Originally named either Djehuti or Zehuti by the Egyptians, Thoth was given his better known name by the Greeks.
They linked him with their own god Hermes, and like Hermes he was considered to be the god of wisdom, writing and invention. He was also the messenger and spokesman of the gods and finally a lunar god.
Worship of Thoth dates from at least the pre-dynastic period, as his standard appears on artifacts of this time, and his name Djehuti may indicate that he originated in the Nome of Dehut in Lower Egypt.
He is represented as a man with the head of an ibis, which is often crowned by the crescent moon. The baboon is also sacred to him, for in Hermopolis he merged with the local baboon god Hedj-Wer.
According to the priests of Hermopolis it was Thoth in the form of an ibis who hatched (by the power of his voice alone), the world egg from which all creation issued.
Other myths relate that in the chaos of Nun he awoke from aeons of slumber and, opening his mouth, issued the first sound. This original sound assumed form and became the first eight beings, four gods and four goddesses, the Ogdoad. The Ogdoad represented the elemental forces;that existed before the creation. They formed four pairs, the male of each pair being frog-headed and the female serpent-headed. The names of these deities, male and female respectively, were Nun and Nunet, representing the primeval waters, Theh and Hehet, infinite space and eternity, Kek and Keket, darkness, and Amun and Amunet, invisibility. At Khemenu, Thoth's main cult centre, they were regarded as the oldest of all the gods, for it was said that they created the sun and all that followed.
The pyramid texts link the name of Thoth to the family tree of Osiris, but usually he is seen as an independent deity, employed by Osiris as vizier and scribe, functions which he was later to perform in the service of Horus.
Another legend suggests that Thoth was the child of Horus and Set. It tells of Horus impregnating Set by tricking him into swallowing his seed hidden in a lettuce. As a result Thoth emerged from Set's forehead, although in a second version, of the late period, the seed appears upon Set's brow as a golden disc.
Thoth invented the arts and sciences, music and magic, and was the god of learning, but above all he was famed for being the creator of hieroglyphs, and was known as the 'lord of holy words'. Hieroglyphs themselves were known as the words of the gods.
In early dynastic times the main cult centre of Thoth was in the town of Khemenu, the 'town of eight', and in even earlier times several gods were worshipped here. They were a hare goddess, a baboon god and the four frog gods and four serpent goddesses. It was the reptile gods who gave the place its name. The hare goddess, Wenet, gave her name to the Nome (an Ancient Egyptian geographical division) in which Khemenu was situated, and she was at times regarded as a demon. In European folklore the hare is associated with both the moon and witchcraft, being next to the cat the most common animal of witches either as a familiar or as a form assumed by the witch. The frog likewise has had similar associations throughout history, whilst the links between serpents and magic are many. When Thoth adopted the baboon already associated with the moon, it came to represent his spirit.
To the west of Khemenu, or Hermopolis as the Greeks named it, lies the necropolis of the city. Here extensive underground passageways have been discovered. Given the name the Iberieum, they contain the bodies of thousands of mummified ibises and baboons. Close to the necropolis was a large artificial lake manually supplied with water and planted with trees and vegetation to provide an attractive habitat for the sacred ibises. A second burial place of ibises and baboons has been found a Saqqara, but it contains such a vas quantity of animals that its full extent ha still to be determined.
Amongst the Egyptian magicians Thoth was called 'the elder' and his follower claimed access to his library of magic books. Here they spent their time deciphering the pages and learning the secret formulae that held the power to control all the forces of nature, even how to command the obedience of the gods themselves. Such was the magic knowledge of Thoth that his disciples named him 'Thoth three times very very greatest', which the Greeks translated as Hermes Trismegistus. Down the age many magical texts and grimoires, in the main dating from the medieval period have been spuriously attributed to Hermes Trismegistus.
After Horus stepped down from his earthly throne, his vizier Thoth took over and reigned, according to Hermopolis legend, for a period of 3,226 years, presiding over a peaceful and prosperous land. Then, like Osiris and Horus before him, he ascended to the place of the gods.
As god of men Thoth was the master of time. It was he who first divided the year into months of equal length consisting of 30 days each and added a further five intercalary days to make 365. According to one myth the goddess Nut gave birth to the sun, the stars and the planets. This so angered her father that he forbade her to have any further children in any month of the year. She went to Thoth and in a game of chance won from him five days which belonged to no month. On these five extra days she gave birth to the gods Osiris, Isis, Set, Nephthys and Horus.
The female counterpart of Thoth was the goddess Seshat. In temple paintings she is shown dressed in a leopard skin with an emblem upon her head in the form of a seven-pointed star, above which is a pair of inverted cow's horns suggesting a crescent moon.
She was not worshipped by the people of Egypt but was a personal god of the king, reserved for him alone. She aided and assisted the king in many ways it was she who recorded the time allotted to him by the gods for his stay on earth, and from the Second Dynasty onwards, she helped him in the ritualized laying of the foundations of temples and the ceremony known as the stretching of the cord (referring to the mason's line used to measure out the limits of the building). Another aspect of the goddess is revealed by her title the foremost of libraries clearly implying that she watched over her husband's many books.