A look at the legendary Book of Thoth and the historical figure who inspired Ancient Egypt’s most famous fictional sorcerer and is considered the first Egyptologist.

Setne Khamwas, aka Prince Khaemweset, was the son of Ramesses the Great, as well as a high priest of Ptah, and a historian with a passion for preserving Ancient Egyptian history. He traveled around Egypt, restoring sites and monuments from the Old Kingdom, including the famous Pyramids at Giza. He’s a big factor in why so many famous Ancient Egyptian sites are in relatively good repair. He’s also behind some ancient alien theories.

The Book of Thoth, a book of magic that was featured in the fictional stories about Setne Khamwas, also has an interesting backstory, and links to ceremonial magic, Hermes Trismegistus, and hermeticism in general.

Highlights include:

• Ancient aliens
• A magical bull
• Field mice fighting battles
• The good and bad parts of being an ancient historian/tomb raider

 

 

Episode Script for The Book of Thoth and the First Egyptologist

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

“The archaeologists who first began professionally excavating Egyptian sites in the 19th century CE owe the existence of their records, and in many cases the structures themselves, to the efforts of the prince and high priest Khaemweset.” –from an article about Khaemweset in Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient.eu

 

“It seems that later Egyptians admired Khaemwaset because he was able to read old inscriptions but, at the same time, thought him reckless as he entered tombs” -Van de Mieroop

 

The real Setne:

https://www.ancient.eu/Khaemweset/

  • So let’s talk about what’s real
  • Some of the big sources for this episode are:
    • Stories of the High Priests of Memphis by LL Griffith (1900)
  • The real historical figure who Setne was based on is Prince Khaemweset, whose name is translated a bunch of different ways, including as Setne Khamwas. Setne was basically a corruption of his title, which was “Sem” or “Setem” priest.
  • I’ll call him Khamwas since that was his actual name, and also to distinguish him from the literary Setne.
  • He was the fourth son of Pharaoh Ramses II, and while he never became Pharaoh, he was the best known son of Ramesses II, aka Ramesses the Great, who reigned for 67 years.
  • Khamwas was born near the end of his grandfather, Seti I’s, reign, so maybe in the 1270s BC
  • His name meant “manifestation in Thebes” so some historians think he was born in Thebes, which was a major city in southern Egypt, but he lived his life and died in Memphis, Egypt.
  • When he was young, he would have fought in wars, and there’re a bunch of inscriptions and reliefs that show him on the battlefield.
  • While he was fighting, he also would have been in school, studying to become a scribe, and then studying to become a priest, and then doing an apprenticeship with a priest. And through all of this, he also would have been working out a lot, because physical fitness was really important at the time if you were the child of the Pharaoh
  • He became a priest of Ptah, who was a very important god in Memphis, when he was 18 years old
  • And by the time he was 32, he was the high priest of Ptah
  • As high priest, he was at the top of the hierarchy and was very important
  • Part of the High Priest of Ptah’s job was to oversee the upkeep of temples, and Khamwas took this role very seriously.
  • When he was younger, he would have traveled around Egypt with his father and seen the state of different historic structures–some had been well maintained by priests, whereas others were in bad shape.
  • Then, once he became a priest, he would have had access to a huge amount of historical records, which were kept in the temple in a room called the Per-Ankh, or House of Life.
    • And, as it turns out, Khamwas was obsessed with the past, especially with Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom
    • All the major temples had a House of Life, which included libraries, classroom space, and areas that people used for writing.
    • Using the records in the House of Life, Khamwas was able to identify and research structures that were in disrepair
  • In fact, he’s been called “the first Egyptologist” because of the research and restoration work that he did.
  • An article about him on ancient.eu quotes an Egyptologist named Kenneth Kitchen:
    • He was no doubt impressed by the superb workmanship of the splendid monuments of a thousand years before – and perhaps also depressed by their state of neglect, mounded up in drifts of sand, temples fallen into ruin. Deeply affected by all that he had seen, Khaemweset resolved to clear these glories of antiquity of the encumbering sand, tidy the temples, and renew the memory (and perhaps the cults) of the ancient kings.
  • One thing that’s hard for us to fathom is that Egypt has such a long history, and even during the times of what’s called the “New Kingdom” of Ancient Egypt, there were things from the “Old Kingdom” that were already ancient, as in 600-1500 years old.
    • I think that kind of history is really hard to picture, but for me, one way of looking at it is to compare it to famous historic structures in Europe: construction on Notre-Dame, in Paris, started in the 1,100s,  so about 860 years ago. So imagine structures that were twice that age, and you can maybe imagine some of the historic structures that Khamwas was restoring.
    • Another way to think of it is that Stonehenge was probably erected around the time of Egypt’s Old Kingdom (the Old Kingdom was around 2600-2180 BC, and carbon dating suggests that the  first parts of Stonehenge were erected between 2400-2200 BC.) So, you know, while the Egyptians were building the pyramids at Giza, some people put up some big rocks in England.
  • He would find ruined tombs and restore them and make sure that the names of the dead were clearly inscribed on them. That’s an important detail, the fact that he preserved not just the past but the names of those who had built the structures. He’d also write what the structure was used for, and when it was restored. Basically he was creating historical plaques.
  • One inscription, for a king’s tomb, read:
    • His Majesty instructed the High Priest of Ptah and Setem, Khaemwise, to inscribe the cartouche of king Shepsekaf, since his name could not be found on the face of his pyramid, inasmuch as the Setem Khaemwise loved to restore the monuments of the kings, making firm again what had fallen into ruin.
  • In addition to restoring structures, he’d fix up statues. The inscription for a statue that he restored of the son of the Pharaoh who built the great pyramid reads:
    • It was the High Priest and Prince Khaemwise who delighted in this statue of the king’s son Kawab, which he discovered in the fill of a shaft in the area of the well of his father Khufu. He acted so as to place it in the favour of the gods, among the glorious spirits of the chapel of the necropolis because he loved the noble ones who dwelt in antiquity before him, and the excellence of everything they made, in very truth, a million times. (Ray, 87-88)
  • Apparently the pyramids at Giza were in terrible disrepair at the time, since they were a thousand years old and it was no longer an active burial site. So Khamwas restored the whole area, and now it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in egypt.
  • In Ancient Egypt, he was remembered and respected for hundreds of years after his death because of the work he did to restore historic tombs, temples, and buildings.
  • And one reason why his father, Ramesses the Great, became so famous, is because Khamwas was going around fixing things up and mentioning his father on the inscriptions for everything.
    • Ramesses the Great was even mistaken for the Pharaoh in Exodus, because his name was so well known that it sounds like it just kind of attached itself to the story in the popular imagination.
  • However, his work was sort of a double edged sword.
  • He did excellent restoration work, which was important since the afterlife was so important to the Ancient Egyptians. But for the same reason, there were many taboos against entering tombs, and people did not like that he was breaking that taboo. That’s probably part of why the literary character that’s based on him was so reckless and often looked foolish and unaware of consequences.
    • To quote an article in ancient.eu, he “impulsively follows his heart instead of the precepts of tradition and cultural values.”
  • In addition to restoring old monuments, Khamwas also built new ones to commemorate important events during his own time.
  • In fact, some Egyptologists have criticized him, claiming that his restoration work was just about trying to use ancient sites as quarries–basically the idea is that he would steal stones from sites during restorations, and use them for his own building projects.
  • However, it sounds like most Egyptologists don’t think that was the case, though he may have reused some stones and other materials from structures that were too far gone to restore.
  • One of the things that he would have done as high priest was preside over the burial of something called an Apis bull, which was a type of bull that at the time, was a sort of sacred herald to Ptah, and who also had associations with kingship.
    • Around Memphis, the cows were mostly black with white patterns, and an Apis bull had specific patterns: they’d have a white triangular spot on their forehead, a vulture wing outline on its back, a mark that looked like a scarab under its tongue, a crescent moon shape on its right flank, and double hairs on his tail.
    • When they found a bull with these markings, they’d take him from the herd and worship him as a manifestation of Ptah. The story was that an Apis bull was conceived  by a flash of lightning or a moonbeam, and the mother of the bull would get special treatment and burial when she died.
    • The Apis bull would be used as an oracle in the temple–they made prophecies based on his movements.
    • The bull’s breath was supposed to cure disease, and his presence brought strength
    • People on the street could see the bull through a window in the temple, and for festivals, they’d festoon the bull with jewelry and flowers and parade him through the streets
    • When the bull died in a ritual slaying, it would be mummified in a special way, and sometimes they’d affix the mummy to a wooden platform in the tomb so he’d be standing.
    • Then, while the bull was prepared for burial, they’d search for the new Apis bull.
    • They kept meticulous records of the lives of the Apis bulls, detailing when they were born, when they were enthroned, when they died, who their mothers were, etc.
    • And it was extremely expensive to bury them–they were put in huge sarcarphagi, and they were embalmed and prepared for burial with the highest honors.
    • Because Apis was a protector of the dead and had ties to the Pharaoh, some Pharaoh’s tombs had horn decorations, and some ordinary people would have depictions of the Apis bull on their coffins.
    • In addition to presiding over the burials of the Apis bull, and searches for new Apis bulls, Khamwas also had a huge gallery excavated in an underground burial complex, and the bulls were buried there in his time.
      • The idea was that if all the bulls were buried together, it’d be easier for people to visit them and leave offerings
      • These tombs were used for 13 centuries, and were rediscovered in the 1850s
      • This tomb for the bulls is still around today, and it’s a popular tourist attraction
    • There are also apparently a lot of conspiracy theories about this tomb, because the granite sarcophagi weigh between 70-100 tons
      • In the name of research, I did watch a youtube video about the conspiracy theory. Basically the idea is that the giant granite sarcophagi are extremely heavy, from stone that was quarried far away, and many of them are extremely precise,  there are questions about how they could have created them, and people can’t imagine that anyone would go to so much trouble to bury a bull.
      • I don’t find this convincing, really, because if the bull is a god, then nothing’s too good for them, and also the Egyptians were amazing mathematicians and architects.
      • Some people think aliens created them, whereas other people think nephilim, or angels, made them. And you can google “Serapeum” if you want to learn more about that.
    • In addition to creating the Serapeum, Khamwas also constructed a temple to Apis. Previously, there’s been a chapel at each bull’s tomb. And that became a hub for the cult of the Apis bull
  • There was one story that Herodotus tells about Khamwas, where he’d angered the military by treating them with contempt and not giving them land allotments, as they’d been given by kings in the past. For whatever reason, he thought he wouldn’t need the military’s help.
    • So he was totally screwed when the king of Assyria and Arabia marched with his army to attack Egypt, because the Egyptian troops refused to help.
    •  So Khamwas went to the temple and bemoaned the terrible situation he’d gotten himself into, and then he fell asleep and Ptah gave him a vision where he comforted him and said not to worry, he’d help him.
    • So Khamwas gathered up all the Egyptians who were willing to help him, which ended up being just artisans and merchants, basically.
    • When they arrived at the battlefield, an enormous stream of field mice arrived, and scurried over to the enemy camp, where they ate all of the shields, bows, quivers, and other weapons. And then, having lost all of their weapons, which which was a major financial loss as well, the enemy army fled.
    • Herodotus claimed that in his day, a statue of Khamwas stood before the temple with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription that said “Let any one looking upon me, (learn to) be pious!”
    • It’s unclear to me how real this story is, but apparently it influenced the bible story in II Kings 19:35 where an angel destroys an Assyrian army, much like some of the fictional Setne stories we’ve looked at influenced the bible, which is really fascinating to me. (I did read, on ancient.eu, that the story of the rich man and poor man that we looked at last week is considered to have influenced the story of Lazarus in the bible, in Luke 16:19-31.)
  • We don’t know much about Khamwas’ personal life. We don’t know his wife’s name, but we think he maybe had three children, but even that’s fuzzy. We do know that his daughter’s tomb was discovered recently, I think around 2009?
  • Khamwas was named crown prince, but died when he was 55; so he could have been Pharaoh if he had lived longer, but the crown went to his brother, Merenptah, Ramses II’s 13th son
  • Today, Merenptah’s name is apparently better known, because he won an important victory against the Sea Peoples, who were a confederacy of naval raiders who attacked coastal cities on the Mediterranean.
    • Not much is known about the Sea Peoples, and we don’t know who they were or where they were from. But they were apparently a contributing factor to something called the Bronze Age Collapse, which was when some major civilizations along the Mediterranean were destroyed.
    • One ominous Egyptian inscription described them like this:
      • “They came from the sea in their war ships and none could stand against them.”
    • Though Merenptah believed he had defeated the Sea People once and for all, he didn’t, and they continued to launch attacks against Egypt after his reign.
  • After his death, Khamwas was highly respected, and known as a wise man and magician who knew ancient languages and who could perform powerful spells.
  • We talked about Imhotep last week, who was a priest and polymath with knowledge of medicine, math, astronomy, architecture, and poetry. After his death, Imhotep eventually became deified and was worshipped as a god.
  • That didn’t happen to Khamwas, probably because he entered tombs.
  • It’s unclear where Khamwas was buried; in 1993, archeologists found a ruined tomb inscribed with his name, but the tomb was built in the style of the Old Kingdom, so they aren’t sure that it’s his. However, some people have suggested that even though Khamwas lived and died in the New Kingdom, he may have been so enamored of past styles that he had his tomb made up in an old fashioned way.
  • Some people say he may have been buried in the Serapeum alongside the Apis bulls.
  • Around 2000, a team of archaeologists found a funerary chapel to Khamwas 1.5 K from the Serapeum, on an outcropping of rock that overlooked all of the pyramids of the Memphis necropolis, which he loved so much
  • And of course he’s remembered through the fictional stories about him.
  • Though the Setne stories we looked at in past episodes were fictionalized, it does sound like a lot of Khamwas’ personality made it into the stories. He wasn’t afraid to enter tombs, no matter what magic or curses may lay in wait for him there, or what ghosts he might find there–so he was a pretty reckless and curious guy.
  • And in speaking of magic and ghosts, I did want to talk a bit about the Book of Thoth, which was so important in the Setne I story.
  • The Book of Thoth
    • Something pretty weird happened while I was researching the Book of Thoth–I was watching a documentary-type video on ancient.eu, which seemed very credible, and then suddenly, about 6 minutes in, the audio quality changed, and instead of the gravelly male narrator, an Australian woman began narrating, and instead of cheesy historical reenactments and talking heads, there was a slideshow of images, and the video talked about how the ancient knowledge of the Book of Thoth was lost because of the Catholic Church, or as the video called it, “The Anti-Christ Catholic Church” who stole the knowledge to keep everyone enslaved.
    • So I have NO idea what happened here, or why this weird anti-Catholic screed was on ancient.eu, which seems otherwise very credible . . .
    • But when I skipped forward in the video, I eventually found the rest of the credible documentary, and the credible part was interesting, and hinted at how what we consider ceremonial magic these days comes from ancient Egypt.
    • But anyway, it seems that some people think that The Book of Thoth was located in the astral plain, and ppl reached it via channeling
    • In Ancient Egypt, only priests with special training could access the knowledge of Thoth
    • It sounds like a lot of knowledge attributed to having come from Thoth actually came from the Babylonians
    • No one’s ever found an actual spellbook as described, but there is something written in demotic script that has been called The Book of Thoth.
      • It’s a conversation between Thoth, referred to as “He Who Praises Knowledge” among other things, and a student, called “He Who Loves Learning”
      • They discuss bulls, cows, agriculture, as well as “the writings of the house of darkness” which probably meant the underworld
    • An Egyptian historian who lived during the Ptolemaic period claimed that Thoth wrote 36,525 books, many of which were stored at temples in the “houses of life”
    • An early Christian theologian claimed that there were 42 books that contained “the whole philosophy of the Egyptians,” and he said that Hermes had written it.
    • That’s because the Graeco-Roman religion had combined Thoth with Hermes, who was a guide of souls and messenger of the Gods
    • It sounds like Thoth was referred to as “thrice great,” and that’s how Thoth-Hermes became Hermes Trismegistus, who’s a huge figure when it comes to Hermeticism and alchemy, topics that I want to learn more about and talk more about another time.
    • But there was something called the Emerald Tablet, a wisdom text, or hermetica, that contained the secret of prima materia, or the substance that you start with in alchemy, and that you’d transmute into the Philosopher’s Stone. This was a really important text to European alchemists, and it claims to have been written by Hermes Trismegistus
      • While the tablet’s text is supposedly ancient, it sounds like it was more likely Arabic and written between the 6th and 8th centuries
      • Isaac Newton was interested in alchemy, and a translation that he’d created was found among his alchemical papers
    • So this is just a tiny bit about the Book of Thoth and how Egyptian magic fed into medieval alchemy and ceremonial magic nowadays, though I want to return to the topic of alchemy in a future episode.

Sources consulted RE: The Book of Thoth and the First Egyptologist

Books RE: The Book of Thoth and the First Egyptologist

Websites RE: The Book of Thoth and the First Egyptologist

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