Cor Hendriks – The Book of Thoth: An Ancient Egyptian tale of magic

The soul, hidden in a box inside a box like a Russian doll (a well-known fairytale motif), brings to mind the Egyptian way of burial, especially with their pharaohs, King ‘Tut’ being the best example. Tut-anch-amen was buried in 4 sarcophagi (coffins) hidden in 3 Mastabas (soul-houses, chests).
From this ancient Egypt comes a story, called ‘The history of Setne Chaemwasep and Nefer-ka-Ptah and of his wife Ahura and their son Merib’. The story is told by the soul of Ahura and we skip the part where she marries her brother (the son of the pharaoh who at first opposes the marriage) and bears him a son Merib.

‘One day my brother Nefer-ka-Ptah had nothing to do and took a stroll in the City of the Dead of Memphis to read there texts that were engraved on the tombs of the pharaohs and also the plates of the writers of the House of Lives and finally the inscriptions on their graves. Very zealously he occupied himself with these writings. After that there was once held a procession in the honour of the god Ptah and Nefer-ka-Ptah went praying in the temple. He joint the procession and read the inscriptions on the shrines of the gods. A priest, who was older than him, noticed him and laughed about him. But Nefer-ka-Ptah said to him: “Why are you laughing about me?” And he answered: “I’m not laughing about you; I just laugh because you read inscriptions that have no value! If you want to read writings that entail something, come then with me and I shall bring you to a place, where the book is that Thoth has written with his own hand, when he came in ancient days as consort of the other gods down from heaven. In that book there are two spells written down: when you say the first spell, you will exert magic force on the heaven, earth, underworld, mountains and waters. Also you’ll understand everything that the birds in the air and the animals walking on the earth say; you will see how the fishes in the deep are surrounded by divine power. But when you, residing in the realm of death (Amenti), say the second spell, you will take on again your earthly form and return on earth. You will see Re, the sun-god, with his divine troupes appear in the sky and see the moon go up in the shape it has at that moment.” Then Nefer-ka-Ptah said to him: “As truly as the king lives, if you mention to me something of beauty you want to possess, I will give it to you, if you take me to the place, where that book is.” Upon these words of Nefer-ka-Ptah the priest replied: “When you want that I take you to the place where that book is, you will have to give me 100 weight (‘teben’) of silver for my funeral and have made for me two coffins that are deserving to a priest.” Nefer-ka-Ptah called a servant and had him give the priest the desired amount of silver. He commanded the treasurer to have the two coffins made. Then the priest said to Nefer-ka-Ptah: “The book I spoke about is in the middle of the sea of Coptos [= Red Sea = Indian Ocean?] in an iron box. In that box is a bronze box, and in the bronze box is a box of sandalwood (‘kete’). In the box of sandalwood is a box of ivory and ebony. In the box of ivory and ebony is a box of silver. In the silver box finally is a box of gold. And in the box of gold is the book. Around the box, in which the book lies, there is a mile [‘schoenus’, Greek: about 11 km] of every kind of dragon, scorpion, and serpent, and around the box curls an immortal snake. When the priest had told him these things, Nefer-ka-Ptah knew not in what place on earth he was. He came forth from the temple and told me everything that had befallen him. He said to me: “I will go to Coptos, I will bring this box and return without delay to the north.” But I became furious with the behaviour of the priest and said: “Priest, may Amon punish thou for revealing him this secret. You expose me to battle and bring me quarrel. I hate the Thebaid (where Coptos is).” I did everything in my power to prevent Nefer-ka-Ptah from going to Coptos, but he wouldn’t listen to me. He went into the presence of Pharaoh, and told him everything the priest had told him; and Pharaoh said to him: “What do you need?” He replied: “Let the pleasure-boat of Pharaoh be given unto me with its equipment, and I will take Ahura with Merib, her child, with me to the south and bring the book straightway.” And unto him was given the pleasure-boat of Pharaoh with its equipment. We went on board, we made sail, and reached Coptos. Report of our arrival was made to the priests and the high priest of Isis of Coptos. They came down [to the river] to meet us. The priests and the high priest received Nefer-ka-Ptah, and their women me. We went up into the temple of Isis and Harpochrates [= Horus-the-Child]. Nefer-ka-Ptah had brought an ox, fowl and wine and made an offering and libation before Isis of Coptos and Harpochrates. They took us to an exceedingly beautiful house, fully decorated and equipped with all kinds of valuables. Nefer-ka-Ptah remained there four days making holiday with the priests of Isis of Coptos, the women of the priests of Isis also making holiday with me. When the morning of the fifth day came, Nefer-ka-Ptah had brought unto him a big lump of pure wax and made thereof a boat manned with its rowers and its sailors. He spoke a spell over them and made them come alive; he gave them breath and launched them on the sea. Next he filled the pleasure-boat of Pharaoh with sand, [made it fast to the magic vessel (?)], and went on board [of the pleasure-boat]. As for me, I sat over against the Sea of Coptos, saying, “I want to know what happens to him.” And he said: “Row on, o rowers, and bring me to the place where the book is.” They rowed day and night, and on the third night he reached it. He cast sand in the deep water and it became dry (?). A mile (‘schoenus’) around the place where the book was he found every kind of snake, scorpion and dragon. Also there was the immortal snake curled around the box. He suffered them not to rise up [by speaking a spell]. Next he went down to the place where the immortal [or: endless] snake was. He fought with it; he slew it; but it took on its shape and lived again. He fought with it a second time, and slew it, but it revived again. He fought a third time; he cut it in twain and put sand between the one piece and its fellow; it died, and never came alive again. Nefer-ka-Ptah went down to the place where the box was and noticed it was made of iron. He opened it and found a box of bronze. He opened it and found a box of sandalwood. He opened it and found a box of ivory and ebony. He opened it and found a box of silver. He opened it and found a box of gold. He opened it and found the book. He took up the book out of the box of gold. He read from it a formula of writing and enchanted heaven, earth, the underworld, the mountains and the seas; he became aware of all that the birds in the air, the fishes in the deep, and the beasts of the wilderness spoke of. He read another formula of writing and he saw Re shining forth in heaven with all his divine cycle, and the moon rising and the stars in their forms. He saw the fishes in the deep surrounded by a divine power. And he said a magic formula over the water and had it take on its former appearance. He climbed aboard and said to the rowers: “Row on with me to the place we came from!” They rowed night and day and he arrived back at the place where I was. He found me sitting over at the Sea of Coptos, not having eaten nor drunk, and without having stirred; but I was as one who has reached the Good House. I said to Nefer-ka-Ptah: “Let me see the book for which we have thus toiled.’ He put the book in my hand. I read in it a formula of writing and I enchanted the heaven, the earth, the underworld, the mountains, and the seas, and I understood the things that the birds in the air, the fishes in the deep, and the animals say. And when I read another formula of writing, I saw Re shining in heaven with all his divine cycle; I saw the moon rising with all the stars in heaven, and their procedure; I saw the fishes in the deep, there being divine power resting in the water surrounding them. As I was no scribe, at least compared to my elder brother Nefer-ka-Ptah, who was a good scribe and an exceedingly learned man, he had brought unto him a piece of new papyrus. He wrote [thereon] every word that was before him on the roll [meaning the two formulae from the ‘Book of Thoth’]. Having caused it to be soaked with beer, he dissolved it into water, and when he saw that it was all dissolved, he drank the water in order to know everything that stood on it. We returned to [the city of] Coptos that same day and made a good day before Isis of Coptos and Harpochrates. Then we embarked, travelled downstream [= northwards] and reached a place a mile (‘schoenus’) to the north of Coptos. But meanwhile Thoth (the scribe of the gods) had learned all that had happened to Nefer-ka-Ptah as result of the book. Without tarrying he reported this to Re, saying: “Know my right and my beef with Nefer-ka-Ptah, the son of Pharaoh Meren-Ptah. He went to my area and plundered it, he stole the book with my writings. He killed my guard that guarded it.” The answer he received was: “He and all those with him are in thy hand.” And there was sent down a divine force from heaven with the command: “Suffer not Nefer-ka-Ptah to come safe to Memphis, him and every person that belongs to him.” At that moment our child Merib came out from beneath the awning of the pleasure-boat of Pharaoh. He fell into the waves of the river and fulfilled the will of Re. All who were on board uttered loud cries. Nefer-ka-Ptah came forth from under his awning, spoke a magic formula to him and made him rise up, there being divine power in the water, surrounding him. He spoke another magic formula to him and had him told everything that had befallen him, everything, including the complaint Thoth had made before Re. We returned to Coptos with him and had him taken to the Good House. We caused them to keep guard by him and had him embalmed after the manner of a prince and noble. We had him laid in his sarcophagus in the necropolis-hill of Coptos. Then Nefer-ka-Ptah, my older brother, said: “Let us go downstream (northwards), let us not tarry, lest Pharaoh hears the things that have befallen us, and his heart will be grieved because of it.” We went on board, travelled downstream and reached without set-back the place one mile (‘schoenus’) to the north of Coptos, where our child Merib fell into the water. I came out from under the awning of the pleasure-boat of Pharaoh, fell into the waves and accomplished the will of Re. All aboard uttered loud cries. It was told to Nefer-ka-Ptah, and he came forth from under the awning of the pleasure-boat of Pharaoh, spoke a spell to me, caused me to rise up, there being divine power in the water surrounding me. He had me brought on board, said a magic formula, and had me tell before him all that had happened to me, everything, including the complaint Thoth had made before Re. He returned with me to Coptos, had me taken to the Good House. There he ordered them to guard me and had me embalmed according to the embalming of a prince and a great noble, and he had me laid to rest in the tomb in which our child Merib rested. He went on board, travelled downstream, went without delay one mile (‘schoenus’) to the north of Coptos, to the place where we fell into the river. He said to himself: “Shall I go to Coptos and settle there? For if I go now to Memphis and Pharaoh asks me of his children, what shall I say to him? How can I say to him: ‘I took thy children to the Thebaid and let them die; and I came to Memphis still alive?’” He had brought unto him a strip of royal linen and made it into a strap (as a bandage). He took the book, put it on his body and bound it tightly. He came forth from under the awning of the pleasure-boat of Pharaoh, fell into the water, and accomplished the will of Re. All aboard uttered cries, saying: “Great woe! Grievous woe! Has the perfect scribe, the learned man who had no equal, gone [from us]?” The pleasure-boat of Pharaoh travelled downstream, none on earth knowing the place where Nefer-ka-Ptah was. And when they reached Memphis report of it was made before Pharaoh. And Pharaoh, putting on mourning apparel, went down to meet the royal pleasure-boat; and all the people of Memphis wore mourning apparel, as well as the priests and the high priest of Ptah, and the council and the household of Pharaoh. And lo! They perceived Nefer-ka-Ptah grasping the rudders of the pleasure-boat of Pharaoh by his art as a perfect scribe. They took him out of the water and saw the book tied to his body. And Pharaoh said: “Let this book that is on his body be hidden away!” And the council of Pharaoh, together with the priests and the high priest of Ptah spoke with one voice to Pharaoh: “May thou, our great lord and king, live as long as Re! Nefer-ka-Ptah was a perfect scribe and an exceedingly learned man.” And sixteen days later Pharao had his son brought to the Good House, and thirty-five days after that he had him wrapped in mummy-wrappings and seventy days after that put in a sarcophagus and laid to rest in his House of Rest.’ Here ends Ahura’s tale about how the book was gained and at what price.

References: Brunner-Traut 1974, 156-163 nº31; Andrews 1975, 38-44 after: Stories of the High Priests of Memphis, trans. F.L. Griffith, Oxford 1900. See MacKenzie 1915, ix (after Flinders Petrie, Egyptian Tales, 92ff).

The added PDF contains the following:
First there is the article on the ‘Book of Thoth’ from Wikipedia (1-3), followed by ‘another legend’ (4-13), a version of our story, which has also appeared as a booklet with the title ‘The search for the Book of Thoth’, retold by Cari Meister (14). This is followed by the relevant part of the blog ‘The Book of Thoth and Other Deadly Books’ by ‘The Ancient Ones’ (15-16). Then there is another version of Ahura’s story by Per Ankh (17-27), followed by some more information about Thoth from Crystalinks Website (28-36).

The Book of Thoth

1 Comment

  1. Cor Hendriks 20 april 2016 op 09:32

    Door Per Ankh wordt het verhaal gedateerd als ca. 1100 VC; daarentegen lezen we in de Wikipedia-file, dat het is uit de Ptolemeïsche periode. Dat dit laatste correct is, blijkt uit het gebruik van het Griekse woord schoenus (σχοῖνος), wat ‘bies’ betekent, waarvan afgeleid het een touw is, gemaakt van biezen en gebruikt voor het meten, vanwaar het staat voor een bepaalde lengtemaat, bij Herodotus 60 stadiën (volgens het Grieks Wb. 185 meter, Van Dale 182 m.; Attisch 177 m.). De eerste, vroegste datering is op basis van het Egyptische stelsel: Late Ramessiden. Hoe dit met elkaar te rijmen is, moet u aan Immanuel Velikovsky vragen, die in zijn ‘Peoples of the Sea’ argumenteert, dat er een 800-jarig verschil is tussen de ene en de andere opvatting van de oude geschiedenis (d.w.z. dat de 12e eeuw VC eigenlijk de 4e eeuw VC is).

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