Egypt: Ptolemaic Era
The moon god Thoth and his wife, Maat, together serve the sun god by providing the natural order that pervades and supports the creation. Thoth appears here as an ibis, and Maat as a diminutive woman wearing the feather of an ostrich.
Artist: Unknown Sculpture: bronze, gilded wood [body of ibis], black glass [inlays for eyes of ibis]; cedar base Height: including base, 7.7 in. (19.5 cm.) Circa 300-200 BCE Site: Egypt: Tuna el-Gebel Location: West Germany: Hanover, Kestner Museum, no. 1957,83
Resting on a base, the god Thoth is depicted in his epiphany as an ibis. His legs and feet, neck, bill, and the tips of his tail feathers are in bronze. No doubt they were originally polished and shining. His eyes are made of glass. The remainder of his body is in gilded wood. Before him sits the goddess Maat in her characteristic crouching position. Her knees are drawn up under her chin, with her feet tucked under her buttocks and her hands resting on her knees. On her head is her primary attribute, the feather of an ostrich.
The primary animal form of the god Thoth is the ibis, although he also appears sometimes as a baboon. The ancient Egyptians imagined that in the beginning the universe was nothing more than a vast ocean. This ocean lacked a surface; it completely filled the universe and was often referred to as the cosmic egg. Variations of this creation myth were told at Hermopolis, a city of Middle Egypt. According to one tale, the world was said to have originated in a cosmic egg that had been laid by the celestial goose, which had first broken the silence of the world and was called the Great Cackler. This egg, laid upon a primeval hill, contained the bird of light, Re, who then created the cosmos as we know it. A second version was similar to the first, except that in this tale the egg was laid by an ibisis, by Thoth. The cult of Thoth at Hermopolis was rather late, and it has been suggested that this variation of the myth was an attempt by the Hermopolitan priests to graft the Thoth legend on to older traditions.
Perhaps Thoth assumes the form of the ibis because, like him, the bird is connected with the moon. The ibis has a bill that resembles the crescent moon, and its gait suggests the movement of the moon to some classical authors. Plutarch has written that the alternating black and white feathers of the male ibis are reminiscent of the dark and light phases of the moon. In addition to being a lunar animal, the ibis was well known in antiquity, because it would refuse to drink unhealthy or poisoned water, killed poisonous reptiles, and set mankind an example of cleanliness. Like the god Thoth, the ibis was hostile to dangerous forces and a model for purity and good sense; for Thoth, in addition to being the moon god, was the god of wisdom, who maintained the cosmic order that pervades the created world.
It is in his role as god of wisdom that Thoth demonstrates his connection to Maat, the embodiment of cosmic order. Together, as a divine couple, they serve the sun god, Re. Thoth is the scribe of the gods and, as such, the secretary of Re. One hymn to Re runs: "Daily Thoth writes Maat for thee." Every day Thoth must determine the course of Re; it is his wisdom and creative power that ensures the regular movement of the sun through the sky. Moreover, it is Thoth who crushes the hostile forces that oppose Re during his voyage. As a result, Thoth is often depicted standing in the prow of the sun-boat.
Maat reveals the other side of the situation, for she embodies the order that Thoth protects. She is called the food of Re: "Thy nourishment consists of Maat, thy beverage is Maat, thy bread is Maat, thy beer is Maat." The law that governs the regularity of the heavens is understood to be the nourishing matrix of both the sun's power and the goodness of life that depends thereon; for Maat is not only the goddess of law but also of justice. Her symbol is the feather of the ostrich. This is a bird that inhabits desert and savanna, although it must never wander too far away from rivers and lakes, since it drinks more than a gallon of water a day. The ostrich cannot fly, but it is a fast runner and a strong fighter. Often Thoth and Maat are depicted together, usually riding in the sun-boat. The law that governs the day and the night, the revolving seasons, and the cycle of years is Maat. It is she who supports the sun god, with Thoth's protection.
Birds are usually epiphanies of a god or goddess, although sometimes they may represent messengers from heaven. A number of themes are associated with birds, and it is helpful to focus on these themes by paying attention to the particular habitat of a bird. For example, the ibis is a water bird, while the ostrich is undoubtedly and primarily connected with land. In addition, almost all birds are regarded as air animals because of their capacity for flight.
Water birds are found very often in tales of creation, as Manabu Waida (1987) points out. One category of creation myth is the cosmogonic dive. In such myths, creation begins with a great primeval sea and no land in sight. One animal succeeds in diving to the depths and resurfacing with a small amount of soil from the bottom of the sea. This soil will then serve as the basis for the earth. Sometimes the so-called earth diver is a frog, but often it is a water bird. The latter motif is common among the peoples of Russia and North America.
Another form of creation myth that combines the symbolism of the waters and the bird is found in traditional Finnish and Estonian tales, where God assumes the form of a bird and lays an egg on the surface of the primeval sea. This egg then grows into the world. A similar tale appears in both Indonesia and Polynesia mythologies. An Orphic myth is slightly different: originally, Night exists as a great black-winged bird hovering over a vast darkness. Although she has no mate, she produces an egg out of which hatches gold-winged Eros. The two halves of the shell become Heaven and Earth.
The idea of a water bird, sometimes anthropomorphized, as the creator of the cosmic egg is found already in Neolithic figurine art. Very often these are vessels that have the shape of a bird. The most unusual aspect of these representations is that the jar is shaped not simply in the form of a bird but in that of a bird carrying a large egg within its body. Similar artifacts are found in Cycladic, Minoan, and Helladic art.
The bird that lives on the land is, of course, not as common as the bird in flight or the water bird. However, there are aspects of bird symbolism that do not depend on the context of either the heavens or the waters. Perhaps the most well-known motif of this kind is the bird goddess of Old Europe and her descendent, in the ancient Near East and in the cultures of the Mediterranean, the sacred dove. For example, in Greece the dove is an epiphany of divinity, but divinity in its amorous aspect. It is the animal that is most sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love.
The most familiar symbolism associated with birds, however, is based on the animal's capacity for flight, that is, the bird that is at home in the heavens. Because of its ability to fly high up over the earth, the bird suggests the possibility of a new perspective, one that is broad and wide and "objective." It is this capacity that makes the bird a symbol of wisdom, the understanding that comes from vision.
Bleeker, C. Jouco. Hathor and Thoth: Two Key Figures of the Ancient Egyptian Religion. Leiden, 1973.
Bleeker, C. Jouco. De beteekenis van de Egyptische godin Ma-a-t. Leiden, 1929.
Boylan, Patrick. Thoth, the Hermes of Egypt. New York, 1922.
Waida, Manabu. "Birds." In The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 2. New York, 1987.