Thoth: “the third ends the discord of the two”

We have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by sensuality at one end of the spectrum, and by sheer abstraction at the other. (Nihilism Exposed, 1955)

It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man, from the beginning of recorded time to the present. (Playboy Interview, 1969)

Thoth played a central role in the ancient Egyptian narrative of The Contendings of Horus and Seth. Their battles were said to have been put to rest through his intervention.1

However, it is important to read such narratives as a kind of diachronic description of a synchronic condition. Taken in this way, the contendings of Horus and Seth, along with the mediation of Thoth, sets out a gigantomachia peri tes ousias (the battle of the gods and giants over the nature of reality) that is structurally parallel to that of Plato 2500 years later — and to our contemporary versions 2500 years later still.2

Horus was the hawk god of the sky and the representative of the Egyptian council of the gods, the Ennead. He was the eye of the world. Seth was the desert animal of the earth — the testicles of the world. Like the gods and giants in the Greek gigantomachia, their battle of the above and the below, the Nile and the desert, the black and the red, abstraction and sensuality, was ‘always going on’ — but so was their peace as brought about by, and as represented in, Thoth.3   

The perennial situation of humans is to be the effect of this complex of times and spaces before them: the dynamic contest of Being itself. Such is human being.

The fate of humans is to have increasingly lost a sense of this definitive situation, a loss that amounts to a tower of Babel assault on the divine. But the tower of Babel assault is itself a mode of the gigantomachia! Hence the rejection and forgetfulness of the gigantomachia takes place, and can take place, only by a mimicking of what it would reject.

Of course there is no escape for beings from Being.

Herman te Velde’s Seth, God of Confusion (1967) sets out the figure of Thoth relative to Horus and Seth as follows:4

Thoth: “the son of the two rivals” (44)5

The moon [Thoth] comes forth out of Seth, who has devoured the seed of Horus. (51)

Thoth: “I am he who limits the flood, who separates the two men.” (60)

“I am he who separated the two brothers” (44)

Thoth: “the cutter” [of the “two brothers” apart from the strife between them], “the sickle” [of the moon and as “cutter”] (44)6

The separating of Horus and Seth is equal to setting a boundary between the cosmos and the chaos surrounding it like a flood. The separation, indeed, has creative significance, for it is a decisive mythical event. The Egyptians could link all kinds of distinctions or contrasts in contemporary reality with the separation of Horus and Seth: heaven and earth, earth and underworld, right and left, black and red, to be born and to be conceived, rulership and strength, life and dominion. The separation also means a dividing of the world. In the Pyramid texts there are mentioned the places of Horus and the places of Seth. This horizontal division is traversed by a vertical one, that of above and below. (60)

A hymn to Thoth says: “come and behold Thoth, who has appeared in his crown, which the two lords [Horus and Seth] have made fast for him in Hermopolis” [= city of Hermes = city of Thoth] (…) Horus and Seth are not usually imagined as working together in concord. The two combatants bring forth the god of peace [Thoth]. He appears and places himself between the two gods, thereby interceding in the struggle and ending their homosexual relationship.7 He makes separation between the two gods. The third ends the discord of the two gods. (45)

In sacrificial liturgies where the offering is termed the eye of Horus, lapidary sentences enumerate what may happen. Seth seizes the eye; he treads it underfoot; he has stolen it, etc. (…) All texts in which one can read open combat and a militant conflict [between Horus and Seth], are to be placed in this setting of myth and not elsewhere [eg, in historical events]. Yet even here it is not always necessary to imagine a violent fight. Together with the cause of the conflict, peace also becomes apparent: the mediator, Thoth. (45) 

Thoth has constructed the eye [of Horus] in such a way, that he has designed a new image of reality, which takes account of the existence of Seth. According to the Egyptians, reality is not only being, but being and non-being [together]. (48)

Van Baaren remarks “… the originator of confusion, like the creator who sets in order, is an aspect of total reality which cannot be spared.” This aspect of reality in cosmic, social and personal life, which finds expression in the key words ‘storm’, ‘tumult’, ‘illness’, the Egyptians could typify by means of [the hieroglyph of] a Seth-animal with a curved snout and a straight tail. Thus this disturber of the peace became an element of order in the Egyptian system of writing… (31)8

Van Baaren further: “In Egypt sacrifice is not so much a gift from men to the gods, as a sacred act whereby man can contribute to the restoring or the maintaining of cosmic harmony.” (…) This harmony is attained when both Horus and Seth have received their attributes, eye and testicles respectively. (50)

Kerenyi said in [his commentary to Paul Radin’s The Trickster]: ”Disorder belongs to the totality of life, and the spirit of this disorder is the trickster. His function in an archaic society, or rather the function of his mythology, of the tales told about him, is to add disorder to order and so make a whole, to render possible, within the fixed bounds of what is permitted, an experience of what is not permitted”. The testicle symbol is the counterpart of the wedjat-eye, that [Egyptian] symbol of all good and holy things in sound and unimpaired condition. This other aspect of reality could not be ignored. The symbol of the testicles played a part in Egyptian religion from the time the Pyramid texts were composed until Graeco-Roman times [3000 years later]. Horus is appeased with his eye, but Seth must also be appeased with his testicles. Thus he is recognised and worshipped as the “spirit of disorder”, as the lord of the unbridled forces in nature and in civilisation. (56)

Kerenyi called the trickster: “the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries”. (56)

Thoth, like Plato’s philosophical child or childish philosopher as portrayed in the Sophist, will have ‘both together’. But this is an ontological force, not an ontic one. It is therefore a real and perpetual possibility for humans, if we will submit ourselves to it; but at the same time it is a ‘contested’ possibility, not a singular one. Moreover, exactly on account of this plurality, its recognition requires the paradoxical recognition of its equally powerful siamese rivals, Horus and Seth in Egypt, the gods and the giants in Greece. It is this ontological plurality of the fundamentally different which then grounds the both together of ontology and the ontic in their fundamental difference!

In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.9


  1. In other tellings, Isis played this intermediary role: “the great Isis who renders the two men contented” (te Velde, 48).
  2. Of course these dates are very rough. The first hieroglyphic writing in Egypt is attested around 5000 years ago. The contendings of Horus and Seth are evidenced in the pyramid texts only five or six centuries later. But the mythological cycle seems to have been common knowledge then and doubtless had its origins far back in pre-historic (pre-literate) time. It may be a story that is as old and as various as mankind. In McLuhan this 3-fold is to be seen in many different forms, ear-eye-tactility, for example, or in the two wings of the Gutenberg era in contrast to the both together of the electric Marconi one.
  3. Along with the Egyptians and the Greeks, McLuhan insisted that an understanding of peace depends upon an understanding the antagonists who would be brought together in that peace: “In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.” (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape,1951). ‘Understanding’ in this sense begins by allowing the antagonists their independent place in reality — peace does not confuse and annul, but brings together in the third possibility of respected difference.
  4. Page numbers in brackets refer to Herman te Velde, Seth, God of Confusion (1967).
  5. In Plato’s Sophist, the third figure is a child “begging for both” sides of the gods/giants battle.
  6. Compare Plato’s third gender in the Symposium which is said to be descended from the moon on account of the ‘mixed’ nature of the two others.
  7. The “homosexual relationship” of Horus and Seth mirrors their shared identity as universal monists and exactly therefore as antagonists. As with Plato, it is the role of the third to introduce sexual generation based on the combination of the two as a complex synchronic alternative to the asserted monism of the contesting gods and giants: “the third ends the discord of the two”. (Re ‘alternative‘: *al — Proto-Indo-European root meaning “beyond.” It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit anya “other, different,” arana- “foreign;” Avestan anya-, Armenian ail “another;” Greek allos “other, different, strange;” Latin alius “another, other, different,” alter “the other (of two),” ultra “beyond, on the other side;” Gothic aljis “other,” Old English elles “otherwise, else,” German ander “other”.)
  8. Th.P. Van Baaren is cited here, and in the next passage, from Menschen wie Wir, 1964.
  9. ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape’,1951. See note 3 above.