BMCR 2006.05.19

The Ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth: A Demotic Discourse on Knowledge and Pendant to the Classical Hermetica. Volume 1: Text. Volume 2: Plates

, , The ancient Egyptian Book of Thoth : a demotic discourse on knowledge and pendant to the classical hermetica. Book of Thoth.. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005. 2 volumes : illustrations ; 29 x 37-31 cm. ISBN 3447050829. €178.00.

This is the long-awaited editio princeps of a Demotic Egyptian priestly text, surviving in numerous scattered and fragmentary papyri dated to the first and second centuries CE, containing a lengthy and varied discourse between the Egyptian god Thoth and his disciple, called “lover-of-knowledge.” Together with a complete translation, detailed commentary, word index, and introductory essays, as well as an accompanying volume of photographic plates of the numerous papyrus fragments out of which the book has been partially reconstituted, the sum is clearly the product of a staggering amount of hard work over more than a decade by two leading specialists in Demotic. Since it has no known parallel in Egyptian literature, the text will be particularly important for Egyptology, but it also will have special importance for classicists and it is with the interest of the latter that this review is principally concerned.

The huge first volume begins with 78 pages of preliminary essays on the history of scholarship on this text, on the names of gods and persons and the technical terms mentioned in it, and hypotheses concerning the ancient uses of the text. This is followed by detailed study of the papyri sources, their Demotic orthography, palaeography, and linguistic peculiarities of the text (59 pages). The heart of the book, taking three hundred pages, is the transliteration and translation with commentary of the Book of Thoth. The transliterations show most of the different readings of the manuscripts not by critical apparatus, such as most classicists are accustomed to using, but by giving in parallel each line as many times as it occurs in the manuscripts (so, for example, a line attested three times in the papyri is given three lines in the text), each line headed by its manuscript siglum. This is because the numerous variants are often quite significant (p. 117) and there seems to be little hope at present for constructing an archetype. It makes for a bulky presentation, especially when there are added to each translated section very detailed notes on the vocabulary and other aspects of the text. For the benefit of the one wishing to see the intelligible remains in a whole overview, a tentative, consecutive translation of the pieces are repeated all together (pp. 441-471). Not all of the pieces could be put in order because too much is missing to reconstruct the whole; these pieces that the editors could not place in sequence appear at the end of the consecutive translation. The slim volume of plates accompanying the main volume is quite clear and legible. It will be essential for those reading the Demotic text alongside the transcription given in the main volume.

Since its discovery was announced in 1995,1 scholars of Hellenistic and Roman religion have looked forward to seeing the contents of this work, dubbed “The Book of Thoth” by its editors, because of its promise to contain what may be a true Egyptian ancestor to the well-known Greek Hermetica. The Greek Hermetica themselves consist mostly of philosophical and religious dialogues between Hermes Trismegistos—a Greek designation for the Egyptian god Thoth—and his students, and claim to be Egyptian works containing Egyptian wisdom. However, the real origin of the Hermetica has been the subject of long-standing debate. A number of modern classical scholars, most famously A.-J. Festugière,2 went to great lengths to show that there could be nothing truly traditionally Egyptian in the Hermetica, but that they were rather merely Hellenistic Greek works of a Roman Imperial genre claiming “oriental” wisdom as a source of authority. And, while the Egyptian character of the Greek Hermetica has more recently found its own successful supporters, such as J.-P. Mahé and Garth Fowden,3 the publication under review is the first direct evidence for something in Egyptian literature likely to lie in the background of the Greek Hermetica. Yet the case is far from closed, for this “Book of Thoth” contains no passage directly antecedent to the Greek Hermetica, and it raises many questions of its own that the editors would like to see further discussed.

The Book of Thoth is written in a difficult form of Egyptian script called Demotic, the standard form of priestly writing in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Today the study of Demotic is still neglected, sometimes even within Egyptology itself. Yet this is the form of the language likely to provide the most important information on the interaction between Greek literature and the traditional Egyptian scribal culture. A huge number of Demotic papyri survive from the Ptolemaic period and the first few centuries of Roman rule in Egypt, often fragmentary, mostly still unedited. One imagines also that this Book of Thoth could have been among those reported by Clement of Alexandria, a contemporary of the papyri of the text, in his famous passage on the Egyptian priests and their books of Hermes ( Stromata, 6.4.35-37).

The Book of Thoth is arranged partly in questions and answers between Thoth (who appears under various titles) and “the-one-who-loves-knowledge,” evidently a diligent student in the temple scriptorium, whose name, occurring nowhere else in Egyptian literature, is as close an equivalent to Greek philosophos as one could hope for. The purpose of the work appears to be conveying different types of priestly and scholarly knowledge to the aspiring scribe. Yet the lacunae in the manuscripts prevent the work’s overall structure from being perfectly understood. The editors suggest that the dialogue is set in the House of Life (Egyptian temple scriptorium and library) and that it was perhaps associated with specific festivals at the temple. Topics dealt with in the book include the nature of education, the necessity for scribal study and the scribe’s superiority to other tradesmen, a short collection of wise sayings to inspire and guide the scribe, an interpretation of the symbolism of scribal tools, a list of Egyptian nomes (each associated with a special vulture), a damaged description of a journey on the underworld seas, and other matters, all amidst numerous and often obscure references to Egyptian religion and mythology.

The editors deal directly with the question of the relationship between the Book of Thoth and the Greek Hermetica in their introductory essays (pp. 65-71) realizing that “the degree of Egyptian influence on the Hermetic Corpus is still a matter of debate.” One can only agree with their assessment because the points of resemblance between this Egyptian work and the Greek Hermetica are very few. Several words and concepts of a very general character appear coincidentally in the texts in both languages but in the end seem hardly worth reporting since they are used quite differently in their different contexts. For example, the editors mention the appearance of “craftsmen” in both the Egyptian and the Greek texts, but admit that the craftsmen mentioned in the Book of Thoth really have nothing to do with the more divine demiourgos of Corpus Hermeticum 1.9. In another probably fortuitous parallel, a Greek Hermetic fragment in the Stobaean anthology says that animals know what they know by nature, and the Book of Thoth argues that the sacred animals know without instruction (p. 172). Such meager points of similarity as these show how little the Egyptian and the Greek texts have in common in their content. Yet despite their nearly total dissimilarity of their teachings, the mere existence of a book containing a dialogue between Thoth, called “thrice great” ( wr wr wr), and his eager student in Demotic Egyptian on the one hand, and the dialogues in Greek between Hermes Trismegistos and his students on the other, should be too striking for future scholars of the Hermetica to ignore. The editors propose that the Book of Thoth represents an Egyptian tradition that “feeds into” the Greek Hermetica through “perhaps several Greek interpretations and translations” (p. 71). Put differently, one may suppose that the existence of an Egyptian dialogue between Thoth and a student could have inspired authors of a priestly connection to write their Graeco-Egyptian philosophy in the pattern of dialogues with Hermes. This conclusion is not far from the claim of the author of the De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum (VII.4.265) who wrote that the Greek Hermetica were translated from Egyptian by men versed in Greek philosophy. Because a substantial connection between this Egyptian composition and the Greek Hermetica would be very meaningful for the history of Greek literature, it is likely that more than a few readers will now dig away at the Egyptian text in search of significant parallels, but the prospects for discovering more parallels in content seem poor. The editors themselves would probably have noticed any such connections, but as it is, there is apparently almost nothing in common but the idea of a dialogue with Thoth-Hermes. That in itself is not nothing.

One might have hoped to find correspondences with the Hermetica in instructions “which Thoth gave to the hand of his disciple.” Instead they comprise fairly ordinary wisdom such as “Ask the one less important than yourself,” “Take thought for tomorrow,” and in general urge the student to pay attention, study, and work hard as a scribe (p. 226). Other sections contain slightly more profound stuff. When “he-who-loves-knowledge” asks Thoth “What is writing? … Compare it to its like, O overflowing one!” Thoth replies, “Writing is a sea. Its reeds are a shore. Hasten therein, little one, little one!” (p. 201). These passages give us a glimpse of the ideology supporting the preservation of Egyptian scribal tradition as an institution in its latest period. The study of the ancient literary tradition was something sacred to the god Thoth. The student is left praising the teaching of Thoth in his role of Master of the House of Records, who caused the praiser to know the scribal art: “I will worship your teaching” (p. 234).

The translation of the text itself is extremely cautious and “literal,” often to point of obscurity. This is not unusual or ill-advised in the case of a highly fragmentary text written in a language the vocabulary of which is still imperfectly understood. In the field of Egyptology this is normal practice. For example, variant possibilities of meaning are diligently noted in parentheses, as in the sentence, “Be disposed to ask advice of the one in his moment (or ‘horoscopist,’ ‘astronomer’)!” (p. 184, note on p. 186). This also serves to show just how conjectural the meaning becomes in places.

Classicists have been in general very good at ignoring every literary language of the ancient Mediterranean besides Greek and Latin and have sometimes been ready even to make any “oriental” mentioned in Greek or Latin into a fiction, as if other language communities simply did not exist there. But lately specialists in Demotic have been making a number of interesting discoveries pointing to the interaction between Egyptian and Greek literature in Egypt warranting more attention from classicists. The edition under review here is likely to become a controversial part of the ongoing discussions that are sure to develop and should draw the attention of specialists in Roman Egypt. Classicists should be reminded of the culture of Egyptian letters still flourishing under Roman rule, hitherto scarcely used or, sometimes, even mentioned in histories of Roman Egypt.

For the slowly developing field of Demotic studies this edition represents a scrupulously high standard of scholarly care. The Book of Thoth is sure to have a place among the most important productions of Egyptian priestly literature of the Roman period.


1. Richard Jasnow and Karl-Theodor Zauzich, “A Book of Thoth?,” Orientalia Lovanensia Analecta 82 (Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Egyptologists, Cambridge, 3-9 September 1995), 1998, 607-618.

2. A.-J. Festugière, La révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste, 4 vols., Paris 1944-1954.

3. J.-P. Mahé, Hermès en Haute-Egypte, 2 vols., Quebec 1978-1982; Garth Fowden, The Egyptian Hermes, 2nd ed., Princeton 1993.