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Photograph of the sculpted bronze doors three groups of two doors.
Sculpted bronze doors of the John Adams Building, east entrance. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 2007. (Carol M. Highsmith Collection/Library of Congress)

Thoth and Hermes

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I wanted to continue to cover the bronze doors, on the 2nd and 3rd street entrances of the Adams Building. The doors were designed by sculptor Lee Lawrie, and feature figures on the doors, chosen because of their connections to language, knowledge, learning, and communications. This post will cover two of the gods – Thoth and Hermes. Each is from a different pantheon, but the two are often linked.

the figure of Thoth has a mans body and the head of an ibis is facing right and is holding what looks to be papyrus in his left arm that is raised and is crossing over the body
Figure of Thoth from the doors of the John Adams Building taken some time between 1920 and 1950.(Theodor Horydczak Collection/Library of Congress)

Thoth is one of the oldest Egyptian gods and is often represented as having the head of an ibis. On our doors he has the head of an ibis and has what looks to be papyrus in his raised hand. He is the Egyptian god of writing and wisdom which connects him with the ideas of knowledge and hieroglyphs. E. A Budge in The Gods of the Egyptians (v 1, Chapter XIII) writes that Thoth was considered by ancient Egyptians as the inventor and god of all the arts and sciences and that he made the calculations for establishing the earth, stars, and heavens. Budge asserts that the Greeks connected Thoth with wisdom and learning and considered him the inventor of astronomy and astrology, as well as the science of numbers and mathematics. Thoth was the “lord of books” and the “scribe of the gods.” So, it seems obvious why he was included on the door of a library.

According to Budge, the Ancient Greeks identified Thoth with Hermes, the other figure featured in this post.

The winged-footed figure of Hermes is wearing his petasos and carrying a caduceus in his left arm and facing to the right
Figure of Hermes from the doors of the John Adams Building taken some time between 1920 and 1950.(Theodor Horydczak Collection/Library of Congress)

In Greek mythology Hermes is known as the messenger of the gods and in the Homeric “Hymn to Hermes,” he is identified as the son of Zeus and the nymph Maia. He is most often seen with wings on his feet, wearing a wide-brimmed hat, called a petasos, and carrying a caduceus in his left hand.

Beyond being the messenger and communicating between different realms, the Ancient Greeks also considered Hermes the god of commerce. His association with Thoth meant he was also associated with knowledge and learning. The reasons for his inclusion seem obvious enough.

There are only two figures left to write about before I can close the door on posts about the Adams Building doors.

Join us Thursday, April 18, 2024, from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm for A Night at the Adams, our celebration of the 85th anniversary of the opening of the John Adams Building! Learn about the Art Deco and Beaux-Arts style, art and architecture of our historic building. Tickets are required, so reserve your free tickets today! This event is part of the Library’s Live! at the Library series of extended Thursday evening programming.

If you are interested in more Business and Science topics, then subscribe to Inside Adams — it’s free! And if you are interested in the Adams Building see “A Handsome Box”: The Adams Building.

Comments (3)

  1. I love the way that the iconography of the Adams Building is world-wide as opposed to the Eurocentric iconography of the Jefferson Building. In a very few decades the Library’s vision shifts from trying to prove it is the equal of Europe to assuming a place and heritage on the world stage.

  2. This knowledge should be forgotten. Remember, In God We Trust. So what good is the knowledge from a false God? This is how the Earth was flooded all those years ago. these teachings are blasphemy and do nothing but stray away The Lord’s flock. If you want to teach something; teach the Holy Bible: The Revelations and help others to understand. Lord Jesus is the only way and America should know this.

  3. Thank you for sharing this important history.

    It’s nice to learn the origins of the artwork.
    It’s not nice for it to be evaluated on the basis of some contemporary ideals.

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