The Secret Wisdom of Thoth: Pt. 4 Unlocking its secrets
The Book of Thoth is a composition reconstructed from many papyri. These papyri date from the last periods of Ancient Egyptian civilization, when the Ptolemies and Roman emperors ruled Egypt (ca. 330 B.C. to 400 A.D.). Almost all of the papyri are written in the cursive form of the Egyptian script called “Demotic”. This is the style of script that came into fashion around 700 B.C. The text is probably written by a high-ranking priestly scribe.
The multi-leveled character of the composition, so rich in symbolism and philosophical or theological concepts, makes the text extraordinarily difficult to translate. Because the priestly scribe compressed as much meaning as possible into each verse the Book of Thoth defies “certainty” concerning its contents in any obvious way. This is very fitting to the God who the book is dedicated to.
Much of the Book of Thoth is fragmentary. Many lines in the fragments yield little obvious sense. Therefore, our translation is also more of an interpretation rather than a literal translation. This semiotic approach to the Book of Thoth should be seen as an “ongoing” project. It will probably be years before a reliable edition and translation of the composition can be offered and only then can maybe a good semiotic interpretation be done.
Metaphor to hide deeper meanings
We propose that the priestly scribe that wrote the Book of Thoth used the sacred art of writing hieroglyphs as a metaphor to hide the deeper meanings of the text. The symbolism was probably used to hide the esoteric meaning of the text which describes a secret initiatory, visionaire mystical path to enlightenment.
In the Book of Thoth the wise master gives the disciple a lot of information about trapping birds in nets, raising troops, burning things with charcoal, seeding fields for good harvests, and steering boats through rivers and marshes, which seems very out of place for a text to teach a scribe how to write.
It seems pretty clear that all these things are meant to be interpreted metaphorically and symbolically. But did the Ancient Egyptians use metaphors, allegories and parables to share knowledge?
In our research we found plenty of examples of Ancient Egyptians using all kinds of concepts in a symbolic and metaphorical way. Below are some examples why this book proposes that a semiotic approach is not only justified for the Book of Thoth, but is probably essential as only this approach might unlock the real secrets of the text.
Unlocking its secrets
In Ancient Egypt Kky (or kkw in ꜥ.t-kky) is not used for the literal darkness of the night, but it is used for the pre-cosmic darkness personified in Kek and Kauket of the Hermopolitan Ogdoad. Kky (darkness) is thus often associated with Nun, the primeval oceanic chaos. Kky suggests a lack of differentiation, as can be seen in the term kkw-smꜣw, which can be translated as ‘united’ darkness. It alludes to the pre-cosmic condition in which “there were not two things”.
To unlock the secrets of the Book of Thoth so that they are comprehensible for modern people the term “Chamber of Darkness” is therefore translated as the nondual world. It is the world between the pure divine world and the material/dualistic world. It is the world where souls live. The world of nonduality must be crossed before anyone can gain access to the House of Life, which is the world of the divine.
The perfume or smell of myrrh has been translated as “sensual pleasures”. In Ancient Egypt myrrh was expensive, and thus it was used as a symbol for wordly luxurious possessions and attachments. We see this use also in the Book of Thoth to warn the disciple.
In the Book of Thoth diverse bodies of water are mentioned. Sometimes the waters in question are described as rivers or canals which can – or need to – be crossed, which makes them symbols of transition to a different plane or state of being. The sea is used as a symbol for limitless, endless or boundless wisdom and the shore of the sea is the known, safe world. The sea cannot be crossed as it has no shore on the other side.
In the Book of Thoth the hermetic master – or maybe Thoth himself – (namely The-one-of-Heseret) says:
“There are three seas to be crossed between them, namely, the borders of this land. Have you crossed the river in their ferries? Have you crossed their canals? Have you given the fare to their ferryman? Have you crossed it in their transport ship?”
To travel the sea of boundless wisdom you need experts. The disciple starts in the calm rivers and the ‘rowers’ a disciple needs to navigate these rivers are advanced disciples or priests who are able to direct others.
The reed, as the scribe’s brush or pen, gives life and mooring on the text’s abyssal sea. The reed is used as a metaphor for the need to study wisdom in ascending steps, just like the flow of water must be managed to safely irrigate the land.
The net is identified with tpy pẖr as in ‘to taste’ or ‘to experience’. Therefore the Net is used as a metaphor for the experience of understanding or gnosis. It is the experience where theoretical knowledge “clicks” and becomes innate wisdom.
The animals in the Book of Thoth that need to be captured are the passages, concepts or delineated pieces of wisdom that need to be understood. For example, migratory birds are a metaphor for passages that are difficult to understand for the disciple.
There is also some sexual symbolism apparent in the Book of Thoth. This symbolism is also used in other mystical traditions to describe how wisdom “penetrates” the receiver and “impregnates” the disciple with theory that he can “deliver” as practical wisdom when he or she is ready.
In the Book of Thoth it is also symbolic that the disciple is identified with the parts of his body. The process of acquiring understanding of the sacred texts is linked to “find[ing] the gathering over eye, ear, heart, tongue, hand, sole of the foot”. The text evokes the Egyptian Opening of the Mouth ceremony, which has as its goal the animation of statues and other images, not least of which is the resurrection of the body of the deceased.
In the Book of Thoth constituting a new vessel/body in the netherworld can mean that the disciple lends their living bodies to the semiotic enterprise, because wisdom has to be experienced and practiced with the whole body. Using the wisdom of Thoth the disciple “builds” a new spiritual body in which he will be reborn or resurrected.
The symbolism of charcoal is encountered in the Book of Thoth in lines such as: “The storerooms overflowing with coal”. This can be a metaphor for sacred texts pregnant with meaning. A further dimension of the symbolism of charcoal in the Book of Thoth comes from the process of burning by which it is produced.
The book says that the one who lays hold of them (the charcoal) without having experienced “heat” (ẖmm) that “their roasting burns his fingers.” Here the charcoal is a symbol for the opacity of a sacred text. There is a homophony between ẖmm, ‘heat’, and šmm, ‘harvest’, another frequent metaphor in the text. If the disciple can “bear” the difficulty or opacity of a sacred text the experience will produce a “harvest” of wisdom in him.
The color turquoise (mfkꜣ.t) evoked for the Ancient Egyptians both the blue sky and the green of growing plants. It is literally synonymous with a kind of joy associated especially with the theophany of Hathor.
In the Book of Thoth we read: “giving birth to breaths [nf] in a field of turquoise.” This describes the disciple who undergoes certain necessary transformations. These transformations are perhaps described into the forms of certain animals. Unfortunately these are described in the Book of Thoth in a series of poorly preserved lines.
The term ꜣḫt (horizon) is literally the place where the sunrise or sunset occurs, but symbolically it is the “horizon” of theophany.
The ba-souls are pieces of divine knowledge that can “emerge” from studying a sacred text or from receiving divine teachings. They are “caught in the net” of the disciple, as in memorized or understood by him. A disciple that is “full of ba” has learned many divine teachings. Ba-souls are pre-personal fields of potencies as the disciple still needs to make these teachings his own.
In the Book of Thoth it is stated that prophets call out ‘Istes, son of wn-imꜣ’. ‘Istes’ is an epithet of Thoth. To be a “son of wn-imꜣ”, then, is to be a son of Thoth, or a hermetic adept.
The vulture (nry) is an important animal in the Book of Thoth. It seems to be a symbol for the abstract faculty of “thought”, which lies between the world of the Gods and the world of the other animals, including humans. Vultures are also a symbol for the “masters of thought”, namely the hermetic masters that preside over a territory (nome). The vulture is also identified with the production of text in the proper theophanic sense.
The vulture is suited to its unique position by virtue of its position in the ecosystem as the greatest of the carrion eaters. In Ancient Egypt the carrion eater may have been regarded as occupying the moral summit of the food-chain, just as the hermetic masters do in the spiritual hierarchy. The vulture evokes “fear” (nrw), but it also “protects” (nri). The vulture is thus also a “herdsman” (nr), just like a hermetic master is a herdsman to his disciples.
The Book of Thoth must be regarded as a semiotic discourse upon divine knowledge and the path towards spiritual enlightenment. The Ancient Egyptians used the term rḫ (knowledge) for esoteric theological statements.
Terms such as ꜥm, “to comprehend” and ꜥrq, “to understand” are used often in the Book of Thoth, but also a term like wḥm which has the basic meaning of “repetition”. It describes that divine knowledge that is “interpreted” and “understood” is something sufficiently concrete that it can be repeated in order to explicate and explain it, and to pass it on.
In other words, the Book of Thoth is about how a disciple ascends to the highest levels of divine knowledge, so that he can return to the normal world and share this knowledge with those who are worthy.
For the Ancient Egyptians a world without divine knowledge, and the people who possess it, would be as inconceivable as the cosmos would be without Nun, the pre-cosmic dark waters which flow through all reality, from the divine through nonduality all the way to our own sunlit dualistic world.
A door to be opened
It is a daunting task to present a translation of any work that is written in a foreign language and uses a distinct symbolic and unique conceptual vocabulary. Approaching a fragmented text which is also of extreme antiquity is therefore extremely difficult.
For those whose hearts are open to timeless mysteries, the Book of Thoth can be as relevant today as they were in the distant past. Hopefully our translation captures as much as possible of the deep spiritual teachings shared between an Egyptian spiritual master and a disciple, playing some small part in restoring to this ancient wisdom the respect that it is due.
To key to the secrets of Thoth that this book provides, only opens a door. The real journey begins when you step through it and start exploring this new bigger world by yourself. The translationoffers an unfragmented, unencrypted version of the Book of Thoth. But this does not mean that its contents are more easily understood.
The text presents a visionary description of the journey from initiation to the highest forms of wisdom. With every reading new secrets will emerge from it. A sacred text like the Book of Thoth cannot be grasped by a rational mind. Only an open heart has a chance to receive some of its timeless and divine wisdom.
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The Secret Wisdom of Thoth offers a unique semiotic approach to The Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth. This ancient book of sacred wisdom is a dialogue between a spiritual master, perhaps the god Thoth himself, and a student.
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