Hermes Trismegistus

by Wim van den Dungen

THOTH



by Wim van den Dungen

The meaning of Thoth's name ("DHwtii" or "Djehuti"), represented by the hieroglyph of the Ibis, is unknown. Egyptologists propose "he of Djehout" (an unknown location), "he of the castle of speech", "he who speaks in the temple", "messenger", "he who selects", "he who chooses".

Hopfner (1914) thinks that "DHw" could have been the oldest name of the Ibis, implying that Thoth would mean : "he who has the nature of the Ibis". Nothing is certain. He seems an accumulation of cognitive deities.

This bird appeared perched on a standard on slate palettes of the Terminal Predynastic Period. The sacred Ibis had a long curved beak, suggestive of the crescent New Moon, and black & white feathering reminiscent of the Lunar phases of waxing & waning.

In the Old Kingdom, the association between the Ibis and Thoth had already been made, for in the afterlife, the wings of Thoth carried Pharaoh over the celestial river. 

THOTH

god of scribes, science, magic, time medicine, reckoning, cults, wisdom and the peace of the gods
companion of MAAT
drawing by Stéphane Rossini

Another, less common, pictogram for Thoth was the squatting baboon, who greeted the dawning Sun with agitated, chattering sounds. These baboons are also represented on their hind legs with front paws raised in praise and greeting of Re, facing the rising Sun. Thoth often wears a crown representing the crescent Moon supporting the disk of the Full Moon. In the Middle Kingdom, he was worshipped in all of Egypt. In all major temples, the cults of both Thoth (and that of his spouse Maat) were present.

The god's birth was, according to one legend, unnatural (he sprang from Seth's head). Thoth was the secretary of Re, the "scribe of the gods" and also Re's messenger who promulgated Atum-Re's laws. He was the great conciliator among the deities, because the "peace of the gods" is in him. He was a traveller and an international deity, for his name can be found in many ancient languages : neo-Babylonian, Coptic, Aramean, Greek & Latin. Thoth represented the embodiment of all knowledge and literature. He had invented writing and wrote himself. He was at the comand of all the divine books in the House of Life attached to all major temples of Egypt. The wisdom of Thoth was revered and considered too secret for profane eyes.

In the story of the magician Djedi, a man of a hundred and ten, we read that he knew the number of the secret chambers of the sanctuary of Thoth, the "word of the god Re". He is called the "son of Re" and "Lord of the eight gods" (the Ogdoad of Hermopolis). In the funerary rituals, Thoth acted the part of the recorder, and his decision was accepted by all deities. Thoth observed whether the heart (mind) of the deceased was light enough to balance the feather of truth & justice. This by "weighing the words", for the heaviness of heart was the result of unwholesome speech (cf. the insistence on silence also served magical purposes). Thoth was also the ultimate teacher of magic, ritualism & the words of power which opened the secret pylons of the underworld.

His original home was Khemenu, or "eight-town", referring to the four pairs of mythical chaos-gods existing before creation, of which Thoth became the leader and head. The Greeks called it Hermopolis ("city of Hermes"). 

In Hermopolitan theology, the Nun was personified by the Ogdoad, showing that this theology was intimately linked with the "mind of Re" speaking its Great Word (the sacred Ibis dropping the Great Word in the limitless ocean of inert possibilities), which transformed the pre-creational, chaotic Ogdoad (cf. the four female snake-goddesses & four male frog-gods with Predynastic roots) into the Ennead of Hermopolis headed by the "first of the eight", the Great Word of Re. The Hermopolitan scheme is cognitive, conceptual and promotes the Eastern idea that speech has creative & magical power.

As in Memphite theology of Ptah, the original great god (here Thoth) creates it all with divine words in his mind and on his tongue, a
prefiguration of the Greek logos-philosophy. The Heliopolitan scheme added the self-generative aspect of the deity (the great "he/she" being "causa sui"), as well as the eternal participation (from the first moment) between the One and his children (Shu and Tefnut), i.e. the triadic conceptualization of the godhead, a trinity of divine persons (expanding into "millions"), the principle of intra-divine participationism.

HERMES TRISMEGISTUS

When the Greeks had to acclimatize to Egypt, they took the initiative in identifying their gods with native divinities. Thoth was probably the most popular and diverse deity of the Egyptian pantheon. Indeed, in the Late New Kingdom, Third Intermediate and Late Period, individual destiny and fate had become increasingly important. Both lay in the hand of the gods.

Although a national deity, Thoth had local associations and particularities and was regarded as a Moon-god, determining the rhythms of Egyptian national life (festivals & calendars). As "Lord of Time", Thoth, the mysterious, ruled individual destinies too, and was thus very popular. By extension he was lord of knowledge, language, all science, magic, writing and understanding. He was the creator who called things into being merely by the sound of his voice. As guide and judge of the dead, Thoth owed much popularity with common people, and the "power of the Moon" was invoked in the wisdom teachings.

The Greek settlers identified their god Hermes with Thoth. Like Thoth, he was Lunar, and associated with medicine and the realm of the dead. Both were tricksters and messengers. Hermes was the "logos", the interpreter of Divine Will to humanity. In Stoic philosophy, Hermes is both "logos" and "demiurge", which probably owed something to the Hermopolitans. In Alexandrian Egypt, the Greek Hermes (identified with Thoth), became cosmopolitan and Hellenistic, but Egyptianized and known throughout the Roman world as "the Egyptian". Interestingly, by intermingling native Egyptian (Thoth) and Greek theology (Hermes) with Hellenistic philosophy, a syncretic sum was produced, a major and crucial archetypal idea, which encompassed the function of the cognitive in the Mediterranean cultures of before Christianity : Hermes Trismegistus, or Hermes the "Thrice Greatest", for during their rituals, the Egyptians used to call Thoth "Great ! Great ! Great !". 

However, by people of Greek culture, Trismegistus was not invisaged in the same way as the Egyptians saw him. The Greeks produced fictional stories to explain the emergence of Hermes Trismegistus (cf. the
Tabula Smaragdina). For example, it was widely circulated that Homer was an Egyptian and a son of Hermes ! The learned Greeks invented a "human" Trismegistus.

The "philosophical" Hermetica (the Corpus Hermeticum) presented Hermes as a teacher of wisdom. However, in the "technical" Hermetica (the Greek magical papyri which readapt Egyptian magic), Thoth appeared, for there Trismegistus was seen as a cosmic deity, able to dwell in the heart of his devotees and object of identification for the magician. This ambiguity of Hermes Trismegistus, the dual-union between the Divine and the human, must have struck many. It may explain why Hermes is mentioned in early Christian literature (cf. the two natures of Christ). Hermetical principles were imported in Europe in the XI - XIIth century by the monastic movement (as part of the "Orientale Lumen" - cf. Bernard of Clairvaux, Willem of St.Thierry).

"In particular there is little Christian polemical literature directed against the Hermetists, for pagans were in general less of a threat to the Church than heretics, and Trismegistus in particular had anyway been a prophet of Christ. For that reason -and others- he was often quoted, even approvingly, by the Fathers ..."
Fowden, 1993, p.195.

Hermes Trismegistus the wisdom-teacher influenced both Christianity and Islam. Besides its dogmatic canon, Early Christianity was influenced by neo-Platonism and Stoicism, both linked with Alexandrian Hermetism, and the pagan notions of "Divine Mind", "World Soul", "Demiurge" and "Pure Act" (developed in the New Kingdom and returning in Classical Greek philosophy). Through Harran, Hermes established his place in Islamic sciences, which in turn would help initiate the European Renaissance in XIIIth century Italy. It is at this point that a new mixture was brewed, one which called into being a re-Platonized egyptomanic Hermeticism that would conquer Europe and finally the New World. It is still with us in Egyptian Masonic Orders and the various branches of Californian New Age religion.

Three fundamental phases appear :

  1. native Hermopolitan theology : the perennial worship of the native Egyptian Thoth, "Thrice Greatest", centered in Hermopolis ("Hermoupolis Magna") ;

  2. historical Hermetism : the identification of Thoth with Hermes Trismegistus, who, in his Graeco-Alexandrian, philosophical teachings (between ca.150 BCE and 250 CE) is Greek and human (although Egyptian elements persist), but who assumed, in the technical Hermetica, the cosmicity of the Egyptian Thoth ;

  3. literary Hermeticism : the Renaissance produced a fictional European Trismegistus, based on the Alexandrian Hermes and a misunderstood Ancient Egyptian. Trismegistus became the patron of alchemy, magic, mystery orders, freemasonry, astrology, the New Age, the Western tradition ... and all matters occult. 

initiated : 17 II 2003 - last update : 11 V 2009

© Wim van den Dungen
Antwerp, 2003 - 2017.