By M. K. Van Rensselaer.
The great authority on modern Egyptian discoveries, M. Gaston Maspero, says in his book, “Ancient Sites and Modern Scenes”: “On the outskirts of Thebes there are ruins that lie to the north of the Valley of Kings. The temple was built or restored in the last years of the seventh, or in the first years of the sixth, century B. C. to Thoth, the master of magic and letters; the god who was the scribe and the magician of the gods.”
This mysterious but powerful god ranked high in the Egyptian cosmogony and the remains of his worship flourish to-day among the votaries of the card table, who, however, no longer consult him as the oracle, but use his book for their amusement or pleasure.
“During the Roman period, from 527 B. C. to 332 B. C., that was called the Egyptian renaissance,” says Mr. Rawlinson in his “History of Ancient Egypt” (Volume II, page 502), “Asia poured the fetid stream of her wonderful superstitions into Africa. The exorcisms of Thoth and the powers of witchcraft in league with him are the favorite themes which cover the polished surfaces of the monuments at this remarkable time.” And on page 465, “Asiatic Greeks became in the reign of Psammetchas (about 610 B. C.) close to the throne. Consequently, free communication and commercial intercourse between Egypt and Europe were opened.” This ruler was devoted to art, architecture and adventure, and one of the inventions of his reign was the enchorial or demotic writing which superseded the hieratic. This was attributed to the priests of Thoth, those wise men who sought no personal glory, but who contented themselves with placing their works at the feet of their presiding genius and attributing their own discoveries to him.
Without discussing whether the Assyrian god Nebo absorbed the Egyptian Thoth, or the reverse, we may concede that such strong similarities exist between them that they are virtually the same. With similar heraldic symbols and functions, they were the inventors of many useful arts, that of writing always being attributed to both. Besides, both gods were supposed to have the power of recording the fate of mankind at birth, and both presided at the judgment of souls after death.
The ibis-headed Thoth was also symbolized by a stylus and inkstand, and was often termed “the Scribe,” just as Nebo was called “the Writer,” and had for his device a stylus and inkstand. A month was dedicated to each, that of Thoth being the first in the Egyptian calendar, or our September. Its symbol was a reversed crescent with three lotus flowers, under which were two aspects of the moon, as full and as a crescent. One cannot but wonder if the artistic Egyptians, while adopting the cuneiform characters which resemble long shafts with reversed triangles on top, did not alter the lines and convert the “arrow head” of Nebo’s invention into the graceful flower, thus retaining the original conception of the symbol of the Assyrian god, while stamping it with their own love of the beautiful.
The tablet of Khufu at Wady Magarah shows Thoth bearing in his right hand a sceptre (one of the designs of the Tarot pack). This rod has three triangles on it that resemble the cuneiform characters, which is certainly not accidental.
The name of Thoth is written heraldically as “an ibis standing on a perch (which in shape again recalls the cuneiform) followed by a crescent and the two oblique lines commonly used to express the number one.”
The principal likenesses of the great gods of Egypt seem to be represented in the Atouts of the Tarot pack of cards, called “The Book of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus,” for the sun, moon, seven stars, etc., are all among the Atouts. Mr. Rawlinson (“History of Ancient Egypt,” page 315) gives the names of the gods, and the qualities for which they were worshipped, revered or dreaded, as follows:
Num or Kneph—the creative mind.
Phthah—the creative hand.
Khem—the generative power in nature.
Nut—the upper hemisphere in heaven.
Athor—the lower world.
All knew that there was but one god, but these were the interceders.
On page 370 of his book, Mr. Rawlinson says: “Thoth was the oracle or the clerk (recorder) of the wishes of the divine circle, who bears as insignia a palm branch or a stylus, and often a tablet. Sometimes he carries the Crook Headed Sceptre. His titles were Lord of Sesennu and Lord of Truth. He is called one of the chief gods—the Great God—the God Twice Great—the Great Chief in the paths of the dead—the Self-created or Neverborn—the Lord of Divine Words—and the Scribe of Truth.”
Thoth was often represented under two different forms, earthly and infernal, or as Thoth in the House of Selection, and Thoth at the Balance of Souls. As the god who took part in the judgment of the dead Thoth was revered throughout Egypt and it is written of him: “All Eyes are open on thee and all men worship thee as a god.”
Early Italian Tarots
Court Cards of the Pip Part of the Pack
Oxen, cows and geese were sacrificed in his honour and the ibis with the cynocephalous ape were sacred to him. Very many images of him are found that show him in attendance on different kings, either purifying them or inscribing their names on the sacred tree. His spiritual office was to be present in Amenti when souls were to be judged, to see their deeds weighed in the balance and record the results. This is recalled in the Atout of the Tarot pack, named Justice. Thoth also reveals to men the will of the gods. He composes the Ritual for the Dead, that great work that is so frequently found bound in the shrouds of mummies, to instruct the soul how to conduct itself in the world of spirits. It is also Thoth who, in the realms below, writes for good souls with his own fingers the Book of Respirations, which protects, sustains, and enlightens them, causing them to “breathe with the souls of the gods for ever and ever.”
Thoth had three great colleges, at Thebes, at Memphis, and at Heliopolis, where he was worshipped by priestesses as well as by priests, and there are many records of the prognostications of the former. If the supposition is correct that the gypsies are descended from the outcasts of the temple of Thoth, near Naples (the Serapeon), when that building was overthrown by an earthquake, it may be noted that in the tribe the women are the principal soothsayers, while the men generally pursue other occupations.
King Shafra, who built the Second Pyramid, married the daughter of Meri-Aukhs. Her tomb at Saccarah bears an inscription stating that she was a “Priestess of Thoth,” and her son was called “a sacred scribe.” From the time of Shafra, scribes are frequently represented as seated or squatting at work, with a pen or brush in the right hand and one or two tucked behind the ear, while the left hand holds the paper or a palette.
“The first and greatest of the builders of the pyramids,” says Mr. Rawlinson, “was Khufu or Cheops. He composed a religious work called the Sacred Book. He was a great admirer and worshipper of Thoth, who is represented with him on the rock pictures.”
Closely copying the Assyrian kings, who placed themselves under the protection of their gods, notably that of Nebo, by adopting their names, several of the Pharaohs called themselves Thothmes, meaning child of Thoth. The third ruler of that name, who has been called the Alexander of Egyptian history, raided the heart of Western Asia, going as far as Nineveh. He was wise as well as valiant, and noted all novelties in the lands through which he passed, which he afterwards sought to introduce into his own country. The two obelisks known as Cleopatra’s Needles were originally set up at Heliopolis, one of the temples of Thoth, by Thothmes III. They were transported to Alexandria and afterwards carried to London and New York, so the genius of playing cards still presides at the two great world centres, where cards are a favourite amusement.
The priests of Thoth were said to have descended in a direct line from father to son for three hundred and forty-five generations. This habit is another one common to gypsies, who rarely marry any but their own people. To the priests of the temple of Thoth many books called Hermetic were ascribed that were so dedicated to the honour of the god that the name of the writer is merged into his. M. Maspero mentions “an Egyptian romance that describes the adventures of a family of ghosts who were living with their mummies in a tomb lighted by a wonderful talisman, which was an incantation written on papyrus by Thoth himself.” Another work was particularly full of wisdom and science, containing in it everything relating to the fowls of the air, the fishes of the sea, and the four-footed beasts of the mountains. “The man who knew a single page of the book could charm Heaven, Earth, the great Abyss, Mountains and Seas. This marvellous composition Thoth enclosed in a box of gold, which he placed within a box of silver, within a box of ivory and ebony, and that again within a box of bronze, within a box of brass, within a box of iron; and the book thus guarded he threw into the Nile at Coptos. The act became known, and the box was searched for and found. It gave its possessor vast knowledge and magical power, but always brought misfortune on him.” One of the books of Thoth consists of magical texts, and Mr. Rawlinson says: “The belief in magic was widely spread among the Egyptians, and the behests of the priests were obeyed with confidence that, whether they turned out well or badly for the inquirer, they had been foretold at birth. The fatalism of the North Africans is too well known to be disputed, for they accept misfortune bowing the head and saying: ‘It is the will of Allah.’ This is the inheritance of ages.”
The priests explained to the inquirer into the divine wishes the commands of the god, and then inscribed them on parchment or some convenient material. These records were either hung around the neck or bound on the arm. The ignorant folk considered that these amulets would preserve them from all evil. This practice is observed to the present day by members of different religious cults. One amulet has been translated: “Thou art protected against the accidents of life. Thou art protected against a violent death. Thou art protected against fire. Thou escapest in Heaven and thou art not ruined upon Earth.” Such a valuable insurance against every evil during life or death must have been well worth a handsome fee to the priest who issued it.
Lenormant, in his “Manual” (Volume I, page 516), says: “It is remarkable that the Ritual of the Dead (the Egyptian name for which was Manifestation of Light, or the Book Revealing Light to the Soul) is accompanied by pictures which form the essential portion of it.” So the Book of Thoth Hermes Trismegistus, or the Tarots, is composed of pictures that can only be deciphered by initiates. The Ritual of the Dead claimed to be a revelation from Thoth Hermes, who through it declared the will of the gods and the mysterious nature of divine things to mankind. Portions of it are expressly stated to have been written by the finger of Thoth, and other parts to have been the composition of the god himself. It was held in such high esteem that portions of it were placed in coffins. The Ritual has been divided into three sections. There are prayers for the dead, and a long chapter that has been said to “contain the Egyptian Faith.” This creed is followed by a series of prayers, and spells, and famous chapter (cxxv) describing the seat of judgment known as the “Hall of Two Truths.” Here the deceased is brought before Osiris as supreme judge. The latter is seated on a lofty throne, surrounded by forty-two Assessors, each of whom addresses the dead person in turn, and to each he declares his innocence of crime or sin, saying, “I have not blasphemed. I have not deceived. I have not stolen. I have not slain any one. I have not been cruel. I have not caused disturbance. I have not been idle. I have not been drunken. I have not been indiscreetly curious. I have not multiplied words in speaking. I have struck no one. I have caused fear to no one. I have slandered no one. I have not eaten my heart through envy. I have not reviled the face of the king nor the face of my father. I have not made false accusations. I have not kept milk from the mouths of sucklings. I have not caused abortion. I have not ill-used my slaves. I have not killed sacred beasts. I have not defiled the river. I have not polluted myself. I have not taken the clothes of the dead.” A dead person is always spoken of as “An Osiris,” or “He sleeps in Osiris.”
Egyptian writing was of three distinct kinds, known as Hieroglyphic, Hieratic and Demotic or Enchorial. There is but little difference between the Hieratic and the Demotic. The former is the earlier of the two, but was nearly lost in the Demotic, which, according to Lenormant, was introduced about the seventh century B. C., and rapidly superseded the Hieratic, being simpler. Both were written from left to right.
It was about this time that the worship of Nebo, in Babylonia, and of Thoth, in Egypt, was most important, so it is probable that the priests, who were the learned and scientific men of the day, then reconstructed the art of writing and so earned for their patrons the honour of being gods of writing, although the stylus and the title of “the Writer” had been born for many centuries.
Pasmmetichas, king of Sais, who, as has been already mentioned, fought the Assyrians, must have been a most intelligent person, for during his reign, says Mr. Rawlinson (page 465), “a question was raised as to the relative antiquity of different races of mankind. Therefore the Pharaoh had two children isolated from their species and brought up by a herdsman who was dumb, and suckled by a goat, in order to see what language they would speak, presuming that they would revert to the primitive type of speech. The result of his experiment was thought to prove the Phrygians to be the most ancient nation, and the Egyptians, we are told by Herodotus, accepted it as an established fact.”
Thoth was revered as a great teacher, since his works treated of all things, such as the creation of the world, of divine power, of wisdom, of the art of presaging the issue of maladies by means of the planets. The work treating on this was dedicated to Ammon. Then there were the Aphorisms of Hermes, which consisted of astronomical propositions translated from the Arabic about the time of Manfred, king of Sicily. “The Cyranides of Trismegistus” treats of magic power and the medicinal virtues of precious stones, of plants, and of animals. Many of the other books of Thoth are treatises on chemistry or alchemy. One is called “The Seven Seals of Hermes Trismegistus,” another, “Chemical Tinctures,” and a third, “The Emerald Tablet,” describing the art of making gold. It is said that Sara, the wife of Abraham, found the Emerald in the tomb of Hermes, on Mount Hebron. One essay is to Tat or Esculapius, another is entitled “The Virgin of the World,” as Isis is sometimes called, and is a dialogue between her and her son Horus.
Many small statues were found in a well in the temple of the Sphinx, that may have originally represented the gods now found among the Atouts. This would be a most valuable confirmation of the theory of their original position in the temple when the priests and initiates wished to consult the occult.
In an age when letters were only used by the learned, and pictured emblems or symbols took the place of an alphabet, it was natural that the priests of Thoth, when pressed to divine the fate of men, should place sketches of the great gods on the walls of their temples, so that, by combining them with the rods of divination, the wishes of the supreme beings could be easily conveyed. The custom of adorning the walls of the temple is referred to in Ezekiel xxiii:14. “She saw men pourtrayed upon the wall, the images of the Chaldeans (or Nebo and his confrères) pourtrayed with vermilion, girdled with girdles upon their loins, exceeding in dyed attire upon their heads, all of them princes to look to, after the manner of the Babylonians of Chaldea.” This was possibly the origin of the Tarots, or the Atout volume of the Book of Thoth.
This is taken from Prophetical, Educational and Playing Cards.
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