the temples, and at least some degree of intuition must necessarily have been attained by all who were able to read.

In this connection, it might be well to bring forth a distinction encountered in later mythology between the natures of Apollo and Mercury. Apollo, it is said, was given the power of expression by means of words and sentences, the gift of language, but to Mercury went the gift of expression by omens, symbols, and all sorts of means. In this way, for example, an event could be brought to pass in the life of a man or woman, that he or she might read it, and come to know some message from the god. This last is the way of Thoth. Those who know Nature's Alphabet, so to say, and who read from the open pages of Life, are studying the universal knowledge under his guidance. It is given to some great teachers and spiritual leaders to instruct their pupils in this way, pointing out sentences and paragraphs in a hieroglyphic text that is the Divine Life itself. Such teachers are our Masters, whose methods of "bringing to a crisis" and of demonstrating by example and experience are well known to students of their letters.

But there is another face of the matter! Thoth is also the Recorder, the Scribe of Millions of Years. Where and what are these records? Of course, in his language every scratch on a stone, every wrinkle on a cheek, every smudge on a window is a word of power; but these are at best temporary! Must it not mean that he is the keeper of the astral, or perhaps the akasic records? Then he lives in the realm of models and archetypes, he is the warden of the noumenal world, which contains not just the present forms of things, but their every form in all variations, and their eternal forms also. It is to him we must go, if we would have any definite knowledge of the past, present, or future. He has the power, as lord of those realms, over our memory and over our every thought. Indeed, if we credit the occult history of an early migration of priests from the vicinity of Egypt to Britain, we may ask if our English word thought may not be closely related to his name, which even today is sometimes written Thot.

He has been called, in ancient inscriptions, "Lord of Khemennu, self-created, to whom none hath given birth, god One"; "he who reckons in heaven, the counter of the stars, the enumerator of the earth and of what is therein, and the measurer of the earth"; and "the heart of Ra which cometh forth in the form of the god Thoth." He appears as an ibis, or a human being with the head of an ibis, often carrying the sceptre of divine power and the ankh or crux ansata, emblem of life. Sometimes he wears the crown of the crescent moon and disk, and sometimes he wears a crown of a solar significance; it must be remembered that he must surely be related in one of his aspects to the planet Mercury. Perhaps it is because of the several astronomical relationships which he symbolizes that he is called Trismegistos, or "thrice great."

Probably an Atlantean survival from remotest antiquity is the dog-headed ape — or sometimes just a rather intelligent-looking ape — who accompanies Thoth. This ape seems to be specially related to Thoth in his moon-god aspect. One may guess his significance to be some feature of the lower nature of man, which might be under the care of Thoth.

In the Book of the Dead (supposedly written by Thoth, by the way), it is this ape who sits on the balance of the scales at the "Weighing of the Heart," and reports to Thoth, the recording angel, the behavior of the scales. In this ceremony, the heart of "Osiris, the deceased," is weighed in the one pan of the scales against the Feather of Truth in the other. This feather is said to represent his words or deeds, or what has been committed by the "deceased," a true report of his life, in other words.

Thoth was very helpful to those who faced the terrors of the underworld. He was master of dreams and trances. More important, he stood as guide of the dead; and by means of the "words of power" he gave them (be it remembered that the Egyptians had a special kind of written language) they were able to pass through safely to the Boat of a Million Years, or to the Fields of Peace of Osiris.

According to Budge, in Gods of the Egyptians, Thoth had particular rule over the lunar month, especially the new moon, and in a lesser way the full moon, and over the winter half of the year. The Zodiac of Denderah shows Thoth as a god of the sign Capricorn; although Kircher, in his Oedipus Aegyptiacus, names Hermanubis, a psychopompic variation of Thoth, as ruler of the sign of Cancer. Be that as it may, the Fourth of January is named the Day of Hermes, under certain conditions (see Fundamentals of the Esoteric Philosophy, G. de Purucker, page 211). In the general astronomical and astrological confusion as to the cosmic identity of our Thoth-Hermes-Mercury deity, we must not lose sight of one paramount fact; as an association of ideas this figure is most enlightening. To consider in what ways all of his many phases and aspects may be reconciled and synthesized is to gain some deeper understanding of our own mentation and psychological processes. His attributes are those of our understanding itself.

The minds of some are tombs in which the resurrection of Osiris is to take place. May their dead eyes read the beautiful story of truth which is written upon the walls! May they come to know the sound in their ears of those words which stand as men, making offerings to the gods! May they translate into the speech that carries with it radiant light the stories written in autumnal colors upon their very garments! May Thoth guide them and guard them, and bring them to know that glory which first he wrote, and which will remain written to the end of time!


The Theosophical Forum

THEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE