Who was the ancient Egyptian god Thoth?
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Who was the god Thoth?

standing male body with blue bird head
Thoth (Old Kingdom tomb)

Thoth was the Egyptian god of the mind - of intelligence, thinking, reason, and logic. Egyptians often thought of Thoth as the heart and tongue of the sun god Ra. (The heart, because in ancient Egypt people thought the heart was where you kept your intelligence.) Thoth was one part of the bigger god Ra, just as the Indian god Krishna was one part of Vishnu, or as Hermes is sometimes one aspect of his brother, the Greek sun god Apollo. Indeed, the Greeks themselves often thought that Hermes and Thoth were the same god. Thoth was in some ways like the "Logos" of Plato and the Christian Gospels, meaning order and knowledge. Or you could relate Thoth to the Greek concept of nomos.

Thoth usually had the head of an ibis, and his name probably means "like an ibis", because the ibis was a smart bird. Other times, when Thoth was the god of balance, he wore the head of a baboon, or a baboon with a dog face.

Thoth standing near Anubis with a scale
Thoth and the weighing of souls
(New Kingdom, British Museum)

Thoth's wife was Ma'at, and the two of them often stood on either side of Ra's boat. Together, Thoth and Ma'at represented truth, order, and justice, rather like the Zoroastrian god Mithra.

Because Thoth was so smart, he was responsible for things that needed smart people, especially writing hieroglyphs. In the top picture, you can see him holding a pen and a tablet. Thoth was also the god of science, and of magic (not too different from science in those days). By the New Kingdom, Thoth also decided whether you should go to a good place or a bad place after you died.

Ibis mummies
Ibis mummies in clay jars, from the tomb
of the architect Inhotep (ca. 200 BC)

Still later, during the Ptolemaic period in Egypt, people brought thousands of mummified ibis birds as offerings to Thoth. This is an Egyptian tomb with some of the ibis mummies that were in it.

Learn by doing: Egyptian afterlife project
More about mummies

Bibliography and further reading about the Egyptian god Thoth:

Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt, by Leonard Fisher (1999). For younger kids.

Isis and Osiris, by Geraldine Harris (1997). A retelling of the story for kids.

The Egypt Game (Yearling Newbery), by Zilpha Keatley Snyder (reprinted 1985). A great kids' story about kids who pretend to be Egyptian gods and goddesses.

Religion in Ancient Egypt: Gods, Myths, and Personal Practice, by John Baines, David Silverman, and Leonard Lesko (1991). Pretty hard going, but it will tell you everything you need to know about Egyptian religion.

Isis in the Ancient World, by R.E. Witt (1997). Mostly about the spread of Isis worship to Greece and the Roman Empire.

Or check out this article on Thoth in the Encyclopedia Britannica.

More about weighing souls
More about ancient Egypt
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Quatr.us Study Guides, . Web. 29 March, 2017