In Egypt, not only knowledge but also the methods and words of disseminating and gaining knowledge was something sacred and divine. It was so important and divine that one of the most ancient and powerful of the Egyptian gods was responsible for it.
It is difficult for modern man, immersed in mass media, to understand how special image, text, and the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge was for the Ancient Egyptians. The idea that you can ‘capture’ something intangible as knowledge in an image or abstract symbol, and that these ‘vehicles’ can plant that knowledge in something else that is intangible, namely your understanding and memory, was seen as something magical, sacred and thus divine. And maybe it is.
Gathering and disseminating knowledge was so special in Ancient Egypt that only specially trained priests were allowed to do it. They had the knowledge and means to capture divine concepts, which they saw as “bits” of a deity, in material form. They did this in the Houses of Life, restricted areas in the temples.
The Houses of Life
The Houses of Life (also known as the Per Ankh or “House of Life”) were institutions in ancient Egypt that were dedicated to the study, preservation and practice of religion, science, and literature. They were typically located near the temples of the god Thoth, the god of wisdom, and writing.
The Houses of Life were established during the Old Kingdom (c.2686-2181 BCE) and continued to be active throughout the rest of ancient Egyptian history. They were staffed by a group of highly trained individuals known as the “swnw” (meaning “learned ones”) who were responsible for maintaining and studying the texts that were kept at the Houses of Life.
The Houses of Life were responsible for creating and maintaining the vast collections of papyri that contained scientific texts, religious texts, astronomical observations, and other important information. These texts were written in hieroglyphs and were used for teaching and research.
The Houses of Life were not only important for their contributions to religion and science but also for their role in preserving the knowledge and culture of ancient Egypt. They were considered to be the center of knowledge and wisdom for the ancient Egyptians, and their legacy continues to be an important source of information about ancient Egyptian culture and history.
Only specially trained priests had access to the House of Life. Only they were allowed and could handle the obtained “pieces” of a deity. And just as modern man has special customs, traditions, rituals and language for what we see as sacred and religious, so did the Egyptian priests.
The power of knowledge
We see the power of knowledge, and maybe more importantly the power of imparting it, in two modern tools, namely in propaganda and the use of memes. In the case of propaganda, it is the modern magicians who, through the skillful use of language and image, make us do things we are not aware of. In the second case, it is the conveying of a sometimes complex message in a simple image to those who are among the select few who can understand it.
Language is a powerful tool to share and express what we feel, think and desire. It helps to understand the world around us. Most of the time the meaning of utterances is delivered indirectly. Every utterance conveyed by people contains a hidden meaning.
Writers often use figurative language: which consists of symbols and images. Especially writers of mystic texts are fond of using figures of speech, especially allegories, parables and metaphors. Metaphors are used in mystical texts to explain truths that need to be hidden from the profane, or truths that cannot be expressed in ordinary language.
Mysticism has been influencing the spirituality of mankind for a long span of time. Mysticism fundamentally reflects a pathway that makes a man free from self-pride which leads to the evils of the existing world. Mysticism guides a person how to achieve a higher level of spirituality. It is a quest for not only finding the ultimate truth that is the Divine, but also for increasing love of the Divine and even for experiencing the Divine.
Mystic poets use worldly symbols and figurative language such as similes, metaphors, and allegories to share the experience of the mystical realm and spiritual journey towards the Divine. Metaphors exist to convey, evoke and create sensibilities that cannot be conveyed using direct terms. Thus, mystics use metaphors with the aim to share their spiritual experiences and to open the channels of spirituality for their readers.
Maybe the most well-known tradition of mystic metaphorical use of language is Persian mystical poetry. Persian mystical poetry is essentially symbolic in nature. This is reflected in the abundant use of rhetorical figures. Persian poets have used various literary devices to embellish their writings and to make them more persuasive.
Metaphors are at the heart of Persian poetry. When it comes to the tradition of mystic metaphorical use of language in poetry, it is found that the Persian mystics used the metaphors of wine, cup, and tavern often. These metaphors are excessively used in different contexts to express deep mystical concepts.
It would be wrong to read the metaphorical poems of the Persian mystics in a literal way. One could then make the mistake that these deeply pious mystics engaged in all sorts of forbidden activities, like wine-drinking or seducing young women.
The Ancient Book of Thoth
Knowledge and everything associated with it is special, holy and indeed divine. Modern man has maybe forgotten this. The Book of Thoth, dedicated to the God of this particular divine art, can reintroduce to us the particularity of knowledge, understanding, teaching, and the storage and dissemination of knowledge.
The composition, which has come to be known as the “Book of Thoth”, is preserved on over forty Graeco-Roman Period papyri from collections in Berlin, Copenhagen, Florence, New Haven, Paris, and Vienna. The central witness is a papyrus of fifteen columns in the Berlin Museum. Written almost entirely in the Demotic script, the Book of Thoth is probably the product of scribes of the “House of Life”, the temple scriptorium.
The Book of Thoth comprises largely a dialogue between a teacher, usually called “He-who-praises-knowledge” (presumably a spiritual master) and a student to be initiated, “He-who-loves-knowledge”. The language is poetic, possibly symbolic and allegorical, and the lines are often clearly organized into verses.
Because it is written in the form of a dialogue between a (divine) spiritual master and a student there might possible connections between this Egyptian work, in which Thoth also is called “thrice-great”, and the classical Hermetic Corpus, in which Hermes Trismegistuss plays the key role.
More information: https://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2006/2006.05.19/
Because in Ancient Egypt both mysticism and writing were seen as sacred secret traditions only accessible to elite priests, we figured that that the most mystical book of the Egyptian priests, their holy Book of Thoth, was probably also written in such a way that a profane reader would have been unable to find its real contents.
We decided therefore to take a hermeneutic and semiotic approach to the study of the Demotic Book of Thoth. While studying the book we thought that it was an opportune time to give the Book of Thoth a modern translation, which is focussed on the sacredness that the ancient Egyptians ascribe to it, but which is understandable and applicable to modern man.
Conversations in the House of Life
Our translation can be seen as a companion text to the scholarly publication of the Demotic Book of Thoth by Richard Jasnow and Karl Theodor Zauzich with the title ‘Conversations in the House of Life: A New Translation of the Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth‘.
We urge everyone who finds our translation worthwhile in their spiritual endeavors to buy their book. The introduction of their book is indispensable to understanding our more mystical version.
More info about the book The Secret Wisdom of Thoth: https://www.blurb.com/b/11216817-the-secret-wisdom-of-thoth
Order the book
The Secret Wisdom of Thoth can be ordered in different formats: