Thoth created the world by bringing forth a dense mound of earth from the nothingness, which became the fertile land of the Nile Delta, which became the city of Khemmennu. He translated the divine intelligence into the early hieroglyphics so that humans could read them and grow wise, and he breathed into being the spirits of order, truth and justice and cloaked them in the guise of geometry and calculus and physics, these basic things that made order out of chaos. Thoth came to me in a dream, months ago, when I was immobile on the floor of my bathroom spitting up my junky insides. He had the head of an ibis and the body of a baboon. He spoke my true name to me then, the one I’ve borne for ages but that can only be uttered in the supernatural melodrama of night, under the moonless sky, beneath wan stars that hang onto the universe by threads.
Thoth called me from my slumber and I smiled back at him, one crooked grin suspended in the gelatinous soup of space-time. I am pressed in at all sides by matter. I can feel it. You will return to the world, he says; you will bring the words back from the mouths of the dead. You will tell them what you’ve seen. He brought pictures into my head of the first time we met, at the foothills of the Mokattam just south of Cairo; he breathed one of Ma’at’s downy feathers my way and it caught my wet lips mid-articulation, and since then I have been marked as one of the prophets whose job it was to bring truth back into the world after all the old gods had perished or been forgotten. I’ve been asleep for four thousand years, waiting for the time to be right, for the men of this world to have nearly but not entirely forgotten, and now I am almost ready. I vomit out the acid and the decay and the tumescent animal chunks of my stomach, and then I sip his tonic of salt water and juniper. My body begins to heal. I am about to rise again.
After he helped create the world, Thoth changed his name to Hermes Trismegistus and filled the libraries of the ancients with secret alchemical texts. He wrote how Atum, the first man and life-giver of the cosmos, created himself out of the primordial waters and how, in many eons from now, we will all melt back into that, the liquid substrate that animates everything. Some day. But not quite yet, of course. Atum sits at the base of the Banyan tree overlooking the Euphrates and when he opens his mouth his tongue dribbles out from him and splashes gold rivulets of saliva onto the dusty earth, and the words he hisses into the sediment replenish the rivers and fill them with slippery fish that jump upstream toward Syria. I sit watching them from one of the branches while he licks at my ear and tells me why he decided to create the world from nothing.
His words are untranslatable, as is their meaning, but the feel of them is like a great jet of air rushing through your torso. It is the sensation of being kissed for the first time, and the smell of damp spring, and the notes of a major third harmonizing in waves out beyond the earth. It’s the taste of a melon, and the embrace of soft sleep, and melancholic letting go of consciousness, and the dust as it collects in the corners of the cabin you lived in as a girl, and the new toes of infants and the cataclysmic wail of their first gasping breath, and the turning of the globe, and the sting of death, and the bright blue of the eyes that open up in the middle of oblivion and look out onto the world. That’s what he says to me is why he brought it about, but it’s a truth that must be learned over and over again because the slightest breath jostles it away, and it’s never the same when he says it the next time, anyway; it’s a kaleidoscope. It’s always being remade. Pieces fall out. They turn into ashes. He makes new things from them.
He still never told me how he did it. The something-from-nothing. He doesn’t trust my brain to comprehend and so I wrestle with it eternally. He doesn’t know what words to use, how to spell my mind to see it–all he has are these long whispered things he lets fall through his teeth and into the river below, where they are jettisoned off to god knows where. Here is an easier one, he says–do you know why there is time? It’s the recording of change. There is no time in a static universe; stasis is the opposite of the experience of hours. The turning of the gears in Chronos’s watch mark the passing of one moment of existence to the next, the obliteration of one thing for another, the mixing around and shaking up of particles. Seconds mark transitions; it is a dimension of movement and form. Time weathers you. It breaks things down and builds it up. It orients us. Unstick yourself and see what I mean–you’ll miss its reliable march even as you curse its inevitability.
I’m floating above myself. It’s several years ago, September. My breath is shallow and my heart beats intermittently. I can smell the alcohol seeping from my pores. It’s an old and rancid smell, a sickness long past its point of expiration. I remember waking up to drink again. It was 4:30–the light from the sun had barely punctured the sky and I needed to push myself back down under the blanket of drink before it rose any further, while there was not yet color in its eastern quadrant, while it was still a place of infinite quiet, somewhere frozen and bereft of movement. I had wanted to stop time–to step outside it for a moment. Thoth sidled up to me and poked my ribs. This was his first visitation. He sang the Cannibal Hymn that appeared in the Pyramidic Texts in the second millennium BC, etched over the tomb of Unis and read over the Pharaoh’s corpse as his organs were removed and gently placed in canopic jars. I think about this later while I hurdle through Death Valley and watch the hawks making elegant circles over the carrion below. Pharaoh’s lifetime is eternal repetition. He has swallowed the knowledge of every God. Thoth said the gods were rising in America and now was the time to watch them, just as they were waking up.
It is a cannibal land. I’m developing a taste for it. We don’t believe in the old gods anymore, not in this country, but you can glimpse them sometimes, in the evening, caught in the florescent light of the gas stations, next to the ice machine that clinks and bangs, smoking cigars from Cuba, or wandering through Appalachia from one West Virginian mining town to the next, collecting tin cans. Set had cut Osiris into little pieces but, contrary to myth, she scattered them in the New World, not the Old–a child digging in her garden outside Mobile found his fingers rotting underneath the bougainvillea, and before she called her father over to her she snatched his ring off of him and hid it in her pocket along with a marble she’d found earlier and a rare and rusted two-headed nickel. She has dreams about the Dynasties that she tells nobody about. In them, Osiris lunges at her with nine-fingered hands, but she always feints right and gets away.
I am trying to fathom creation. Why or how there is something rather than nothing. Atum cannot say. He is a snake eating his own tail. There is a language I do not speak that describes the behavior of particles and the dimensions of the torus in Euclidean space. Plato thought one of the fundamental units of reality was the dodecahedron. We are made of a confusion of mathematics and metaphors; Thoth imbued physics with a personality and named it the Spirit of Justice. Is this less precise than Hawking’s descriptions? Or Feynman’s? When does myth become a more accurate way to understand the cosmos than the language of numbers that it is actually written in? Do we sacrifice accuracy for intuition? Can we think beyond four dimensions? I look for Lewis Carroll among the headstones in Mount Cemetery in Guildford, Surrey. I have his rabbit; we prowl the grounds together, looking for tombs to make rubbings of.
Here is my cry to the blistered and addicted, the yearning and the discontent: Spit out your disease and help me to comprehend all this. Sublimate your need for transcendence into other things. Wipe your vomit from the white rim of the toilet, clean the blood from your arms, and reopen the texts that sit underneath your bed collecting dust. Thoth wrote these words for you but he is perishing alone in the darkness, devoid of allegiance and grandeur. He weeps with frustration at your reticence, at your unholy obsessions. He rains acid from the sky in anger. You were made to be conscious. You are wasting your gift, this thing wrapped in ribbons and hieroglyphs.
In Khemmennu the priests hang baskets of lotus flowers from the lintels above the temple doors. The old men astronomers mark the comets that cycle through the skies, waiting for one to come back around and seal their prophecy. They know that years from now there will come a time when their wisdom will resurface and merge with the great scientific achievements of humankind to build a deeper kind of understanding. When that day comes, Horus and Chronos and Set will rise from the ground beneath CERN and from the detectors at LIGO Labs, will descend upon the observatories far out in the Atacama desert where neutrinos hail from the sky, will envelope the rockets in Cape Canaveral and the lesser accelerators at Fermi, and they will show us how to translate the myths of the past into the language of the present day and to understand the modern significance of what the folklorists have been saying for centuries. The eternal return. Divine cannibalism. The perfect forms. The strings and wavelengths of the quantum.
Quiet now. I hear them in the distance. Toss off the needles, the libidinal accessories of your past crimes; hold still your shaking hands and wait for Thoth to come again, one last time. Phoenix-like, descending with the comets. He knows what you are seeking. Steady your breath. Be prepared to speak your questions to him, and wait, electrified, for him to answer.
Roberta Singer is a writer and an American Studies graduate student located in St. Louis, Missouri. When she isn’t moonlighting as a librarian, she tends to her blog Physics for Junkies, where she explores the intersections of science, history, literature, folklore, and biography. She has a BA in Anthropology and is composed of 98% carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.