|Hypostyle hall, Karnak: Thoth, the god of wisdom (ibis-headed, left) writes the name of Pharaoh Seti I (centre) on the tree of life. In later times Thoth became known to the Greeks as Hermes Trismegistus. He was the keeper of the knowledge that opened the door to immortality.|
|The scales of Maat.|
|The goddess Maat, personification of truth, justice and cosmic harmony.|
|Osiris, flanked by two Eyes of Horus, stands before an offering table, tomb of Sennedjum.|
The deities Thoth and Maat are present in the earliest surviving scriptures of mankind - the ancient Egyptian Pyramid Texts of the third millennium BC - and continue to play pivotal spiritual and cosmic roles throughout the entire 3000-year span of Pharaonic history. Standing either side of Atum-Ra, the sun-god, as he sails the celestial ocean in his "boat of millions of years", they are portrayed in the Book of the Dead as eternal presences or principles whose function is to guide and balance the motion of the universe: "Thoth ... Lord ... self-created, to whom none hath given birth ... he who reckons in heaven, the counter of the stars, the enumerator of the earth and of what is therein, and the measurer of the earth". Elsewhere we read: "The land of Manu [the West] receiveth thee [Ra, the sun-god] with satisfaction, and the goddess Maat embraceth thee both at morn and at eve ... the god Thoth and the goddess Maat have written down thy daily course for you every day."
The word maat has many meanings in addition to "truth" - for example, "that which is straight", and, in the physical and moral sense, "right, real, genuine, upright, righteous, just, steadfast, unalterable", etc. Khebest maat is "real lapis-lazuli" as opposed to blue paste. Shes maat means "ceaselessly and regularly". Em un maat indicates that a thing is really so. The man who is good and honest is maat. And the truth, maat, "is great and mighty and it hath never been broken since the time of Osiris". It is perhaps not surprising that in some versions of the Psychostasia the goddess Maat, with her arms outstretched, takes the form of the scales themselves.
|Stupa of Bodinath, Buddhist temple, Kathmandu, Nepal.|
|Eyes of Horus, tomb of Sennedjum, Luxor west bank.|
The feather and the heart, the two objects weighed in these scales, combine to convey a potent symbolic message. The former, as we have seen, is the type and symbol of the goddess herself, whilst it cannot be an accident that the latter, resembling a small vase with two handles, is not only used as the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph for "heart" but also forms the "determinitive" (defining sign) of the word tekh, "a weight". From this etymology - tekh through tehuti - some scholars derive the origins of the name Thoth, a derivation which the Egyptians themselves appear to have favoured. Let us also note in passing that the towering granite obelisks found in temples along the Nile were called tekhen by the ancient Egyptians - "a word of unknown origin" according to Martina D'Alton of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As we shall see in later chapters, obelisks played a special role in the quest for immortality that was pursued for millennia by Egypt's high initiates. From the remotest times this quest was intimately associated with the cult of Thoth, whose will and power were believed to keep the forces of heaven and earth in equilibrium: "it was his great skill in celestial mechanics," observed Sir E. A. Wallis Budge, "which made proper use of the laws (maat) upon which the foundation and maintenance of the universe rested".
After an exhaustive analysis of funerary texts from all periods of ancient Egyptian history, Budge also comments on the manner in which Thoth is ubiquitously portrayed as possessing "unlimited power" in the afterlife realm of the Duat. It is this power that is symbolized by his role as recording angel in the Judgement Scene. According to the Book of What is in the Duat (numerous representations of which survive in the tombs of Pharaohs from the Eighteenth Dynasty onwards): "The examination of the words takes place, and he [Thoth] strikes down wickedness - he who has a just heart, he who bears the words in the scales - in the divine place of the examination of the mystery of mysteries of the spirits."
But what exactly is meant by "wickedness" and what is the real nature of the mystery that is examined in the Judgement Hall of Osiris?
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