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The Gods of Ancient Egypt -- The Book of Thoth


The Book of Thoth


Setna is a recurring character in ancient Egyptian literature. One of the sons of Rameses II, Setna was an accomplished magician, statesman, scholar, and something of an adventurer. His position as the son of the pharaoh, but too far down the line ever to rule is actually a common one for the court scribe. That he existed is no question, but like King Arthur and other quasi-historical figures, his exploits have no doubt been inflated over the years.



This story dates to several centuries following the reign of Rameses. By this time stories of Setna had reached epic proportions, and the former court scribe was elevated to the status of mythic hero. This is one of the more complete stories told about him, and certainly one of the best.

Loudly do the people sing of Setna, son of the Great Rameses, most learned man in Egypt. A great scholar, he was able to read all of the old writings and decipher the most ancient texts. No symbol in Egypt was unknown to him, even the ones on the walls of the crumbling temples from the oldest of days. He was also a mighty magician, perhaps the mightiest in Egypt, for he had learned the magical arts from the secret texts that not even the priests of Amen-Ra could read.


Because of this, he would often spend his days studying ancient writings and listening to the stories told by the elders and the scribes. Every day his servants would bring him rolls of papyrus from libraries and temples all over Egypt. He would read them and his scribes would make copies of them to place in his father's library. Thus Rameses' kingdom was a kingdom of learning.

One day he read in a crumbling scroll about another son of another pharaoh who had been a scribe and magician: Nefrekeptah, the son of Amenhotep. He had lived three hundred years earlier and had been regarded as the mightiest magician in Egypt, for he had found and read the Book of Thoth, the secrets of the god of wisdom. The Book of Thoth was a collection of magics that would enable the reader to know the language of the animals, to cast great spells, even to enchant the sky and the earth itself!


Setna desired the book for himself that he too might drink of its knowledge. He learned that it had been buried with Nefrekeptah at the Memphis necropolis. Setna sought his brother, the mighty Anheru and asked him for help.

"I will go with you, my brother," said Anheru, "I shall be your sword and shield."

It was not difficult to find Nefrekeptah's tomb. As they were the sons of the pharaoh, the priests allowed them to enter. The brothers broke the seals and made their way to the central chamber. There lay Nefrekeptah in his sarcophagus with a great roll of papyrus on his chest. To his left and right there were two chairs. In one of the chairs was the ghostly ka of a woman, in the other sat the ka of a young man.

Setna and Anheru bowed to the two kas and to the body of Nefrekeptah. Setna said, "Osiris keep you in peace, O prince and scribe, and you two who sit beside him in eternity. I am Setna, scribe and magician to my father the pharaoh as you were to yours. I have come to claim the Book of Thoth for my own. I ask you for it peacefully, but I have the power to take it if I choose."

Then the ka of the woman spoke, "Do not take the Book of Thoth, Setna. It is not for you to read, nor for any mortal. Nefrekeptah did not heed the warnings given him, and so his life was filled with sorrow. Misfortune followed him all the days of his life, even claiming the lives of his wife Ahura, and their son Merab. We are they whose kas you see before you, never knowing the Blessed Land because of his lust for knowledge. Listen to my tale, and learn well.


"Know that Nefrekeptah and I were the children of Amenhotep, may Osiris keep him in peace, and according to custom became husband and wife. Merab, our son, was soon born to us, and we lived happily. Nefrekeptah was a man of learning, and craved to know all things. Forever he was reading the ancient books and walking through the old temples and tombs, copying down the sacred writings. "

One day as he was studying thus, an old priest came up to him and said, 'All that is written here is worthless, for it is the work of mortals. I can tell you where to find the knowledge of the gods themselves, the knowledge of Thoth. It is written in his book and hidden away. By reading it you will learn the language of the beasts, how to see the wind and how to hear the sun, the secrets of the gods and the songs of the stars.'

Nefrekeptah's heart leaped within him, for he desired to read of this book. He asked the old priest where it was, promising him anything he wished.

The priest told him, 'Give me a hundred bars of silver for my tomb and a royal proclamation that I be buried like a king.'

Nefrekeptah did all that the priest asked, and the priest told him where he might find the Book of Thoth.

'In the middle of the Nile at Koptos, guarded by snakes and scorpions and a mighty serpent who cannot be killed, in an iron box, in which there is a bronze box, in which there is a wooden box, in which there is an ivory and ebony box, in which there is a silver box, in which there is a golden box, there you shall find the Book of Thoth.'

"Nefrekeptah hastened home and told me all that he had done. I was afraid, for the things of the gods are not for us to touch. Yet he would not be swayed . He beseeched our father for the use of the royal barque. This was granted, and Nefrekeptah, myself, and our son Merab set sail that evening.

"We sailed up the Nile to Koptos, where we offered up sacrifices to Isis and Horus, asking them for success. The next day, Nefrekeptah went to the riverbank and cast a great spell. He summoned up a magic rope that would bind itself to anything he commanded it to and could not be broken or loosed. He cast the rope into the river, commanding it to seek out the iron box.

"After an hour he commanded that the rope lift out of the water. It did so, and brought with it the iron box guarded by snakes and scorpions and the mighty serpent who cannot be killed. It was set upon the ground. Nefrekeptah spoke a word of power, and the snakes and scorpions became as still as stone. Then the great serpent rose to strike, it could not be affected by magic. Nefrekeptah drew his sword and struck off its head in one blow. But the head and the body sprang back together and the serpent rose to strike again. Three times did Nefrekeptah strike, and three times did the serpent become whole again.

"Nefrekeptah had a plan. He called to his servant and asked him to empty a large jar from the ship's hold and to bring it to him. When the servant returned, Nefrekeptah took hold of the serpent's head, struck it off, threw it into the jar and closed the lid. Nefrekeptah commanded his servant to cast the jar into the Nile. The serpent's body thrashed about, but could not find its head.

"Then Nefrekeptah went harmlessly to the box. He opened the iron box, then the bronze box, then the wooden box, then the ivory and ebony box, then the silver box, and then the golden box. In the golden box he found the book and took it. He unrolled the scroll and read from it. Instantly he learned the language of the beasts, how to see the wind and how to hear the sun, the secrets of the gods and the songs of the stars.

"He then gave it to me and bade me read, and I too learned the language of the beasts, how to see the wind and how to hear the sun, the secrets of the gods and the songs of the stars.


"Nefrekeptah then took papyrus and ink and wrote down all the spells from the Book of Thoth. Then taking a pot of beer he washed the ink into a cup and drank it so that the spells entered him and he would not forget them.

"After this we set sail for Memphis. But misfortune overtook us. A strange power seized Merab and caused him to jump into the river and drown. But Nefrekeptah used a spell from the Book to raise Merab from the depths. Yet no magic could bring him back to life, for life is given only by Ra. Yet Nefrekeptah beseeched Merab's ka to speak of what happened.

"Merab's ka said, in the hollow voice of the dead, 'Know that Thoth has discovered what you have done, and has gone to Amen-Ra. And Amen-Ra has given him leave to deal with you as he chooses, but Amen-Ra is sending you great sorrow as punishment, the first of which is to take me from you.'

"We left Merab's body at Koptos where the Ritual of Life was said over him and he was lain in a tomb. We lamented at his loss and our hearts were broken with grief. Nefrekeptah then gave the order to sail once more.

"As we passed the place where Merab had drowned, a power seized me as well and I stepped off into the river and drowned. But Nefrekeptah used a spell from the Book to raise me from the depths. Yet no magic could bring me back to life, for life is given only by Ra. Yet Nefrekeptah beseeched my ka to speak of what happened.

"I said, in the hollow voice of the dead, 'Know that Thoth has discovered what you have done, and has gone to Amen-Ra. And Amen-Ra has given him leave to deal with you as he chooses, but Amen-Ra is sending you great sorrow as punishment, the second of which is to take me from you.'

"And so as with Merab, Nefrekeptah left my body at Koptos where it too was entombed beside Merab. Nefrekeptah sailed in sorrow to Memphis, but when it arrived, he too was dead, holding the Book of Thoth on his chest, the third sorrow. And so Nefrekeptah was buried as a prince, and the kas of myself and our son come to him to watch over him.

"All this was because we took what was not ours and would not heed the warnings. We took the property of the gods and used it as mortals, and mortals have no claim to the things of the gods, neither do you have claim to the Book of Thoth. So I say unto you, if you would not have the sorrows we have, leave the book where it lies for all eternity."

And Setna was filled with awe at the tale, but he was not afraid. He knew he was mightier than Nefrekeptah had been, and his lust for knowledge took hold of him. He spoke in the voice of magic, "Give me the Book of Thoth, or I will use my power to cast you from this place." And the kas of Ahura and Merab drew back in fear.

But then the ka of Nefrekeptah arose from his body and said, "Setna, if you still persist in this quest, even after hearing the tale of sorrows of this family destroyed by the book, the book shall be yours. But you must win it from me in a game of Senet. Will you do this?"

And Setna replied, "I will play for the book."

So the Senet board was brought, and the pieces taken out and placed upon the board. They commenced to play. And Nefrekeptah got his first piece off the board, and Setna sank into the ground to his ankles. Nefrekeptah got his second piece off the board, and Setna sank to his waist. Nefrekeptah got his third piece off the board, and Setna sank to his neck. Quickly he beseeched his brother, "Anheru, bring my magic staff that I may free myself!" And Anheru gave his brother the magic staff. As soon as it was in his hand, Setna worked a great magic and sprang out of the ground. The ka of Nefrekeptah screamed, but he no longer had power over Setna.

Setna grabbed the Book of Thoth and he and Anheru fled the tomb. Behind them, the ka of Ahura cried aloud, but the ka of Nefrekeptah swore that Setna would return the book, crawling upon his hands and knees.

Soon Setna and Anheru stood before their father Rameses and told him all that had happened. Rameses said, "Setna my son, return the Book of Thoth to the tomb. It destroyed Nefrekeptah, and if you would be wise, you would remove it from you lest it do the same to you. Be sure that Nefrekeptah still has power in this world and he will use it to work sorrow upon you until you return the book, crawling upon your hands and knees."

But Setna did not listen to his father, and kept the book. He spent many hours studying it, learning all that it contained. His magic grew powerful, and his knowledge great, for he knew the language of the beasts, how to see the wind and how to hear the sun, the secrets of the gods and the songs of the stars. Many came from all over Egypt to hear his wisdom and to learn from him.

One day, as he sat on the steps of the palace giving counsel, he saw the most beautiful woman he had ever seen passing by. With her was an entourage of serving-maids, and she was dressed in robes of white with gold thread, a golden girdle, and a headdress of gold. Setna could not believe that such beauty could be found among mortals.

He asked those with him, "Who could she be?"

One, the governor of a distant province, replied, "That is Tabubua, daughter of the high priestess of Bast."

Though Setna was married and had a son and a daughter, he forgot all these things in his desire. It was as if a spell had been cast upon him, and indeed he was bewitched, though even with all his power and knowledge of magic he could not see that he was. He desired only Tabubua, and longed to make her his.

He sent her a message, asking if he might come to her. Until he received her reply, he did not eat or drink, nor did he read from the Book of Thoth. Even his eternal quest for knowledge was set aside for the sake of this woman.

Her reply said that he was free to come and speak to her at her palace near Bubastis, the holy city of Bast, the wife of the great god Ptah. He went to her, and she welcomed him to her palace, offering him wine and sweetmeats.

He spoke of his desire for her, nay, of his love. She answered, "If you would make me yours, I must tell you that I am no mortal woman, but the child of Bast herself. Though mortal men may take many wives and may love many times, I cannot allow any rivals. Before we may be wed you must divorce your present wife and your children must be sacrificed and fed to the cats of Bast, lest they plot evil against our children."

And Setna, blind with desire and hardened by the pride of his ill-gotten knowledge, took out his stylus and papyrus, and wrote a decree of divorce against his wife and a command that his children be sacrificed and fed to the cats of Bast.

And when it was done, and the wails of his wife and the cries of his children reached Tabubua's ears, she came to him in her bridal robes. She stepped toward him, and Setna reached out his arms to clasp her. He held her close, saying "I have given up everything for you, my wife is a beggar, my children are slain, you have no rivals for my love!" But it was not a beautiful woman he held, but a withered corpse!

Setna screamed, and the darkness claimed him. He awoke to find himself lying on the road to Memphis, his father's city. There was no sign of the great palace of Tabubua, or Tabubua herself.

"All a dream," he said, "but a terrible one. To think that I could give up all I had so easily. To think that my pride and my lust would overcome me. This was a warning, that unless I undo what I have done, it will come to pass."

He hurried home to find his wife and children alive, and he held them as one holds precious things. He knew that he must return the Book of Thoth to Nefrekeptah.

Setna appeared before his father, the great Rameses, and told him of the dream and of his decision. Rameses said, "Setna, better that you come to your senses now than later. I did warn you that it would destroy you if you did not return it. Return the book to its keeper, and go there on hands and knees, in true contrition."

Setna did so, entering the tomb on his hands and knees, bowing before the sarcophagus of Nefrekeptah and the kas of Ahura and Merab. He begged Nefrekeptah to forgive him and to take back the book, lest it work the same misfortune on Setna as it had on Nefrekeptah.

Then the ka of Nefrekeptah appeared and spoke laughingly, "I said that you would return, crawling on your hands and knees, and so you have. Place the book in my dead hands. But there is one final thing you must do before you are free of punishment. This you must do, or the dream will come to pass."

This Setna did, then he looked up and asked, "What must I do, O scribe Nefrekeptah?"

The ka of Nefrekeptah replied, "Know that though I am buried here in Memphis, my wife and son still lie far away in their tomb at Koptos. I wish for us to be together once more, as a family should be. Bring their bodies to rest here with mine, that we may rejoice together for the first time in many ages. Bring their bodies to rest here with mine, that we may await together the Day of Awakening when Osiris returns to the world."

And Setna gave his word that he would do this. He hastened to his father, the great Rameses, and asked for the use of the royal barque and told him why he needed it. Rameses gave his blessing and wished his son all speed and the protection of Ptah.

Setna and his servants sailed up the Nile to Koptos where they offered up sacrifices to Isis and Osiris. They also sacrificed to Anubis, the guardian of the dead, and to his son Upuaut, the opener of the ways, to whom all tombs are known. But the priests could not tell Setna where Ahura and Merab were buried, for it had been long ago. Setna looked through the ancient writings and read the oldest carvings, but he could find no record of their burial.

Setna despaired and offered great riches to anyone who could help him find the tomb of Ahura and Merab. But no one came forth except for an old man who told Setna, "When I was a child, my grandfather's father (who was as old as I am now) told me that when he was a child, his grandfather's father had shown him the location of the tomb of Ahura and Merab, for when he had been a young man, in the reign of Amenhotep, he had lain them there himself. Follow me, and I will take you there"

Setna followed, and in an ancient field on the outskirts of Koptos, the old man told him to dig. Setna and his men dug, and found an ancient stone mastaba of the style common in Amenhotep's day. They opened the tomb and went in, finding the bodies of Ahura and Merab. The old man cried with joy and disappeared. Setna gave praise to the gods, knowing that it had been none other than the ka of Nefrekeptah, given power to walk among the living that he might show the way.

Setna and his servents carried the bodies back to Memphis, as if they had been the bodies of a pharaoh and his queen, on the royal barque with all honors.

And there in Memphis, Rameses himself led the funeral procession to Saqqara, the city of the dead, and Setna himself pronounced the rituals when they were laid in the tomb, to the left and to the right of the sarcophagus of Nefrekeptah. As they did so, Setna saw the three kas standing together, smiling at him, and he knew that the curse was lifted from him.

The funeral procession left the tomb and closed it up. Setna spoke a word of power, and the door became as the stone around it, and the stone became as the hills around it. He spoke another word, and a mighty sandstorm came up and buried the tomb so that none might find it again. There it lies hidden for all ages against its finding by mortals. And there lies hidden the Book of Thoth, held safely by Nefrekeptah, his wife Ahura, and their son Merab. They stand guard over it and await the Day of Awakening, when Osiris shall return to the world once more.

Return to the Gods

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