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Sky writing.

The Egyptian god who created hieroglyphics is sometimes associated with a bird or a monkey.

EVERY MONTH OUR CENTERFOLD star chart turns the night sky into an open book. It documents the constellations and chronicles the current positions of the planets. Although the ancient Mesopotamians wrote in clay and not on paper, they treated the starry sky as if it were a real page-turner and called the configurations of the constellations "writing of heaven" and "writing of the night sky." The placement of planets, behavior of the Moon, and occurrence of eclipses on that celestial slate were messages left by the gods to signal divine intent. The sky was full of warnings for the country and the king.

The handwriting is on the wall, then, for Babylonian sky readers this month. A total eclipse of the Moon occurs on the night of May 15-16 (see page 104), and it will be visible from Iraq, which includes much of ancient Mesopotamia. This lunar eclipse will also be seen in Egypt, and ancient Egypt had its own ideas about the connection between writing and the sky.

Thoth was the divine word processor in ancient Egypt. He invented hieroglyphic writing, and as the sponsor of scribes, he wrote the book on data entry and downloading. Thoth's credentials qualified him as a court reporter at the judgment of the dead. When the heart of the deceased was weighed against a feather, Thoth registered the verdict with his reed stylus and ink palette. Because he protected administrative records and laws, he underwrote the pharaoh's authority. Serving as the Sun god's secretary, he issued each day's sailing orders for the Sun's celestial boat.

In antiquity, only trained specialists could read and write, and they belonged to the elite. Thoth's high status reflected the importance of writing, recording, archiving, and reporting in ancient Egyptian society. He was a magician, a physician, an intellectual, an author, an arbitrator, a messenger, a clerk, and the keeper of the calendar. One inscription calls Thoth the "lord of time," and the first month of Egypt's lunar-stellar calendar --the month that followed the first return of Sirius to the predawn sky and the annual flooding of the Nile--was named Thoth.

Calendrical skill also made a Moon god out of Thoth, who often wore a crescent Moon on his head. Because the Moon "distinguishes seasons, months, and years," Thoth was the "reckoner of time." Egyptians counted lunar months from the last visible crescent of the waning Moon, seen low in the east a little before sunrise. One of Thoth's titles confirms that he "announces the morning." Sometimes he is the Moon's guardian, but he is also equated with the Moon itself.

Thoth has attributes of the Moon, but in mythology he also interacts with the Moon. In On Isis and Osiris, the Greek historian Plutarch recorded in the 1st century A.D. what he believed was authentic Egyptian tradition and explained how Thoth wagered on the outcome of a senet game with the Moon. Senet was played on a gridded board that usually modeled the days of the lunar month. In the gamble, Thoth won 1/70 of each of the year's 360 days and so acquired an extra five days for the calendar.

Thoth's lunar insignia are easy to understand, but his symbolic connections with two creatures--the sacred ibis and the hamadryas baboon--are less obvious. Most depictions of Thoth endow him with an ibis head. The Nile Valley's sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopica) is a wading bird with a long and distinctively downcurved, pencil-thin beak. It probes the shallows, sand, and mud with its bill for snails, insects, frogs, and other submerged food. During the New Kingdom (1570-1070 B.C.), Thoth was sometimes represented as a crescent-crowned baboon, and a baboon usually accompanied him at the weighing of the heart.

Experts in hieroglyphics sometimes explain such associations linguistically, with arbitrary puns that contain no metaphorical meaning. Alternatively, the zoological affiliations have been linked to assimilation of local gods represented by totemic animals.

An ibis cult did exist at Hermopolis Parva (or Behdet, near the modern town of Damanhur) in the Nile Delta. Thoth's name is linked with the ibis in the Old Kingdom era (2686-2181 B.C.), and ibis symbols as old as the Early Dynastic Period appear on ceremonial palettes from the beginning of the 3rd millennium B.C. Attributing Thoth's ibis head to some archaic provincial ibis god doesn't really decipher the bird's meaning, however. According to Claas J. Bleeker, a historian of religion, it "just transfers the problem elsewhere."

Plutarch said the ibis drank only from clean sources of water and exemplified Thoth's interest in health and sanitation. In fact, the Egyptians seemed to realize that schistosomiasis, a debilitating snail-borne disease, was absent where ibises were plentiful. Thoth's aptitude for healing may have been enough to link him with the snail-foraging bird.

People, however, often leverage economical models from nature for accurate symbolism. Anthropologists have collected ample evidence for symbolic analogy from the natural world, and celestial analogy has prompted some to suggest lunar characteristics of the ibis that could elevate it to an emblem of Thoth. Some assert that its curved beak mimics the crescent Moon, and the bird's dignified posture and deliberate steps were said to mirror the Moon's majesty. Plutarch simply argued that the ibis's black-and-white plumage is like the dark and bright phases of the Moon. A century or so later, the Roman writer Aelian said the ibis "is sacred to the moon for it takes as many days to hatch its eggs as the moon goddess waxes and wanes." Ibis eggs actually hatch in 15 to 20 days, and the rest of these superficial rationalizations reflect comparable moonshine.

In the absence of persuasive interpretations of ibis symbolism, I speculate that the bird's meaning is not revealed by the Moon but by the bird's ability to "write." Gaius Julius Solinus, a Roman grammarian, penned an account of the ibis in the 3rd century A.D. and disclosed that it "rummages in the mud for serpents' eggs." The ibis digs and pokes the ground, and its sharp, slender beak scrawls in the silt. Using its bill as a stylus, the ibis "writes" in the sand. Although the ibis behaves like a scribe, we have no evidence that the Egyptians saw this kind of meaning in its behavior. The notion, while plausible, remains conjectural.

Thoth was also symbolized by the hamadryas baboon (Papio hamadryas), a desert animal sacred in Egypt since at least the First Dynasty (3050-2890 B.C.). Baboons never inhabited the lower Nile Valley, but the Egyptians deliberately them, most likely from the horn of Africa, to repopulate baboon colonies maintained at Thoth's cult centers. With abundant opportunity to observe baboon behavior, the Egyptians also sometimes trained and domesticated them.

Baboons superficially resemble people, and as far as the Egyptians knew, they were the most humanlike animals known. They sit upright with symmetric posture, and they maintain complex societies.

Some ancient Greek and Roman writers explained why baboons belong to Thoth. Baboon behavior, they said, is tempered by the Moon's phases. In one sense this might seem true, for the estrous cycle in a female baboon is completed in a month, and at ovulation the rump swells dramatically for a few days.

The Egyptians also believed baboons greet the rising Sun with upraised hands and often portrayed them in this pose. Baboons don't really do this, but their daily behavior is inaugurated by the sunrise. The baboon troop sleeps at night in inaccessible cliffside recesses and gradually wakens at dawn. With growing light, the baboons shift toward the top of the cliff and crowd together. When the Sun reaches them there, all the normal baboon community activity begins, and according to baboon expert Hans Kummer (In Quest of the Sacred Baboon, 1995), a "chorus of comfortable rumbling" spreads.

Inactive at night, the baboon has limited encounters with the Moon, but because it rises at dawn, it seems, like Thoth, to be on the lookout for that last crescent Moon that initiates the next month.

Ancient Greek writers also tell us that the Egyptians left writing tools for baboons newly arrived at Thoth's main temples. Those that started to doodle with these implements were dedicated to Thoth. This behavior might persuade us to invest additional meaning in Arthur S. Eddington's delineation of the nature of probability. In 1928, in The Nature of the Physical World, he wrote, "If an army of monkeys were strumming on typewriters they might write all of the books in the British Museum." Our experience with Thoth's hamadryas baboons informs us, however, that when someone checks up on those monkeys, they aren't typing. They are just fooling around and promising the Moon.

E. C. KRUPP monkeys around at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, where it's only a paper Moon.
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Title Annotation:rambling through the skies; The Egyptian god who created hieroglyphics is sometimes associated witha bird or a monkey
Author:Krupp, E.C.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:May 1, 2003
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