He may live an unassuming life in the declining Illinois town of Cairo, but Mr Ibis is actually one of the most important Ancient Egyptian gods of all time: Thoth.
In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, the god of writing, wisdom and magic is the business partner of fellow Ancient Egyptian god, Mr Jacquel – otherwise known as Anubis. The two of them run the Ibis and Jacquel Funeral Parlour where they look after the dead as they have for many, many thousands of years. These deities were brought over by the people of the Nile when they came up the Mississippi to trade many years ago, and then left behind.
Mr Ibis is actually one of the first characters we see: with his distinctive gold-rimmed glasses and fountain pen dipped in ink, he is the figure writing out the Coming to America stories in beautiful calligraphy that narrate the stories of Old Gods like Mr Nancy.
However, it is not until episode four that we finally get to meet him properly – and it’s a complete diversion from how we first meet Mr Ibis in the novel. A bird flies over the highway as Laura Moon seeks out Shadow in Audrey Burton’s car, which is our first clue that Mr Ibis is on his way, and then he appears right in front of the car bumper alongside Mr Jacquel, who is briefly seen in his own canine form.
But who is Ancient Egyptian god Thoth?
Thoth dates back to 6000-3150 BC, making him one of the oldest deities of the Ancient Egyptians.
He was sometimes depicted as a baboon, or more famously as a man with the head of an ibis (hence “Mr Ibis”, of course). The ibis is a long-legged wading bird with a long, curved bill, considered sacred by the Ancient Egyptians. In fact, ibises were sometimes mummified and buried with the dead.
In Ancient Egpytian, the heiroglyphic for the god Thoth is an ibis on a perch.
Thoth created the written word and the literary arts, and is credited with inventing hieroglyphics, both for humans and the gods. He wrote down everything that happened and reported it to the sun god Ra (later Horus) every morning.
In the afterlife, Thoth appears often at the side of Anubis (his old pal Mr Jacquel) and Osiris in the Hall of Truth. His role is that of the scribe who has kept accounts of the life of the soul of the deceased, and he also records the outcome of the weighings of the heart against the feather of truth.
In his symbolic form as A’an (a dog-faced baboon), he presides over the judgement of the dead, and souls who fear they might not pass through safely may call upon Thoth for help.
Thoth, left, in the Book of the Dead recording the result as Anubis weighs a dead woman’s heart against the feather of truth. As A’an, he is also perched on top of the scales.
This is why, in the novel, he tells Shadow Moon: “Do you know what a psychopomp is? It’s a fancy term for an escort. We all have so many functions, so many ways of existing. In my own vision of myself, I am a scholar who lives quietly, and pens his little tales, and dreams about a past that may or may not ever have existed. And that is true, as far as it goes. But I am also, in one of my capacities, like so many of the people you have chosen to associate with, a psychopomp. I escort the living to the world of the dead.”
As for his origins, he was said to be either self-created from nothing, or born of the seed of avian sky god Horus from the forehead of desert god Set. The logistics of this birth have not been explained, but hey – it doesn’t have to totally make sense. Horus and Set each represent order and chaos, so in this telling Thoth becomes the god of equilibrium and balance.
Mr Ibis appears in the novel and the series as a bachelor, but in Ancient Egyptian mythology he sometimes has a wife called Ma’at or a consort called Seshat – goddess of writing, keeper of books, and patron goddess of libraries and librarians. Sometimes she is referred to as his daughter instead, or his feminine counterpart.
American Gods is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, with new episodes added every week. Episodes air on US channel Starz on Sunday nights