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Ancient Egypt’s neighbors in Greece wrote of their belief that Egyptian priests and magicians possessed secret knowledge. Greek belief in Egyptian secret knowledge is one strand of Greek philosophy that contributed to the modern belief that the Egyptians perfected mysticism, astrology, and magic.Because of this Greek belief, a wide variety of modern truth seekers have looked to the Egyptians for inspiration. They include the freemasons, Rosicrucians, theosophists, anthroposophists, and Afrocentrists. These groups share a belief that the Egyptians both created the first civilization and that their knowledge has only recently been rediscovered by modern science. Many of these modern groups also believe that Egyptian spiritual knowledge far exceeded the knowledge that can be gleaned from the surface of hieroglyphic texts. Though most nineteenth and twentieth century C.E. Egyptologists rejected this approach to Egyptian culture, a scientific, rationalist, and text-based study of Egyptian spiritualism has recently added Egyptological knowledge to the mix of data on Egyptian secret knowledge. The Egyptologists Jan Assmann and Erik Hornung made important contributions to this debate, finding the roots of the idea of secret knowledge in Egyptian society itself.


In the Old Kingdom (2675–2170 B.C.E. ) the Egyptians regarded the god Thoth as a violent deity who helped the king defeat enemies. But in the Middle Kingdom (2008–1630 B.C.E. ) the Egyptians identified Thoth as the author of The Book of the Two Ways , a text that described the afterlife. All preserved copies of this text come from the town of Hermopolis in central Egypt. There the local deity was Thoth and thus he received credit for this first statement of knowledge of the next life. The Coffin Texts —spells inscribed on Middle Kingdom coffins—refer to the “divine books of Thoth” and to this god as the “lord of wisdom.” In the New Kingdom (1539–1075 B.C.E. ) Thoth continued to develop as a god of culture and invention. The Egyptians regarded Thoth as the author of many sacred writings. In the Book of the Dead —spells meant to guide the deceased to the next life—the deceased identified himself with Thoth and claimed that knowledge justified his entrance to the afterlife. Thoth was regularly the other gods’ scribe, responsible for divine documents, letters, and decrees. The Egyptians now described Thoth as “lord of divine words,” that is, the hieroglyphic writing system. Thoth became responsible for regulating the calendar and measuring time. At the judgment of the dead, Thoth recorded the final verdict for each individual. In general, Thoth was increasingly viewed as the god who controlled knowledge and the recording of knowledge, and hence was also the ruler of philosophy.


The story of Setne Khamwas was written in the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 B.C.E. ). It tells the story of the struggle between Setne Khamwas and the magician Naneferkaptah for possession of a book of magic written by the god Thoth. Naneferkaptah had taken the book with him to his grave. Setne Khamwas then stole it from the tomb. This story and perhaps others like it no longer preserved possibly shaped the Greek view of the Egyptians as great magicians. The story stresses that mankind has access to magic, but only the gods know the ultimate secrets of life. When Setne attempts to learn through magic more details about the afterlife than should be available to people on earth, his children die. The gods punish him for trying to know too much. Because Setne was exploring a book said to be written by Thoth, it connects with Greek ideas that Egyptian magic stems from the god they believed was Thoth’s equivalent in their own culture, Hermes Trismegistus. Greek writers regularly misinterpreted Egyptian stories to create a philosophy called Hermeticism that they believed was Egyptian, but in fact was a Greek misinterpretation of Egyptian culture.


Though King Akhenaten (1352–1336 B.C.E. ) banned the worship of all gods except for Aten, the disc of the sun, his new capital at Amarna was located in Thoth’s home province. Perhaps for that reason, a statue now excavated in Amarna shows a scribe sitting at Thoth’s feet recording his wisdom. The artist who created the famous bust of Nefertiti also found at Amarna was named Thutmose, “Thoth is born.” This name had been common earlier in the Eighteenth Dynasty, but it is striking that the name was tolerated at Amarna. Perhaps this indicates that even in Amarna, Thoth’s connection to wisdom and philosophy was recognized.


Immediately after the Amarna Period with the restoration of the old gods, Thoth assumed an important place. King Horemheb (1319–1292 B.C.E. ) recorded a Hymn to Thoth that called the god “one who knows the mysteries” and gave him responsibility for informing the sun god of all that occurred on earth. King Ramesses IV spoke in an inscription of his ability to read the writings of Thoth and that he learned about Osiris from Thoth’s books located in the temple library. Thoth thus continued to grow in his role as the source of knowledge and philosophy.


In the Late Period (664–332 B.C.E. ), Thoth became the god responsible for magic. Thoth helped deceased people enter the next world by writing letters of recommendation for them. According to Late Period belief, Thoth also wrote a new guide to the land of the dead called The Book of Breathings with the help of the goddess Isis. Thoth’s stature continued to grow with a new epithet, “twice great,” first known from the reign of King Apries (589–570 B.C.E. ). By the time of Darius I (521–486 B.C.E. ), Thoth’s epithet increased his greatness to “very, very, very great.” The Greeks later identified Thoth with their own god, Hermes, whom they gave the epithet “Trismegistus” or “thrice great.” In Greek belief, Hermes Trismegistus was a major source of ancient Egyptian secret knowledge. It seems likely that at least the tradition of Thoth as the keeper of secret knowledge had Egyptian roots in the Late Period.


The Egyptians believed that Thoth invented hieroglyphic writing. The nature of Egyptian picture writing also played a role in Greek beliefs about the supposed secret knowledge and philosophy contained in these writings. Hieroglyphic writing was basically phonetic with each picture standing for a sound or group of sounds. Yet the final picture in each word had no sound but rather stood for a category. For example, the picture of walking legs at the end of the phonetic writing for the verb “to go” placed it in the category “verbs of motion.” Thus on one level these signs, called determinatives, could bear a symbolic meaning. Some signs such as a billowing sail for “breath” or “air,” a flamingo for “red,” a taut bow string for “strong,” and an egg for “within” thus leant themselves to extended symbolic meanings.


The Greek historian Herodotus first identified the Greek god Hermes with the Egyptian god Thoth. Thoth was the god responsible for writing, knowledge, and the calendar. By the Egyptian Late Period (664–332 B.C.E. ), Thoth was already called “very, very, very great.” In Greek he therefore came to be known as Hermes Trismegistus—Thrice Great Hermes.

A large group of texts were attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. These writings came to be known as Hermeticism. There remains much debate about how many of these texts are actually ancient. Many of them may well be fifteenth-century forgeries. Others may date to the fifth century C.E. They include descriptions of astrology, magic, and various myths of the origins of the world. Hermeticism is a major source for various spiritual interpretations of ancient Egyptian philosophy. Hermeticism is based on the writings of the Greek philosopher Plato. Hermeticism develops arguments about the beginnings of the world based on allegory rather than on direct observation of the world. Explanations are based on spiritual similarities rather than physical characteristics.


Beginning in the New Kingdom, scribes invented scholarly puzzles with hieroglyphs as a form of intellectual entertainment. They used whole pictures with new phonetic values that would amaze other scribes by their creativity. A picture of jackals towing the god’s boat in the tomb of Ramesses IX (1126–1108 B.C.E. ) substitutes for the old and simple phonetic writing of the verb “to tow.” Or the verb “to vanquish” which could easily be written and recognized with a phonetic writing, instead was written with a king smiting the heads of foreign enemies. These intellectual games became increasingly popular in the Ptolemaic Period (332–30 B.C.E. ) when Greek-speaking kings ruled Egypt. At the temple in the town of Esna in Upper (southern) Egypt, a scribe wrote a hymn to Khnum, a ram god, writing only ram signs that could each be read with a different phonetic value and thus could represent different words. Another hymn was written entirely with crocodile signs that had seven different phonetic values. At this temple, there were 143 different ways of writing the god Khnum’s name. The name of the god Osiris could be written 73 different ways. These games then led to the Greek belief that hieroglyphs were only to be interpreted symbolically rather than phonetically.


By the fifth century C.E. the Egyptians had stopped writing hieroglyphic inscriptions. But the Greek writer Horapollo, who lived in Egypt, wrote a book called The Hieroglyphs that attempted to explain the symbolic meanings of Egyptian writing. Even when Horapollo knew the correct phonetic reading of a hieroglyph, he gave a symbolic explanation for it. For example, the picture of the Egyptian hare has the meaning “to open” because the Egyptian word for “hare” and the Egyptian word for “to open” share the same consonants. But Horapollo had a different explanation. He claimed that the Egyptians wrote the verb “to open” with a hare because hares sleep with their eyes open. He also claimed that the vulture represents the word “mother” in hieroglyphs because there are no male vultures. Egyptologists understand that the word for vulture and the word for mother shared the same consonants. Thus Horapollo set the stage for Greek and later Roman authors to apply a completely symbolic approach to reading hieroglyphs. And this symbolic approach supported the idea that hieroglyphs contained mystical knowledge and philosophical secrets rather than being an ordinary symbol system for representing language. Horapollo eliminated the boundary between hieroglyph and symbol. This boundary was not restored until the nineteenth century C.E. when J.-F. Champollion read the Rosetta Stone and deciphered hieroglyphs for the first time in modern history.


In ancient Greek cults, initiation was the norm. Initiation consisted of secret rites, ceremonies, ordeals, or instructions used to allow a member to enter a sect or secret society, usually one that held a certain philosophy about Egyptian life and the gods. The Greeks assumed that Egyptian cults also had initiation. The mysteries of Osiris of Abydos are the most frequently cited example of initiation in the Greek sense. Yet the festival route in Abydos, as with festival routes in other Egyptian towns, points to a public ceremony with processions to public shrines, singing, dancing, and general rejoicing as integral to the festival. As late as 200 C.E. the Christian writer Minucius Felix knew that the Abydos festival was public rather than private. Egyptologists believe the festival is a re-enactment of the myths associated with Osiris, his wife Isis, and their son Horus. The vast numbers of people involved in the Festival of Opet in Karnak also shows that it is unlikely that these festivals were secret initiations. Yet the Greeks developed their own cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis that incorporated typically Greek religious ritual, including initiation. There were three degrees of initiation. The person who wished to join the cult had to experience a symbolic death, confront the gods, and pass through all the elements. The most important part of the ceremony allowed the initiate to view the sun at midnight. This vision allowed the initiate to escape man’s fate and overcome death eternally.


The Egyptologist Erik Hornung suggested an Egyptian basis for the ideas behind initiation into the Greek cult of Isis. The ceremony suggests the Egyptian myth of the sun’s journey at night. The sun, according to Egyptian belief, entered the land of the dead after it set on this earth. Thus a person who was symbolically dead and in the land of the dead would see the sun at midnight and would have overcome death. Yet there was an important difference between Egyptian and Greek belief. The Egyptians believed that the dead eternally viewed the sun at night in an endless cycle. The Greeks believed that the initiate was released from fate and was no longer imprisoned in this world, even before death. A second important distinction between Greek and Egyptian ideas was the way knowledge of the gods could be acquired. In the Greek cult of Isis, knowledge of the goddess and release from fate was achieved through the mystical trial of symbolic death and the revelation of viewing the sun at midnight. The Egyptians, however, stressed study as the means of knowing truth. The Egyptian wisdom texts repeat many times that studying with the philosophers would lead to knowledge of maat (“right order”). The Egyptians also stressed the importance of learning to read and studying the words of philosophers as the means of enlightenment. There is no evidence that the Egyptians believed in mystical revelation of knowledge in the Greek sense.


Many secret Greek cults were based on the premise that humanity had fallen from a previous paradise. According to these beliefs, people needed the cults to be saved and thus regain access to paradise. It is possible that later Egyptian ideas communicated to the Greeks originated with The Book of the Heavenly Cow . This text first appears in the reign of Tutankhamun (1332–1322 B.C.E. ) after the Amarna Period (1352–1332 B.C.E. ), when the Egyptians had briefly worshipped only the sun disc, the Aten. In this Egyptian version of mankind’s fall, man’s original state allowed people to have access to the sun’s light at all times. There was no night that separated people on earth from the sun’s rays. Yet humans rebelled against the sun god. At first the sun god tried to kill all people by sending his fiery eye against humanity. In the end, a small group was saved, but they were punished by having less access to the sun’s rays than they did previously. Now the sun retreated on the back of the Heavenly Cow. Thus the Egyptians also believed that an original paradise had been lost. Strife and death entered the world through people’s rebelliousness. These ideas continued into later texts such as are found in the temple of the town of Esna. The Esna texts were written at the same time as Greeks dominated Egypt. Thus these Greek ideas might have found some inspiration in Egyptian ideas.


Thus there does seem to be an Egyptian basis for many ideas propagated by the ancient Greeks about Egyptian spiritual knowledge. Clearly, however, the Greeks interpreted much of what they saw in ancient Egypt to conform with their own ideas of spirituality, philosophy, and secret knowledge. Though there was an Egyptian basis for many Greek ideas about ancient Egypt, the Greeks’ distinctive interpretation led to many modern views of Egypt as the land of mystery, spiritualism, and secret knowledge.


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Herodotus was a Greek historian who lived in the fifth century B.C.E. His nine-book exploration of the causes of the war between Persia and Greece in the fifth century led him to write about Egypt and its role in the Persian Empire. His study of Egypt is broad, investigating the antiquity of Egyptian civilization, the geography of Egypt, the Nile and its behavior, and Egyptian manners and customs, especially religion. Herodotus took a special interest in anything he found to be astonishing about Egyptian culture. For example, he expressed his wonder at the Egyptians’ architectural achievements, describing buildings that modern people also found to be marvels, such as the pyramids. Yet he claims that King Khufu financed the building of the pyramids through his daughter’s acts of prostitution, a rather astonishing assertion. He also stressed Egypt’s invention of some aspect of culture, especially when he thought that the Egyptians had invented some aspect of Greek culture. He assumed that anything the Egyptians invented that resembled Greek culture began first in Egypt, and then traveled to Greece. His work was repeated by Greek and then Roman writers for centuries, leading to many false ideas about Egypt and its relationship to the classical Greek and Roman world. Perhaps the most important of these ideas was his equation of Egyptian and Greek deities. Herodotus was the first to equate the Egyptian god of writing, Thoth, with the Greek god Hermes. This equation eventually led to the Greek creation Hermes Trismegistus or Thrice Great Hermes, a mythical figure that the Greeks credited with the invention of astrology and alchemy, and the Egyptians credited with the invention of writing. Out of these ideas grew the false impression that hieroglyphs were symbols of philosophical ideas rather than representations of ordinary language like other writing systems. This idea resulted in centuries of misunderstanding until J.-F. Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs in 1822. The Greek vision of the Egyptians allowed many commentators who followed to invent theories about the Egyptians with no basis in empirical reality.


Jan Assmann, Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom (New York: Kegan Paul International, 1995).

Erik Hornung, The Secret Lore of Egypt: Its Impact on the West (Ithica, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001).

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